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In Person, Temple Grandin's Autism Message Comes Through Loud and Clear

Dr. Grandin was right when she told us she could fill Royce Hall -- and inspire it!

Shortly after arranging for Temple Grandin to speak at the UCLA Friends of the Semel Institute’s “Open Mind” event on Wednesday, our vice president in charge of events received a phone call.

“Stephanie, Temple Grandin, here. Why am I not booked in Royce Hall? You know, I CAN FILL ROYCE HALL!”

As Royce seats 1,800 people, we did not take Temple’s advice seriously and continued with our plan to hold the event in UCLA's DeNeve Auditorium, which comfortably seats 400-plus guests. After all, Buzz Aldrin had been our speaker there, and he can certainly pack an auditorium with his astronaut star power!

Within two hours of sending out the email invitation to the people in our database, I felt like I worked for Ticketmaster and was a booking a Sting concert. We were sold out and the reservations kept pouring in. Temple was right, she could fill Royce Hall!  With a lot of scrambling, and  pleading and calling every “higher-up” on campus, (and with a generous last minute donation from a board member to underwrite the extra expense as nothing is free at UCLA!), we moved the event to Royce.

Was it the fact that Dr. Grandin has single-handedly dignified and improved the lives of literally millions of people with her message of hope for those with autism? Was it because she is one of the most well-known and accomplished adults with autism in the world? Was it the fact that Claire Danes brilliantly portrayed her in the HBO film “Temple Grandin" for which Ms. Danes won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG award, just prior to the Friends' “Open Mind event”?

Or, was it simply because there is such a desire and need to embrace and to acknowledge the triumph of an individual such as Dr. Grandin, who despite a serious mental illness, has triumphed and reached the pinnacle of academic and professional achievement?

Whichever, Dr. Grandin’s message came across loud and clear at the event. She received a standing ovation for her inspiring presentation.

Dr. Grandin, who has dignified and improved the lives of millions of people with her message of hope for people with autism, stressed the importance of early intervention and mentoring. “Expose your children to many things so that they can find something that they can be passionate about,” she stated.

Although degrees of autism vary, from those who are severely impaired to those who are high functioning, Dr. Grandin firmly believes that “every person can find something that they are good at and learn a skill that would make them of value to others." When she was young, Dr. Grandin used to design and sew shirts, which she then sold. “I was wearing my skill set. You couldn’t miss what I could do."

It saddens Dr. Grandin that this country’s education system now puts so little value on learning hands-on skills and that classes that teach employable skills, like shop and sewing have been eliminated from most curriculum.

Dr. Grandin is also concerned that young people today put too much emphasis on their autism. “I am a professor of Animal Science first, and I am also autistic," she said.

A visual thinker herself, she was stunned to learn that not everyone thinks in pictures as she does. “Some people are verbal thinkers, others auditory." The fact that animals are also visual thinkers allowed her to understand exactly how animals react to sensory stimuli and led to her career as a world-renowned expert on livestock handling equipment and facilities.

When asked about programs that teach “social skills” to young people with autism or aspergers, Dr. Grandin explained that her mother and her 1950s upbringing were responsible for her learning them. Her mother insisted that she come to meals on time, go to school and do her chores (she took care of a stable full of horses). Her mother gave her choices -- she could either “visit her aunt on her farm for a week or a month but not going was not an option.”

She uses the proceeds from her books and the “Temple Grandin” DVD to support the academic careers of her students at Colorado State, sponsoring some to master's and PhD. degrees. She is dedicated to her profession, her students, to giving animals a good life and to raising awareness of autism. She understands, especially since the great success of the HBO movie, that she is a role model for young people on the autism spectrum and she takes that responsibility very seriously.

The Friends of the Semel Institute, the sponsors of the “Open Mind” community event where Dr. Grandin spoke are dedicated to educating the public about illnesses of the mind and brain. The “Open Mind” is open to the public at no change and brings together filmmakers, authors and preeminent scientists to present unique, educational programs about mental health issues. The Friends believe that through education, the stigma that is often attached to these illnesses will be reduced and that those who are in need of treatment will be more likely to seek and accept it.

This unique blend of pop culture and hard science has led to the creation of such programs as “Art and Alzheimer’s”  and their upcoming fundraising event on April 28, “Magic and the Brain … the Art and Science of Illusion.”

Vicky Goodman is the founder and President of the Friends of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. The Friends is dedicated to supporting and enchancing state-of-the-art research and treatment for illnesses of the mind and brain. She is also co-founder of Project ECHO (Entrpreneurial Concepts Hand-on) and the recipient of the 201o Women of Distinction Award from the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation.