Temple Grandin’s Advice to Artists with Autism

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, a leading autism expert, lends insight to artists on the spectrum.

Many articles have detailed Temple Grandin’s astounding accomplishments. There’s even a movie depicting the amazing innovations she’s made in the cattle industry, creating more humane conditions around the United States. As a woman with autism, she found a way to tell cowboys to get on the ground and see from the eyes of a cow. She even helped McDonald’s reach new ethical standards, pushing other mass-meat producers to do the same.

Grandin has spent her life turning challenges into opportunities. Although she didn’t speak until the age of three, she eventually mastered methods to forge her own path to success. One such method involved putting herself into a cattle squeeze on her aunt’s ranch. She’d watched rambunctious cows relax as the machine gently hugged them. This led her to develop a squeeze machine for humans.

Temple GrandinClaire Danes as Temple Grandin in Temple Grandin (2010) / HBO

Starting with a crude design using plywood and cushions, she eventually fabricated a machine that helped calm her often-overstimulated sensory nerves. Doctors now use the creation, her squeeze machine, to help patients with autism who seek out physical pressure but resist human touch. This development even led to a Thunder Shirt that applies light pressure for dogs that have anxiety during storms.

I wanted to share another part of Temple Grandin’s story, one that focuses on her “sixth sense”: the ability to think in pictures. In addition to her accomplishments as an inspirational speaker and businesswoman, she has designed intricate drawings for livestock facilities and provided hands-on training for others to do the same. She has contributed to books like Drawing Autism and has written several of her own about autism.

So I talked with Grandin about how to recognize and encourage artists on the autism spectrum. She offered some fantastic advice for those who aspire to make a career of their work but feel held back by their differences.

From Someone Who’s Been There

Temple GrandinPhoto by Rosalie Winard

At 17, Temple Grandin had her first lesson in business. She had the opportunity to make $10 for painting a beauty shop sign.

“I couldn’t decorate it with cows and horses,” she says. “I had to make it for a beauty shop. You know how much interest I had in a beauty shop sign? I had zero interest, but you’re going to have to learn to take assignments and do work that other people are actually going to want.”

Grandin expresses concern that many young people with great artistic talent lack range and are too focused on one particular medium: manga or anime, for example. She feels the key to success when marketing artwork is demonstrating diversity and professionalism. “I want to have a portfolio for regular commercial clients. You can have both [i.e. manga and commercial projects], but not in the same portfolio,” she explains.

Grandin regularly attends conferences on autism to speak to parents and children about overcoming adversity. At a recent conference, a young woman on the autism spectrum approached Grandin with slides of her fashion design. She had carefully arranged them on her iPad, and her presentation impressed Grandin. “That’s what I like to call a 30-second wow,” she says. Temple says this 30-second wow is what every artist should have in their arsenal.

The Secret Advantage of Autism

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Temple Grandin has done years of research on different versions of thinking and explains that many artistic innovators, such as Mozart, Nikola Tesla and Andy Warhol, were likely on the spectrum.

Those who have heightened artistic senses have a great advantage in the professional world. “One of the reasons why the iPhone was such a hit was because the art mind, Steve Jobs, designed the interface,” says Grandin, who suggests Jobs was on the autism spectrum.

In her TED Talk Grandin explains that for those with autism, the mind cues into the little things while “the normal mind ignores the details.”

With a tendency to have very focused areas of special interest, many people with autism have a unique ability to notice and create developments in fields that have never been thought of before.

Hands-On Learning

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Temple Grandin believes artists on the autism spectrum also benefit from tactile experiences that expand their skill sets. She recently visited Pixar and other animation companies that utilized maquettes so the creators could feel the designs they were making. Grandin feels this tactile experience alongside drawing by hand is the backbone of successful computer artistry. “They created mini sculptures and kept them around their mousepads so they could hold them. They didn’t put them on a shelf where they could look at them; they put them where they could hold them. You have to touch to perceive.”

She encourages every creative individual working with computers to first master drawing by hand.

“You know what they told me at Pixar? Sometimes they have to drag them [young graphic designers] off the computers and get them drawing by hand again.”

Show Kids Interesting Stuff

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Temple Grandin feels young people with autism should have a direction for their talents. She emphasizes mentors’ and families’ responsibility to expand on children’s creative aptitudes and leverage their special interests to teach them new skills.

“I was encouraged at a very young age to do watercolors of beaches. Mother rewarded me by putting it in a real frame with glass, and that was good enough art to be on the grown-up wall,” she says.

Encouragement along with expansion of interests will determine the life path of many young individuals with autism, who will make important contributions and innovations.

Artists Living Examples

Manhattan is home to Pure Vision Arts, the only professional studio in the city for artists with autism and other developmental challenges. They provide access to materials, space and professional development.

Temple GrandinClockwise from top left: Art by Alba Somoza, Simone Johnson, Jacky Wojiechowski, Roy Gabbay / Pure Vision Arts

Artists on the spectrum at Pure Vision Arts are living examples of what Grandin describes as talent-turned-profession. Just as Grandin attributes the early development of her skills to her mother’s encouragement, artist Susan Brown (whose work is shown in our feature image above) attributes her artistic development to her creative parents. Susan’s artworks, which focus on her interests in portraiture, landscapes and transportation, have been exhibited in over 70 galleries since 2002.

Temple GrandinChase Ferguson / Pure Vision Arts

With a knack for building and love for transportation, artist Chase Ferguson used his childhood ability to build toys out of paper to create sculptures later in life. In exhibitions since 2010, Ferguson’s work is now widely recognizable and a favorite among rare art collectors and lovers of transportation memorabilia.

Oh, the Possibilities!

Temple Grandin sees the potential of young people on the autism spectrum, who experience the world in unique ways. She feels no special ability should be left untapped and that professionally developing their skills will launch art, technology and engineering to places unknown. end

Are you an artist with autism? Want to share your artwork here? Attach a photo or post a link in the comments.


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