Temple Grandin shares how horses and cattle impacted her life, and helps raise awareness and funds for autism.

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Temple Grandin, PhD, speaks at Saddle Up for Autism, an event hosted by the Hope Center for Autism in Fort Worth, Texas.

Temple Grandin’s favorite memory of horses involves adventure, laughter and fun. She remembers galloping her horse to the new stock tank on her aunt’s property, taking a dip in the clean water, and having “the greatest time.”

Grandin’s voice is clear and direct as she gives a room full of adults, parents and children tips on how to live with autism at an event hosted April 18 by the Hope Center for Autism in Fort Worth, Texas. As an animal science professor, she has led a successful life with the condition, which is characterized by a range of challenges in behavioral, verbal and social skills. Her designs for cattle pens and holding facilities have redefined livestock handling practices in the United States and dramatically improved animal welfare. Still, she’s familiar with the bullying that comes with any handicap, and she’s an advocate for those who have difficulty speaking for themselves, people and animals alike.

Large slides at the event flip through facts about autism, which is also called autism spectrum disorder. Because of the wide range of characteristics and developmental delays, autism is known as a spectrum. It affects one in 68 children and one in 42 boys. More children are affected by autism than by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Down syndrome combined. The final slide stated that on average, it costs families $60,000 in medical and therapy bills. The goal of the night’s event, themed “Saddle Up,” was to raise money to help local families afford tuition to Hope Center for Autism, a Fort Worth-based program that provides a supportive environment, education and therapy for affected families.

Brooks Hall, 8, kicks off the night by strumming his guitar and singing two songs: Can’t Stop the Feeling and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. When Brooks, who is on the autism spectrum, started attending the Hope Center at age 3, his mother says his speech was delayed and it was difficult for him to communicate his needs. Through speech therapy and tools learned from the Hope Center, Brooks is now able to not only talk but also sing. He can play the guitar, ukulele, drums and piano. He is in a regular classroom at school and takes music lessons from his music teacher school.

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Brooks Hall, 8, gets the crowd clapping and toe-tapping with his renditions of Can’t Stop the Feeling and Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

Grandin stresses that children, with or without autism, flourish when they are exposed to as many aspects of life as possible.

“I see too many parents that overprotect their kids,” she says. “What you have to do with kids is you have to stretch them. You don’t throw them into the deep end of the pool—no surprises. Give them choices, like ‘You can do karate or you can do Boy Scouts.’ Give them their choice of activities. Don’t let them just stay in a room, especially playing video games. You’ve got to get them out doing things.

“Students get interested in things they’re exposed to. They’re going to find out whether they like it or they hate it. But they won’t know until they get exposed to things.”

She says at Colorado State University where she teaches, undergraduates in the animal science department are required to spend time gathering information at meat packing plants. The realities of the plant can be shocking to someone without a background in agriculture; however, the university has found that three out of four students enjoy the experience. But they wouldn’t have known they were interested in that industry if they’d never seen it.

Another way for youth on the spectrum to gain independence is to be in the workforce where they can learn about performing tasks on a schedule, handling customer service and developing good manners.

“These kids have to learn how to work,” she explains. “When kids are little, how about some chores? There are too many parents that are doing too much for the kid, like putting on their jacket. Middle school kids need to do things like dog walking for the neighbors and doing tasks on a schedule. I can’t emphasize that enough. I’m also seeing a lot of young parents with very little resourcefulness. Part of it gets back to where you have people growing up today who are totally removed from the practical.

“Now I’m seeing a lot of granddads coming up to me who have had good jobs—accountants, sales, engineering—and they find out they’re on the spectrum when their grandkids get diagnosed. But [the difference is] granddaddy had a paper route at age 11. Granddaddy learned how to work. He always wondered why he was kind of an odd guy who didn’t always fit in, but he had a job.

“Another thing—in the ’50s, all kids were taught manners in a much more systematic way. When I put my finger in the refried beans [as a kid] and swirled my finger around, Mother would have said, ‘Use the fork.’ Instead of screaming ‘No!’ she would give me an instruction.”

The childrearing theories Grandin emphasizes, ironically, fit well with the Saddle Up theme. The cowboy culture insists on firm handshakes, no sirs, and thank you ma’ams. Kids aren’t given chores out of choice but necessity, and it usually results in a down-to-earth, polite and compassionate adult.

Autism awareness is on the rise, but Grandin says people throughout history have likely lived with the condition without realizing it.

“I think a lot of those really classic old cowboys, the man of little words who barely talked much, he was probably mildly on the autism spectrum. A pen rider in a feed yard would be a good job for a person with autism. That person gets to ride his horse all day and his job is to find the sick cattle before [they’re] even sick. A good pen rider finds them. For some of these kids it might be the perfect job. I just wish the stockmanship jobs paid better.”

Saddle Up raised more than $70,000, says Glenn Wood, who co-founded the Hope Center with his wife and director of the center, Susan. In addition to private donations, funds were raised through an auction of Western art created by students. A painting by Katelyn Perkins, 16, of a calf head on a lavender background was the highest selling piece at $1,500. It went home with Jeff Goldston, who owns Redneck Electric in Bedford, Texas, and whose 15-year-old son, Landry, is on the autism spectrum. The bidding war for the painting was between Goldston and contemporary Southwest artist Jerry Johnston. It was settled when Katelyn agreed to do a second painting for Johnston for the same amount.

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Katelyn Perkins, 16, stands with National Cowgirl Hall of Fame member Pam Minick, who emceed the event and helped auction off Western art created by the students of the Hope Center.

Between hearing Grandin’s talk and seeing the hope and happiness in parents and children, the night was a success on many levels. It was a chance for the Western culture to show how traditional values and involvement with animals have a lasting benefit for everyone.

To learn more and donate, visit hopecenter4autism.org 

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