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Finding Mentors and Appropriate Colleges

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By Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2010

 

Over the years many people have asked me, “How did you find the mentors who helped you?” Mentors did, indeed, play a pivotal role in helping me become the person and professional I am today. They can be valuable catalysts to helping the spectrum child or teen learn fundamental study and research skills that will propel them toward a future career.

Mentors are attracted to ability. Many people will become interested in mentoring a child if they are shown examples of what the child is capable of doing. Portfolios of artwork, math or writing can entice a potential mentor. A mentor can sometimes be found in the most unlikely places. He or she could be a retired engineer you sing beside at the church choir or a colleague at work. When I was an inferior student in high school, my science teacher, Mr. Carlock, saved me by getting me interested in science. Our relationship started quite unexpectedly. The other teachers asked Mr. Carlock to talk to me because I was doing kind of “crazy talk” about the meaning of life. He explained that many of the ideas the other teachers thought were crazy were similar to the thoughts of well-known philosophers. He gave me books written by David Hume and other philosophers to whet my appetite to learn. After grabbing my interest this way, his next step was to motivate me to change my poor performance in class. He did this by saying, “If you want to find out why your squeeze machine is relaxing, you will need to study to become a scientist.” He then took me to a big library to learn how real scientists search for journal articles. I read article after article about sensory perception. The library skills he taught me transferred easily to finding information on the Internet. This is a good example of using my fixations to motivate my interest in school work.

Parents, teachers, and friends need to always be on the lookout for possible mentors. Many retired individuals would love to work with a high school kid. Several individuals on the autism spectrum have gone into successful technical careers after being mentored by a retired person. It does not matter if the mentor’s skills are old. What a mentor does is get a student turned on to learning. There is a discipline to learning a skill such as graphic design or computer programming. Once the mentor gets the student turned on, a spectrum person will go to the bookstore or the Internet and buy the manuals to learn the modern techniques. I have observed that most teenagers on the autism spectrum need the discipline of formal instruction to get started. This is especially true in learning good study habits, researching information, and other related executive functioning skills, such as time management, group project strategies, etc.

 

Finding the Right College

I often get asked about colleges for individuals on the spectrum. There’s no easy, quick answer to this question. I went to a small school –Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire. Mother talked to the dean and they were willing to work with me. There are lots of small two-year and four-year colleges. A small school was ideal for my freshman and sophomore year because it avoided the problem of becoming lost in huge classes. The best approach is to identify a few schools that “fit” the person’s needs, and then look for specific people in an institution who are willing to help.

Recently I have been doing a lot of talks at both large and small colleges. One school had an extensive department for helping students with disabilities and another small school emphasized hands-on learning in ecology and sustainable agriculture. The type of learning environments that appeal to the autistic way of thinking are often available. However, you need to seek out specific professors or counselors at both the community colleges and the four-year schools to help your child get in. Send a professor a portfolio of the student’s work. One girl with Asperger’s got into a top-ranked school after she sent her poetry to an English professor. You need to look for the “back door” and a professor who likes a student’s work can let the student in.

To find an appropriate college, start your search on the Internet. I typed in “colleges in Ohio”, “colleges in Oregon”, and “colleges in Alabama.” I was amazed at the huge numbers of colleges in each state. Every college has a web page and sub-web pages for each department, which usually offer a list of faculty. When I went to the University of Illinois, I was interested in the work of a specific professor because I had been reading his journal articles. The next step was visiting the university and talking to two professors about my interests. They admitted me to the graduate program, even though my standardized test scores were poor, because they were intrigued by my research ideas. Being recognized in the cattle industry for my ability to design systems that worked was an added plus. Think creatively and find a back door into the college that is a good match for your child. A strong portfolio or an interesting idea for a research project may be the key. It’s never too soon to start; the time to click the mouse is now.

BIO

Temple Grandin, PhD, is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2010. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

 

 


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