"Far too many smart, geeky kids end up in the basement": Neil deGrasse Tyson explores a major educational failure

Autism advocate Temple Grandin tells Tyson why many students are underserved in the classroom

Published April 13, 2015 5:45PM (EDT)

Neil deGrasse Tyson                (Business Insider)
Neil deGrasse Tyson (Business Insider)

In the latest episode of "Star Talk," host Neil deGrasse Tyson was joined by Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, to discuss the impact her autism on her life and research.

Dr. Grandin is an autism activist who uses her own struggles with the condition to inform her work on animal behavior. An HBO film based on her life, "Temple Grandin," was nominated for 15 Emmys in 2010 and took home five, including a "Best Actress" award for Claire Danes, who portrayed her in the film.

Before bringing her on, Tyson noted that her autism makes her "fascinating," because there are ways she thinks that other people are simply incapable of -- but he was quick to question whether "she is this way because she's insightful, or because she's in the autism spectrum."

"Does it give something to her," he asked, "or take something away? We're going to try and get to the bottom of how she ticks, and why she ticks the way she does. Is it just because she's different in the same way that everyone is, or because she has this condition."

His interview with Grandin was recorded in his office at the Hayden Planetarium, but the commentary on it by Tyson and Dr. Paul Wang, the Head of Medical Research for Autism Speaks, was conducted later.

Wang and Tyson discussed how, in the 1950s, it couldn't have been easy for someone on the autism spectrum to be educated.

"She was thought to be what we used to call 'retarded,'" Wang said. "She didn't speak for the first few years of her life."

At the time, autism was thought to be caused by "refrigerator moms," Wang said, "mothers who were emotionally removed from their children." But she quickly realized that her inability to communicate in language -- and the "visual thinking" that she used to compensate -- was not merely different from other people, but could be used to her advantage.

"There are two kinds of visual thinking," she told Tyson. "Object photo-realistic thinking," which is how she thinks, and "more visual, spatial, where you are in space thinking." The former is three-dimensional and associated with artistic minds, whereas the latter two-dimensional and associated with mathematical minds.

"In science," Grandin said, "we need both kinds of thinking. What I'm really good at, when I read a journal article, is the methods -- because when I read the methods section of an animal science or biology paper, I want to be able to understand how they did that experiment."

She explained that when you have two studies that come up with opposite results, she can tell by reading the methodology section to account for the difference -- and that it's often a matter of what breed of pig was used, or the ages of the animal in the studies.

Mainstream science, however, is more concerned "with what stats program you used. Yes, you need to do statistics -- that's why I work with a statistician -- but you also need my kind of mind to make sure people are fully describing how they did an experiment."

"So what you're saying," Tyson replied, "is that everything that we do that's new -- we need you in arm's reach."

"I'm worried," Grandin said, "that with all the emphasis on math, my kind of mind is being pushed off the team because we can't do the algebra."

Tyson then cut away from the interview and told Wang that "in my field, astrophysics, half the field is visual. You have to get into the computer and program it, but there are things we can only look at -- you can't poke it, you can't stick it in a petri dish. So it would be really cool if there were more visual thinkers in the world."

After noting that he said that to Grandin, he played a clip of reply, in which she said that those people "are already out there, and I'm worried about where they're going to end up. I'm seeing far too many smart, geeky kids ending up in the basement playing video games because things aren't be done to nurture their [visual] ability."

"When I was a child," she continued, "my mother nursed by ability with art. A lot of these kids want to draw the same thing all the time, and I did horse heads -- but I was encouraged to draw lots of other things. I was taught to broaden that fixation out, to turn it into a skill you can use."

Listen to the entire episode of "StarTalk" below via SoundCloud.

By Scott Eric Kaufman

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Autism Education Neil Degrasse Tyson Star Talk Temple Grandin Video