Home News Opinion | Temple Grandin: Society Is Failing Visual Thinkers, and That Hurts Us All

Opinion | Temple Grandin: Society Is Failing Visual Thinkers, and That Hurts Us All


When I was 7 or 8, I spent hours tinkering and experimenting to figure out how to make parachutes, fashioned from old scarves, open more quickly each time I tossed them into the air. This required careful observation to determine how small design changes affected performance. My single-mindedness, verging on obsession, was probably because I was autistic. At the time I loved a book about famous inventors and their inventions. It impressed me that Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers were so single-minded in figuring out how to make a light bulb or an airplane. They spent lots of time obsessively perfecting their inventions. It is likely that some of the inventors in that book also were autistic.

We hear a great deal about the need to fix the infrastructure in this country, but we are too focused on the things that need improving and updating rather than the people who will be able to do the work. For over 25 years, I designed equipment to handle livestock and worked with the highly skilled people who built the equipment. When I look back at all the projects I designed for large companies, I estimate that 20 percent of the skilled welders and drafting technicians were either autistic, dyslexic or had A.D.H.D. I remember two people who had autism and held numerous patents for mechanical devices they invented and sold equipment to many companies. Our visual thinking skills were key to our success.

Today, we want our students to be well-rounded; we should think about making sure that the education we provide is as well. At the same time, I wager that the people who will fix America’s infrastructure have spent hours and hours on one thing, whether it be Legos, violin or chess — hyper-focus is a classic sign of neurodivergent thinking and it’s critical for innovation and invention.

I often get asked what I would do to improve both elementary and high school. The first step would be to put more of an emphasis on hands-on classes such as art, music, sewing, woodworking, cooking, theater, auto mechanics and welding. I would have hated school if the hands-on classes had been removed, as so many have been today. These classes also expose students — especially neurodivergent students — to skills that could become a career. Exposure is key. Too many students are growing up who have never used a tool. They are completely removed from the world of the practical.

Despite my accomplishments, if I were a young person today, I would have difficulty graduating from high school because I could not pass algebra. It was too abstract, with no visual correlations. This is true for many of today’s students who get labeled as bad at math, students who might otherwise pass alternative math courses such as statistics that would also apply to real-life work situations. There is too much emphasis in school on testing and not enough on career outcomes. The fact that I failed the SAT in math prohibited me from getting into veterinary school, but today I am a university professor in animal sciences and I am invited to speak to groups of veterinarians to advise them on their work. The true measure of an education isn’t what grades a student gets today, but where they are 10 years later.

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