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Learning to Do Assignments that Other People Appreciate

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by Temple Grandin
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | November/December 2008

Recently I was looking through my old high school album. As I looked through my old photos, I realized I had learned an important skill by the time I was in high school that some people on the autism spectrum never learn. I had photo after photo of projects I had created that pleased others.  There was a gate I had built for my aunt out at the ranch and sets I had made for the school play. There was also before and after pictures of the ski tow house I refurbished at my boarding school. Originally we had a homemade rope row in an ugly plywood shed. I put tongue and groove wood siding on the ski tow house, stained it, and then installed white trim around the windows and door. It was decorated the way others would like it. Left to my own preferences, I would have painted pictures of goofy cartoons on it, but that would not have earned the approval of my teachers. In all three projects, I created things taking into consideration the thoughts and preferences of others in my environment. The end result was positive recognition for my work.

During my elementary school years, my mother, my nanny and my teachers taught me, first in direct and later in indirect ways, that sometimes you can do things to please just yourself, but other times you did things that others would like. They also made sure I understood that sometimes this was a choice, while at other times it was mandatory. This is an important and pivotal life skill starting in childhood. It affects whether or not a child is accepted by his peer group and how easily he can work with others. Even as a young child I did projects that pleased others. When I was in fourth grade, I sewed costumes for the school play with my little toy sewing machine. I quickly learned in school that in order to get good grades, I needed to attend to my teachers’ requests, and follow directions. It did no good to turn in a brilliant report if I hadn’t addressed the assignment.

Both as a young child and through my high school years I was motivated by two factors. The first was getting recognition from others and secondly, I enjoyed seeing my creations being used in places and events that were important to me.

As children grow into young adults, the ability to produce work that pleases others is an essential skill for successful employment. Students on the spectrum should be taught these essential skills well before they graduate from high school. The teaching should start early, while the child is young, in concrete ways. Educators and parents must teach these individuals to successfully complete assignments that fit somebody else’s specifications. If a student is in a robotics club, he has to learn to make a robot that will do an assigned task. A student in middle school English class must learn to write an essay that addresses the specific question posed, even when it’s not something interesting to him.

Recently I met a bright man with Asperger’s Syndrome who had just graduated from college. He had absolutely no work experience while he was in high school and college, and absolutely no idea of how to get and keep a job. He had never mowed somebody else’s lawn or worked in a store. Other than academics, he had never been put into situations where he needed to satisfactorily produce work according to someone else’s directions. By the time I graduated from college I had already done many jobs and internships. Mother realized that preparing me for the world outside my home needed to start slow and easy, and build, one event, one project, one skill upon another.

Teachers, parents, and therapists must help high functioning students on the spectrum learn how to do projects to another person’s specification. I did not realize how well I had learned this skill until I looked at my old high school photos. This hindsight helped me further realize how much I have grown and developed since then.

Learning is a constant process for us all. However, the child with autism relies on his parents and teachers to look forward at the life skills necessary for survival and success, and begin teaching these skills early in life.


Temple Grandin 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. 2008. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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