Milestones Autism Conference

Monthly Milestones | July 2017

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Exclusive Interview with Dr. Temple Grandin

Often we are inclined to hiding the most honest parts of ourselves – but author, animal science professor & autism advocate Temple Grandin is refreshingly unrestrained with sharing hers.

It’s what the 69-year-old scientist, TIME 100 Most Influential People and TED Global Speaker has been doing for more than 40 years. As a high-functioning person with autism, Grandin, who will kick-off our 15th Annual Autism Conference at Playhouse Square on June 14 with A Special Evening with Temple Grandin, has been able to articulate her extraordinary life experiences with exceptional insight.

As someone who “lives in both worlds” – the autistic and the neurotypical – she has spent almost her entire life raising awareness and promoting acceptance of individuals on the autism spectrum. Thanks to Grandin’s efforts, we are breaking down barriers to embrace, and celebrate, neurodiversity.

“Different kinds of minds are good at different kinds of things,” she said during a recent phone interview from Florida, where she was invited to speak to top corporate executives. “That’s why we need all kinds of minds working together to solve problems.”

Grandin is known for taking strong positions on autism and the education of children with autism. She advocates for early intervention, including the training of teachers to direct specific fixations of the child. What’s new on the autism front and what Grandin is currently advocating is helping children transition into adulthood.

“We’ve made much progress in the early intervention part, but now I want to see kids go out and be successful as adults,” she says. “We need to get young people interested in hands-on skills. I’m very concerned about how the schools have taken out these hands-on classes – like home economics and wood shop, auto shop, art and theater and music.”

Kids need job skills training before they go out into the world, Grandin says. Give them a trade so they can enter the workforce and get a job that won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence.

“They are not learning how to work; they need to start as early as middle school,” she recommends. “Volunteer at their church, work in a clothing store or an ice cream shop. Expose them to something they might find an interest in. My goal for young people: get two real summer jobs before graduation.”

Another issue of great concern, says Grandin, is too much screen time.

“Kids today are totally addicted to video games,” she says. “We need to wean them off slowly. And then give them choices. I see too many smart kids getting addicted to video games. They need to get outside. Start working. Get them involved in things. Get them out with other kids.”

Sometimes, part of the problem can lie with parents, she says.

“There are certain parents who are afraid to let go,” Grandin says. “There’s a tendency to do too much for their children. But kids need to be stretched. Not thrown into the deep end of the pool, but stretched and given choices. My mother was always pushing me to do different things. When I was 13 I started working for a seamstress. At 15, I was cleaning horse stalls.”


Born on August 29, 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts, Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism (considered a form of brain damage at the time) at age 2. Grandin’s mother, Eustacia Cutler (the actress, singer and granddaughter of the co-inventor for the autopilot aviation system, John Coleman Purves), worked tirelessly to find the best care and instruction for her daughter. Having the financial means to hire the world’s leading specialists, Eustacia held on to the hope of finding an alternative to institutionalization.

“I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk – I couldn’t get my words out,” Grandin has said about her early childhood. “My speech came in gradually. Words at a time. When I was a little kid I was very autistic. Non-verbal. Screaming. Rocking. That’s the kind of kid they just put away in an institution.”

Grandin’s treatments included extensive speech therapy and an emphasis on turn taking and playing games, which helped to draw out and reinforce her communicative abilities. As a result, she began to speak at the age of 4. “I had good mentors like my mother and my science teacher,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have had supportive mentors from elementary school and onward. It’s why I can’t emphasize enough the importance of young children getting early intervention.”

High school, on the other hand, was a whole other story. “Absolute worst part of my life,” she says. Social interactions remained difficult during adolescence. Peers regularly teased Grandin for her verbal tics like repetitive speech. Having had enough, she once threw a book at a fellow classmate who taunted her, resulting in Grandin’s expulsion from school.

Despite these challenges, she was able to make considerable accomplishments in academia. Grandin received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University and went on to earn a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Today, she serves as Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.

“People ask me, ‘How did you end up working in the cattle industry?'” she says. “It’s because I was exposed to it as a teenager. When I was 15, I was cleaning horse stalls every single day. I was proud of the fact that I ran a horse barn.”

That exposure to horses eventually unlocked a lifelong passion for animals. For more than four decades, Grandin has dedicated her life to animal science and animal welfare. In fact, her extensive research is credited with transforming the beef industry. Over half the cattle in North America are handled in humane livestock systems Grandin created, including the development of a center track conveyor restrainer system for holding cattle. Globally, Grandin’s designs are used by the largest beef producers and processors. She is also the author or co-author of more than 60 peer reviewed scientific papers on a variety of other animal behavior subjects.

In addition to her contributions to animal science, Grandin was one of the first individuals on the spectrum to publicly share insights from her personal experience. She became well-known beyond the autistic community following an appearance in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars, the title of which is derived from Grandin’s description of how she feels in social settings (including hypersensitivity to noise and an extreme sensitivity to detail and environmental change).

“Read Thinking in Pictures if you want to understand my mind,” Grandin says, referring to her critically-acclaimed 1995 book which explains how autism shapes her daily life. “Everything in my mind works like Google – set for the image function.”

Grandin details three types of minds in her book, The Autistic Brain.

“The Pattern Thinker would be a mathematician, for example,” she says. “The Word Thinker might be the kid who likes history. And then you’ve got Visual Thinkers, like me.”

