Autism advocate Temple Grandin explains why we need education tailored for autistic minds

Neurodiversity is more than just a different way of being. Here's how a one-size-fits-all education model fails us

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 8, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

Above view of a class at elementary school (Getty Images/skynesher)
Above view of a class at elementary school (Getty Images/skynesher)

In her 2022 book "Visual Thinkers: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think In Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions," animal behavior scientist and autism rights advocate Temple Grandin described how there are different types of intelligence. Some people are gifted mechanically, Grandin pointed out; others at mathematics and abstract thinking; still others at the arts; and so on. Even though society often defines "intelligence" through the narrow prisms of test scores and other quantifiable metrics, Grandin points out that someone can be highly intelligent as a writer while struggling as a welder — and vice versa.

"I think one of the reasons why they push algebra is the people who do that are more verbal and more mathematical."

Perhaps the most important part of "Visual Thinkers," however — which is reinforced in her new book for young adults, "Different Kinds of Minds: A Guide To Your Brain" — is the way Grandin deconstructs the different types of autistic minds. Specifically, Grandin identified visual thinkers, musical/mathematical thinkers and verbal/logic thinkers. From there, she argues that our education system needs to be better tailored to help autistic individuals in all three categories realize their fullest potential.

After all, it is not just each autistic person who benefits when the education system best serves them; society as a whole is better off when visual thinkers like engineers can repair our crumbling infrastructure, the musical/mathematical thinkers who compose our hit songs or the verbal/logical thinkers who write articles (like myself).

It was easy for me, as an autistic reader perusing Grandin's book, to see its potential value for autistic teenagers. When I was growing up, I struggled to find the language to explain concepts that I had already grasped through painful experience: That one can easily read three novels but struggle to read a room, or that the same aptitudes that allowed me to get straight As in algebra did not automatically carry over to geometry. (Grandin, for her part, had the exact opposite experience learning mathematics.)

If I had been able to read "Different Kinds of Minds" as an autistic teenager, it would have been an invaluable resource as I navigated the world and tried to find my ideal career. I also would have recommended it to neurotypicals everywhere whenever they needed a lesson about autism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The thing I find most intriguing about your book are your ideas about education reform, so I would like to start with the section of your book called "Why Are We Bad at Math?" You say "We're teaching the wrong math and we're teaching it the wrong way." Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? 

Well, where I have a real problem is with algebra. It's abstract. I am an object visualizer who thinks completely in pictures and then you have the mathematical mind, the visual-spatial that thinks in patterns. And since that book got printed, I was talking to some mathematician people and learning that when they look at algebra, it's almost like looking at a musical score because it's all patterns.

"I think one of the reasons why they push algebra is the people who do that are more verbal and more mathematical."

But I'm a complete visual thinker and it just doesn't make any sense to me. And one of my big concerns is, I'm worried about object visualizers like me being screened out. When I was out working on the equipment and designing things, I worked with brilliant mechanical people that had high school graduates that were inventing all kinds of mechanical equipment. And most of them could not do algebra. And what had enabled them to get into a career was having shop class.

But I'm worried today these kids are getting screened out, and we need their skills for things like keeping the water systems running and keeping electric power systems running. They see it rather than calculate it. Everything I think about is a picture. So when I visualize a problem, like for example wires falling off an electric tower, I can see how the wind could make it wear out. 

But you're saying that our current way of teaching math doesn't cater to children like that.

Well, there are ways used to teach it, but you see for my kind of thinker, you have to get it back to something completely practical. For example, pi times the radius squared, find the area of a circle to calculate pressures on hydraulic cylinders. Now I see the piece of equipment like an excavator digging on a construction site, and I see the hydraulic cylinders. See nothing is abstract. It's thinking in pictures. So I memorized that formula to figure out, well, if I have this much hydraulic pressure, it's going to exert this much force on the cylinder. That is math that's being used for something very specific, that I can see. 

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That makes sense. So that brings me to the section of your book where you talk about "the testing trap." And it sounds like in a different way, it's a manifestation of the same problem where we oversimplify the way certain minds work. Would you agree with that?

