Children with autism should be stretched and introduced to new experiences but never surprised, says perhaps the most famous autistic person in the world, Temple Grandin.
"Keep stretching kids," she said Wednesday in a presentation at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.
"I'm seeing too many kids [who] are not being pushed enough," she added, saying they don't develop the skills to even order food at McDonald's.
She repeated the caveat against surprises, which she said can upset children with autism spectrum disorders.
Ms. Grandin, 64, an animal science professor at Colorado State University, gained fame when HBO made her biography into a movie, "Temple Grandin," which was first telecast in 2010. But she already was famous in two smaller communities.
She is an active advocate for people with the wide range of autistic disorders that include poor social skills, repetitive behaviors and learning difficulties. Autism affects an estimated 1 of every 110 children.
As an animal science professor who thinks in images even for abstract ideas, she is an expert advancing the humane treatment and handling of livestock.
Ms. Grandin has had her brain scanned over the last several years at a joint University of Pittsburgh-Carnegie Mellon University facility so autism researchers can study its workings. In her slide show presentation to an invited audience of the psychiatric community, Ms. Grandin credited her mother with helping her achieve so much by stretching her the same way she advocated challenging today's generation of children with autism.
"My mother was astute," she said. "... She could see progress could be made, could see how far she could push me."
Her mother, for example, encouraged her ability in art, but instead of just being content to see Ms. Grandin keep on drawing horse's heads she used her daughter's motivation "to broaden out to other things," including making images of things related to horses.
She said she also worries that "too many autistic kids are fixated on their autism. Kids come up to me and want to talk about their autism. I'd rather have them talk to me about their interest in math."
In response to a question about how to teach autistic children social skills, Ms. Grandin said the key is in setting a goal the child wants to reach as a reward for learning. "Those things have to be presented as a pathway to something you do want."
But she stressed that the best way to learn social interaction is through shared interests, which means that parents should encourage their children to sign up for activities centered on things they like -- for example, music or math clubs.
Ms. Grandin turned her attention several times to job training for a young person with autism. She said jobs are available in skilled trades for people with two-year degrees and suggested some young people might be better off being taken out of high schools and put into those programs. "Some kids need to go on to diesel mechanics training," she said.
She outlined several steps for preparing children for employment: teen jobs, having mentors, visiting the work place, reading trade journals and making a portfolio. She suggested some jobs teenage students could do: walking dogs, delivering newspapers, fixing computers, making computer-based visual presentations, selling artwork and crafts and working on church or neighborhood websites.
Pohla Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1228. First Published January 26, 2012 5:00 AM