She credits her visual search engine-type of mind with helping her understand animals and design livestock systems. She compares her memory to full-length movies that play in her head, which she has the ability to replay at will, allowing her to notice small details. Grandin argues that her contributions to the field of animal science would not have been possible without the insights attributed to her autism.

“I get most excited when things that I do work,” Grandin says of her contributions. “Like when a mother of an autistic child tells me her child went to college because of me, or when I see that a meat packing plant has really improved. Or a rancher tells me that one of my systems works really well. When I’m making real change in the real world, that makes me happy.”

[Opening photos: Rosalie Winard]

Monthly Milestones | June 2017

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Milestones 2017 Honoree Tabatha Devine – Outstanding Educator

Tabatha Devine, Milestones 2017 honoree of the Outstanding Educator Award, says that working with individuals on the autism spectrum has helped her become a more compassionate, caring and understanding person.

“To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs,” Tabatha says. She also strives for “more” for her students: more opportunities, more experiences, more adventure. “I always wanted my students to participate in prom, sporting events, graduation, mainstream classes and become competitively employed.”

For the past 15 years, Tabatha has served as a Transition Coordinator for the Westlake City School System, working with students with disabilities. For Tabatha, going above and beyond meant becoming a class advisor so her students could attend prom for the first time. It meant becoming a coach so her students wouldn’t feel intimidated by others and be given a fair chance. She made sure her students attended graduation ceremonies with the rest of the student body while providing all support necessary to make this happen. She approached area businesses to promote her students’ abilities and to help create positions and provide support to individuals who may never have thought to hire a person with special needs.

Prior to working at Westlake City Schools, Tabatha served extensively in the region as an Intervention Specialist, including at St. Vincent St. Mary’s High School in Akron (where she introduced inclusion and helped integrate students with special needs into traditional classrooms); at Coventry High School, also in Akron (where she founded the school’s first classroom for students with developmental disabilities), and at Lakewood High School (where she helped bring special needs students together with mainstream students in a literacy program).

Tabatha has worked for multiple group homes, activity centers and has attended meetings and court hearings to advocate for students and their rights. She spends her summers working for the Cuyahoga Employment Partnership (CEP) as a Job Developer and has served on the Milestones Strike It Big committee for the Westside for the past three years raising funds to help local families impacted by autism.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

Over time, I’ve come across many people who are judgmental and prejudiced without knowing anything about the person who stands before them. The belief that the disability comes before the person is one of the biggest obstacles I think this population deals with on a daily basis. To make others look past the disability and to see the person, I’ve always thought it was necessary to educate those around the person with special needs.

So when asked how do I feel my efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community? I say through reaching out to others to show them how to become friends with, to participate with, to work with and/or alongside, to employ and to advocate for people with special needs to provide a person with a sense of belonging, pride, empowerment and hope.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Because I have worked with, alongside and for people who have autism or special needs, it has helped me to become a more compassionate, caring and understanding individual. My experiences have helped me to look at things differently because I try and view our world through their eyes. It helps me to stand stronger because I chose to be a part of their world. A parent once wrote that their child would make a difference in this world and he knew this because he felt just by knowing his child with autism, it had changed his own life for the better.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

If you take part in making positive changes in the life of a person with autism or someone with special needs, know that your life too, will change forever. You will try harder, care more and live your life better because they will inspire you!

Milestones 2017 Honoree Nicole Gerami – Community Innovator

Speech-language pathologist Nicole Gerami has served children in public schools, clinical settings and private practice for more than two decades. A Milestones 2017 honoree of the Community Innovator Award, Nicole is the founder of Friendship in Teams (FIT™), a groundbreaking program for children with autism. In its 10th year, FIT is Northeast Ohio’s only social skills program where children learn valuable social thinking, conversation and self-regulation tools in a fun, movement-based environment. FIT has branched out to include a Cleveland east and west side operation, as well as a Middle Tennessee branch. Together, these programs serve hundreds of children with autism and other disabilities.

Nicole is also founder and owner of Nicole Gerami, LLC, where she and her staff treat children with autism in individual and small group therapy. She is a member of the adjunct faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University where she trains graduate students in communication sciences so that they can learn her methodologies and help children on the autism spectrum.

Fully licensed by both the Ohio Board of Speech Pathology and Audiology and the Ohio Department of Education, Gerami is also a certified member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and a frequent lecturer for the Ohio Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Milestones, Northern Speech Services, and the University Hospitals of Zürich in Switzerland.

Gerami is in the process of publishing her next book in Switzerland about helping children with autism learn to engage in conversation and narratives.

How do you feel your efforts have impacted the autism and special needs community?

I have dedicated my career to helping children on the autism spectrum. Through my publications in the US and Switzerland, lectures, and the development of both my private practice and the FIT Program, I have created a broad range of therapy services for children with autism. This has allowed me to reach approximately 200 children and families per week. My passion for helping children to communicate effectively and to maximize their ability to improve their social skills has spurred my creativity in designing new and exciting programs where children can thrive among their peers.

How has helping others shaped your life?

Helping children with autism has taught me more than any formal education could have ever given me. I have learned, by listening to children and their families, how to be innovative in my approach to creating programs that make a difference. My areas of expertise as well as my publications have come directly from attending to what the children need and what they tell me.

What is your message to inspire others to serve the autism and special needs community?

The greatest inspiration comes from the children. Take time to listen and observe. The kids will tell you what they need.

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