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Temple Grandin & Realizing One's Gifts

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Amid a flurry of deadlines, more late nights reading/writing/accomplishing tasks--I was very happy to find the time to see the HBO film, "Temple Grandin."  Years ago, I had read Grandin's book, Thinking in Pictures, And Other Reports From my LIfe with Autism (1996) and was immediately taken with how Grandin articulated her gift of visual learning.  "One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills . . . (19-20)." Grandin's family/teachers/mentors who encouraged her were key in helping her to develop these gifts so that today she balances two careers.  The first is her work as a Professor of Animal Science.  Her inventions in livestock-handling equipment design are used nationally.  The second, but just as important, are her writings and speaking engagements regarding autism.  (Read this great NPR interview with Grandin)

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Grandin did not speak for the first three and a half years of her life.  She experienced years of ridicule at school for "acting weird."  Initially, doctors who diagnosed her suggested that she be institutionalized for the rest of her life.  That would have happened, if it had not been for parents who believed she would learn to speak, read, and write. Thank goodness also for teachers and mentors along the way who did not shy away from her but instead challenged her in and outside the classroom with visual/spatial projects.  The key was recognizing her gifts. And for Grandin, the key was to believe she could follow her passions.  

And this is the key for all of us--to recognize not only our own gifts, our own passions, but those of others. I often  either ask or work hard to observe what interests my students, what sparks their passion.  Years ago, when I taught high school English, I remember a student I had (1980s) who would sit in the back, did not talk, remained aloof.  In my almost 30 years of teaching, I've had many students who fit this description. Teachers either have a choice:  (1) ignore and hope the student will remain quiet and will just sit there, or (2) interview, gently coax, and see what happens.  I have always chosen the second way.  In this case, I interviewed her and found the student counting the days until graduation. She didn't care about barely passing because all she wanted to do was graduate and then drive a truck for a living--see the country.  So I encouraged her to learn about trucking and trucks, map out a national route and learn about the various cities/states along that route. And together, we found books on either travel, geography, out-of-the-way trails in certain areas of the country.  That's all she did for the entire spring semester before graduation.  She rejected my invitation to give a presentation to the class about her findings (and there were many findings!). She remained in the back of the class, but the difference was she never looked bored, there was energy and an alive-ness present--she even smiled and began speaking to other students.  She was invested in her passion.  

When I graduated from high school, I won a number of "English" and writing awards.  I was literally surprised and even went to the school counselor to ask why I had been given these awards (yes I was that naive).  I had not applied to any of these "awards" or even knew they existed.  The counselor looked at me and chuckled, "You really don't know!"  Then he explained that no one else had ever taken every single literature and writing class offered at the high school (this high school, at the time, offered a number of electives in English in addition to the required courses) and passed every one of them with the highest scores.  "But I just like it," I answered.  I suppose I had the idea that an award was something sought or desired and then with much suffering, obtained.  I was obsessed with reading and writing.  I still am.

Then the counselor told me something key.  "Keep recognizing and following your passions."
This single piece of advice has been very important.  

American cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel (Author of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic) explains her penchant for writing and drawing as a "positive compulsion" where "you're not only sitting at your computer and writing, you're hunched over your drawing board like a monk."  She writes about getting lost in her obsession.  

Psychologist Eric Maisel writes, "In what sense is it normal to work at a job that constricts you and bores you rather than risking everything on a life that challenges you, even as it frustrates you?   Much of what we call normal behavior is simply based on fear.  Indeed, the average person might even prefer a negative obsession, despite its horrors, to a positive obsession rooted in excitement, passion, and active meaning-making, so wild and unafraid would she/he feel if she/he were obsessed that way." (Newsletter #28, Oct. 2002) 

The HBO film on Temple Grandin underlines what Maisel points out regarding fear and positive obsessions. There is the Grandin story but there is also the brilliant work of actor Claire Danes whose gifts allow for Grandin's story to unfold into a riveting film. In her interview with NPR, Grandin says, "I want to emphasize the importance of building on a person's strengths."  

I often wonder what this world would be like if every person was encouraged to discover and develop her/his own gifts and if each of us were also fearless enough to follow our passions in order to arrive at active meaning-making in our lives.  




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