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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Ada Lovelace Day! It's a day when people all over the world are talking, blogging, writing, and creating things that epitomize the concept of Women in Technology (read more about the festivities here. Ada Lovelace is considered by many to be the first ever computer programmer, and in the spirit of her innovation, we've been charged to write about a women in science or technology whom we admire, and for my contribution, I'm writing about Temple Grandin.

For those who don't know, when I'm not bringing the snark and pizazz here at the blog, I'm a teacher of young children and children with special needs. Innovation, ideas, technology and excitement are a part of my daily life- little kids are absolutely in love with the world and are so curious about everything- what things are, how they work, what will happen if they do certain things, etc. Their joy is contagious, and they can lighten any mood almost instantaneously.

Not everyone is given the opportunity to carry that effervescence much beyond that age, though. The Internet abounds with discussions about how school and the public school system teaches students to be obedient instead of innovative and how creativity is squashed out of students at every turn, especially students who learn differently from others or whose lives have put them in a different place than what schools and teachers normally encounter. Maybe those people are right, maybe they're not- we can discuss that at another point. What I do know is, it was really easy for me to select a woman in the field of science and technology to profile for Ada Lovelace Day, because to me, Temple Grandin illustrates how someone can come through a system that isn't always designed to faciliate maximum learning and achievement and not only find a niche in which to truly thrive, but to also be an inspiration to many other people as well.

Temple Grandin was born in Boston in 1947 and received a diagnosis of autism in 1951. Although she progressed through school with neurotypical peers, she was frequently picked on and teased for exhibiting behaviors commonly implemented by people who have autism- repeating phrases and sentences over and over again, difficulty engaging with peers, and focused areas of interest.

Although Temple Grandin's name is one frequently heard among advocates for people with autism, in the special education arena, and even among movie fans (HBO just featured an autobiographical movie,) the area in which Temple Grandin originally made a splash is animal science. She's currently a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and is a designer of animal transport systems for companies all over the world. She also created a rating scale that helps to monitor animal welfare and reduce instances of inhumane treatment. Temple Grandin's work with animals led her to develop a hug box that she herself uses to get additional needed sensory input. Many people with autism exhibit sensory seeking behaviors so Temple Grandin's exploration of this area was and continues to be big news to many people.

Maybe even more important than that, though, is what Temple Grandin means to the families of children and young adults who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Autism is a hot button issue and can be devastating for a family to address- causes remain unknown, the prognosis for each individual child is dramatically different from others, and the future immediately becomes a huge, dark, mysterious, inaccessible, unpredictable THING. Will this child ever speak? Ever use the toilet? Ever read? Ever have friends? Ever go to the prom? Ever get married? Ever have a job? Ever live on their own? Some of these questions are more immediately relevant than others and, depending on the severity of each child, may or may not even be questions at all, but imagine having to address those questions with dread instead of with hope, and not having answers readily available.

Temple Grandin, as an adult who is successful in her field, who is open and honest, who speaks and engages with other people and isn't afraid to be herself, gives people hope. Children with autism are as full of potential as any other child. The truth is, we can't see the future for ANY child- we don't know what he or she will become, and that's okay! Instead, supporting children's individual growth and helping them engage in the world around them will help them far more than fretting about questions rooted long in the future. It's something we can all help out with and do better at, even in a small way in our own lives.

Here's the first part of a BBC documentary on Temple Grandin, entitled "The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow." The rest of the documentary is on YouTube as well but here's a snippet to get you started:

There's a ton more I could say about Temple Grandin, about autism, and about the things that she's accomplished, but I'll let her TEDTalk do that for me:


Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Wikipedia Page on Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin's biological information page on her animal science site
Dr. Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website

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