FAIRBANKS — Brandy Raby went to the Autism Society’s national conference last year to figure out what resources she could bring home to its affiliate, the Autism Society of Alaska.
After buying one of 25 tickets at the conference to have breakfast with Temple Grandin, the president of ASA’s board of directors knew exactly what she wanted to bring back.
“We were sitting around her, and I thought this should not just be confined to us,” she said. “Let’s see how we can get her to Alaska.”
Grandin, 68, is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She also is an autism activist, best-selling author and inventor. HBO chronicled her struggles and successes in an eponymous 2010 movie.
While Grandin had originally planned to present at a different Fairbanks conference in March, the talk fell through because of a scheduling conflict. So Raby and other ASA members rallied donations and funds to bring Grandin to Fairbanks to be the keynote speaker at ASA’s first annual conference on Feb. 29.
Grandin will also give two free public talks. One will be about animal behavior on Feb. 28 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which has formed a partnership with CSU to offer a veterinary medicine degree program. Grandin will meet with the program’s first class of students to discuss the role of animal welfare and behavior in veterinary medicine.
The other talk will be at the Friends Community Church on Feb. 29 and focus on Grandin’s personal and professional journey.
“Not everyone can leave Alaska or go to a conference to see her,” Raby said. “That’s why those two free community presentations are ideal. Let’s give as many people access to her as we possibly can.”
Where the journey began
In the beginning, people doubted Temple Grandin.
The doubts came from doctors early on who said her autism would only hinder her. They came from peers who didn’t understand her sparing social interactions.
And there was another hurdle.
“Being a woman was a much bigger challenge,” she said of her experience working and researching in cattle feedlots and slaughterhouses in the 70s.
“As a woman I had to be twice as good,” she said. “It was discouraging because a man could make a mistake and still have a job. With a woman, you made one mistake and you were done.”
There were also those who never doubted Grandin — her mother, aunt and supportive mentors. And there were the cattle ranch and slaughterhouse owners who were willing to give her innovative ideas a try.
With their support and her conviction, Grandin eventually earned respect in the cattle industry — project by project.
“From one plant to the other, I started to get a reputation for things that really worked,” she said.
Grandin had a knack for observing how animals reacted to the finite details of their environment. She infused this knowledge into new animal handling procedures and her designs for facilities that improved productivity and animal welfare.
Not everyone is adept at seeing these details, but Grandin said her autism heightens her sensitivity to sensory cues like a hanging chain that might alarm a steer. Over the years, she’s been able to remove obstacles from many animals’ lives. And in a sense, they helped remove obstacles from hers.
Today, cattle ranches and meat plants across the world use Grandin’s designs, and her story has inspired many, including Raby.
Different, not less
At first Raby and her husband thought it was a hearing issue. Her son, 18 months old, was sitting in front of the woodstove with his back to the TV. He was clapping a pot and lid together.
“We would say his name and no response,” she said. So she tuned into a TV show that her son liked. He turned around to watch it.
“Up until that moment, he met every one of his mile markers with flying colors. And then it was like it just disappeared,” she said.
Raby and her husband brought their son to the doctors, but there is no medical test like a blood test for autism. Rather, diagnosis is based on behavior like the lack of eye contact, communications delays, and difficulty with social interactions.
In their son’s case, doctors tested for genetic disorders for about a year before they diagnosed him with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2003.
“Now, autism is one of the first things considered,” she said, noting the prevalence of it in children. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 45 children is diagnosed with ASD.
After the diagnosis, she and her husband participated in support groups, joining in one with the Autism Society of Alaska after its creation in 2008, which began Raby’s relationship with the nonprofit group.
In the beginning, she and her husband realized that learning about ASD is kind of like looking at something through a foggy lens. There’s nothing definitive about it. There’s no cure or known cause. The terms “high” and “low” functioning can pigeonhole people instead of helping them.
They also realized that their son would need support from the Alaska community, but questioned if people really understood the disorder.
Raby said she hopes the conference and the two free public talks will help people understand that every one has a role to play — employers, friends, family and the community — in the life of someone with ASD.
She also wants the message behind her favorite Grandin quote “Different, not less” to resonate throughout.
“It’s all about finding different ways to do it,” she said. As an example, she recalled how hard it was for her husband to initially hear the ASD diagnosis. As an avid outdoorsman, he was afraid he might not be able to share certain experiences with his son.
“Finally one day, we went out for a hunt,” Raby said. “Did my son carry a gun and did he shoot anything? No, but he was so excited to be with his dad,” she said. “And my husband and I were just sitting in the truck and we were looking at each other. It was almost a bawling moment. And I said, ‘See babe? Different, not less.’”
Temple Grandin Events
• Free movie showing of the 2010 HBO movie “Temple Grandin,”
Take in a viewing of the movie from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in downtown Fairbanks
• Talk on animal behavior: Grandin will share her experiences with autism and animal science at 3 p.m. in Davis Concert Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. She will discuss how animals think, act and feel. She will explore animal pain, fear, aggression, love, friendship, communication, learning and genius.
A book signing will follow from 4:15 - 4:45 p.m. Books available to purchase will include “Animals in Translation,” “Thinking in Pictures,” and “Animals Make Us Human.” No registration is required. Learn more at www.uaf.edu/vmed. The UAF Department of Veterinary Medicine is hosting this free event.
• Talk on personal and professional journey: Grandin will sign books from 5 - 6 p.m. and then make a free presentation on autism from 6:10 - 7:45 p.m. at Friends Community Church, 1485 30th Ave. She will talk not only about her personal and professional journey but also about autism issues — the ones parents, teachers and individuals on the spectrum face every day. She will talk about how and why people with autism think differently and how sensory sensitivities affect everyday living. Online registration is preferred for Grandin’s event, but not required. Go to http://www.asagoldenheart.org/temple-grandin.
• Autism Society of Alaska conference
ASA is hosting Grandin’s appearance as part of its statewide conference at Pioneer Park. Separate registration for the full ASA conference is at http://www.asagoldenheart.org/apps/webstore/.
Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.