I did horrible on the tests. I failed at SAT math. Failed it. I still can't do algebra. But I think one of the reasons why they push algebra is the people who do that are more verbal and more mathematical. And they're thinking you need algebra to think logically. That's not how I think. In fact, one school where I did a book signing for "Visual Thinking," you might say the adult version of the book, I talked to a principal who didn't even know that visual thinking like my kind of thinking even existed. That's real worrisome.

You talk about where ideas come from and how different scientists generate their innovations through different methods. What are your thoughts about how we can help young people — neurodivergent or otherwise — achieve their most potential in the education system?

"We need the people that have the autistic minds."

Well, let's not do things that screen them out. I've written, what would happen to Michelangelo today? What would happen to Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs? We've got kids right now, they can't graduate from high school in California if they can't pass the algebra test. I'm not suggesting getting rid of math. I'm suggesting let them take geometry, which I never had a chance to take. Or statistics. Or maybe accounting, or maybe practical business math. In other words, substitute something else for the algebra. I'm not totally saying give up math.

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There was a section of your book that especially stood out: "When I talk to autism groups, I like to share one of my favorite scientific papers by J.E. Reser, which looks at the ways that different animals think and interact. Some animals are more social. Others are loners." You then go into detail about lions, chimpanzees, wolves, hyenas: "So, if leopards or tigers were people, would they be diagnosed with autism on account of their antisocial behavior? Are they defective? Do leopards have a disorder? In the animal kingdom, we don't apply these labels. I don't think we should apply them to describe humans either." I thought that was a great insight.

Basically, I don't consider leopards and panthers as being defective. You see autism in its mildest forms is just a personality variant because leopards are, panthers are definitely not defective. It's a personality variant. A brain can be more social or the brain can be more emotional. There is a paper about this, it's called "Solitary Mammals as a Model for Autism." And there's genetic crossover, behavioral crossover. We need the people that have the autistic minds.

Another section of your book you describes helicopter parents and the problems that can come when parents try too hard to control their children's activities. I was wondering if you could elaborate specifically on how that can be a problem for neurodivergent children. 

What I'm seeing today, a really big problem is, I'll see an autistic individual do really well in school. Maybe be honors in high school. But this child, this teenager's never gone shopping by themselves. They don't have a bank account. They don't know how to order food in restaurants. They're just not learning basic skills because Mom does everything for them. And they've got to learn basic skills like shopping.

This is coming up over and over again. They don't know how to go into a store and talk to the store staff. And I've had two of them come up to me in the airport. I can tell you they shopped by the time I got done with them. Now the store was right there across the hall. But I handed one girl, she was 12 years old, a $5 bill. And I said, go in that shop and buy something. It was right across the hall. We were sitting in the gate waiting for a flight. We could see the store. She went in, bought a drink and brought me back the change. It was the first time she'd ever shopped. 


Yes. And this is coming up all the time. I'm also seeing really bad situations. I just heard about one, just a couple of months ago, a college student graduated Magna cum Laude — super, super good. But she couldn't make it in the workplace because she'd never learned any working skills when she was younger. I have granddads to come up to me and grandmoms come up to me and they explain how they had a paper route when they were 11. So I'm recommending substitutes for paper routes such as walking the next door neighbor's dog. You got to walk your own dog, but you also got to walk Mr. Jones's dog every morning at 6:30 in the morning. And because that's doing a job for somebody outside the family, I've got to find paper routes substitutes. 

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What would you say were the more encouraging experiences you've had in terms of helping neurodivergent children in education? 

I've had ones that where I helped them do their first things. I've had parents come to me and say, "Well, we followed your advice and we and our teenager's got a job and loving it." That makes me really happy. I just had a parents of a six-year-old text me and I just got off the phone with them and they followed some of my advice. Got their daughter doing a lot of things and they said she's doing just great. That makes me really happy. See, my mind doesn't think in generalities. I'm thinking one specific thing at a time.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Autism Education Interview Neuordiversity Temple Grandin