Autism expert shares life story as illustration

LIGHT SHED ON SENSORY DISORDER

Parents and special-education teachers from throughout the South Bay flocked to Santa Clara University on Saturday for a conference on autism, an increasingly diagnosed neurological disorder that can affect everything from speech development to social interaction.

The highlight was a lecture by Temple Grandin, a woman who is autistic herself yet able to explain how her brain functions in a way that is fascinating to the general public.

``My mind works like Google for images,'' said Grandin, a gifted visual thinker. ``But my mind can also get off track easily.''

Imagine living in a room filled with disco balls and the sounds of a construction site: that's what Grandin's childhood was like. Like many autistic children, she was extremely sensitive to noise and touch. The sound of a toilet flushing could rock her senses like a jackhammer breaking concrete, while wool clothes assaulted her skin like a swarm of hornets.

For most people, senses are integrated: you can see, smell and taste a piece of pizza at the same time. But for children and adults with autism, the senses often get jangled -- the drip of sauce on your chin might feel painful, and simple experiences can be overwhelming.

She often felt like an animal trapped by adrenaline and fear, and regularly suffered from panic attacks and anxiety. High school was torture: she was mercilessly teased, called a retard, and earned the nickname ``tape recorder'' because of her tendency to repeat information, much like the Dustin Hoffman character in the award-winning film ``Rain Man.''

Now 57, Grandin is widely regarded as the most a.orgplished and well-known adult with autism in the world.

Her ability to think in pictures and a deep empathy with animals led her to design more humane slaughterhouses and livestock equipment. She has designed livestock handling facilities from New Zealand to Brazil, and has been a consultant for McDonald's and Burger King. She regularly visits cattle ranches across the West, and her keen understanding of how cows and other animals react to noise, light and other stimuli has made her an expert in the animal husbandry field.

An associate professor at Colorado State University, she lectures widely about both autism and cattle handling, often in her trademark black jeans and blue cowboy shirt.

But the parents came to learn about their autistic children, not cattle or slaughterhouses. To them, Grandin is a godsend.

``When I read her book `Thinking in Pictures,' I started crying. I knew she was talking about my son,'' said Michele Waterman of Campbell, whose 4-year-old son, John, is autistic. Waterman recently founded the Autism Education Network, to address the educational needs of the growing population of children with autism.

``Temple gives me hope,'' Waterman said. ``Who knows what John can do? I'm not going to accept the idea that he's going to be institutionalized.''

In the last decade, the number of autism cases diagnosed in California and the United States has soared: national estimates put the number of cases between 500,000 and 1.5 million, and the spike has sparked widespread debate over both causes and a search for the best ways to treat it, particularly at early ages.

Some researchers say the disorder is being diagnosed more rigorously, and that there really is no actual rise in cases. Others feel that genetics play a role. And some are convinced that environmental triggers, such as mercury.orgpounds in childhood immunizations, are to blame.

Saturday's conference was sponsored by the Morgan Center, a non-profit organization in Santa Clara that serves individuals with a host of disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, which include autism, Asperger's syndrome -- a milder variation of autism -- and related neurological and learning disorders.

Grandin said that Silicon Valley's tech industries are fertile ground for children ``on the spectrum,'' because many autistic individuals succeed at engineering, drafting and designing.

She urged parents and teachers to work together as teams to discover the talents of children, instead of shunting them into special-education classes where they are not getting the individualized services they need. She also has advice for special-education classrooms: Turn off the florescent lights and the kids may calm down.

``A bad classroom for special education is one with florescent lights,'' Grandin said. ``To someone with autism, the whole room is flashing on and off like a discotheque.''

For more information about Temple Grandin, go to www.grandin.org

For information on autism from the Autism Society of America, go to http://www.autism-society.org

http://www.mercurynews.org/mld/mercurynews/news/local/9764712.htm

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Updated 04/02/2014