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My Sense of Self-Identity

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Autism: The Way I See It

My Sense of Self-Identity

by Temple Grandin, PhD

Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2010


One of my big concerns today is that too many children and teenagers on the autism spectrum are identifying so much with autism that it is hindering their pathway to success. When I was a teenager, I was fixated on science, horses, and the projects I built. These fixations were the basis of my self-identity and they helped propel me into a successful career. Today I am seeing smart individuals who have become so fixated on “their autism” that their entire life revolves around it. When I was young, I talked endlessly about my favorite activities instead of autism. My fixations motivated me to create projects such as gates, horse bridles, carpentry work, and signs that were all things other people wanted and appreciated. While creating these projects, I was also doing activities with other people. Teachers and parents need to work with both children and adults to get them into activities where they can have shared interests with other people such as choir, art, auto mechanics, karate, working with animals, robot club, or drama club.

I have given several talks at large technical and computer conferences. At these conferences I see lots of undiagnosed adults on the autism spectrum who have successful high level careers. All they talk about is the latest computer stuff and social chitchat bores them. Then the next day I travel to an autism conference and I meet a smart teenager who only wants to talk about autism. I would rather talk to him about an intense interest such as art, astronomy, history, or computers. It is fine to talk about autism, but it should not be the primary focus of an individual’s life. Asperger support groups are excellent because they enable individuals on the spectrum to communicate with others who have the same challenges. It is comforting for them to find out that they are not the only ones who are different. However, there should be other activities so that the person’s life does not totally center around autism. Parents are pivotal in making this happen in a child’s life.

Several adults on the spectrum have talked to me about their autism centric lives. They were either unemployed or had a boring, low level job such as stocking shelves. I encouraged one of them to start a tutoring service and another to find activities involving music. They needed some activities that had nothing to do with autism. On the other hand, I have talked to older adults on the spectrum who have successful, high level careers but in their personal lives, they felt empty. These individuals can really benefit from an autism/Asperger support group.

At this stage in my adult life, being a college professor in the livestock industry is my primary identity and autism is secondary. Autism is an important part of me and I like my autistic logical way of thinking. I would never want to be cured and made “normal.” To have a satisfying life I do many things that have nothing to do with autism. The most successful people on the autism spectrum have either a career or activities they love to do. The nerds and the geeks at the computer conference were all kind of eccentric. Many were dressed in layered T-shirts like Sheldon wears in the television series, “The Big Bang Theory.” Being eccentric is ok. I am kind of eccentric with my western clothes. In the HBO movie based on my life, there is a scene where a can of deodorant is slammed on the table and my boss says, “Use it, you stink.” That actually happened, and today I thank my boss. It is fine to be eccentric but being dirty is not acceptable. There are too many teenagers and adults showing up in public unshaven or in messy clothes. I encourage people on the spectrum to be unique, but they should be neat. I met one man who taught college astronomy and he had a long ponytail and a cool astronomy T-shirt. I told him “Don’t let anybody tell you to cut your ponytail. Be a proud geek who can excel in an interesting career.”

Now that I’m 63 and look back on my life during my 20s, I spent a lot more time then looking for the ultimate meaning of life. I suppose that is not very different from other young adults at that age, as we try to define ourselves and find our way in life. Today I find meaning in doing things that make positive real changes in the world. When a mother tells me that reading my book helped her understand her child or when a rancher tells me that the corrals I designed work well, that provides meaning to my 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. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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