Temple Grandin is an accomplished inventor and spokeswoman for the autism community. She holds a Ph.D. in animal science, and works as a professor at Colorado State University. Grandin is the author of a dozen books on autism and animal behavior, including the bestselling 1995 autobiography Thinking in Pictures. Her forthcoming children’s book, Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor, offers 25 projects that curious and creative kids can tackle on their own, often using household materials. The book also interweaves anecdotes from Grandin’s childhood adventures in building, drawing, and experimenting. In advance of her keynote at Children’s Institute in New Orleans next month, Grandin spoke with PW about her lifelong love of inventing, and her belief in the value of diverse kinds of thinking.
You’ve published a number of works for adults about your studies on autism and animal behavior. What led you to write a book for children?
When I was a child, I loved to make things. I spent hours experimenting, making bird kites and parachutes. If it flew, I liked it. I’d spend hours making things out of markers, crayons, and tape—and I had a Singer Sewhandy. I also loved books about famous inventors. I was really interested in Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, Thomas Edison, and Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamship.
Kids today aren’t making things anymore. I’m a teacher, and I’m seeing kids getting through school now who don’t know how to use protractors or rulers or compasses. I think we need to get kids doing hands-on things.
In addition to drawing from your own experience as an inventor, what kinds of research did you do for the new book?
I had to look up a lot of biographies of different inventors. And I had to duplicate some of my childhood projects. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be! The bird kite I created for the book wasn’t made of the same textured paper I used as a kid—it isn’t readily available in stores now. The rough surface affects aerodynamics and flight. I had to substitute file folder paper, which doesn’t work as well. That’s why I included stuff [in the book] on the golf ball and why it has dimples—how they accidentally discovered that a beat-up old golf ball works better than a smooth one.
For the helicopter experiment, I bought the same wind-up helicopter I had as a kid. But it was weak and wimpy compared to the one I had in the 1950s, with a smaller propeller. Betsy Lerner [my co-author] was there with me. At my house, we recreated some of my projects. We spent an entire afternoon getting the helicopter to work and doing test flights. I ended up cutting the rear end off, and I did other things to lighten it. I finally got it to fly.
I worked on other projects, too. I made winglets for my kite, like the ones jet liners have. The parachute was much easier to recreate. When it comes to making things fly, exact materials are important. Kids will have to experiment.
What do you hope that young readers will take away from Calling All Minds?
I’m concerned that a lot of kids are being put in Special Ed and going nowhere. Nothing is being done to develop their love of art, of making things, or mechanics. I go back and forth between the autism world, the education world, and the cattle world—I like crossing between the silos. I see a kid addicted to video games, and a grown-up version of that kid owning a metal fabrication company. But the other version of that kid is now grown up and still playing video games in a basement.
When I was in third grade, I loved drawing flowers with a compass, or cutting out paper snowflakes. Kids don’t do those things today. One of the things I think this book will be helpful for is making stuff, hands-on. The book is filled with different projects and biographies of different inventors—including lady inventors and African-American ones—and pictures of inventions. I also included lots of copies of patents. A really fun thing kids can do now is look up patents on Google.
I wanted to make sure that all the projects are ones that low-income folks can do, too. I made the Ames room [a type of optical illusion] out of a single sheet of cardboard. You could also make it out of boxes. Everything costs about $5 to make, at most. I deliberately wanted to make things simple.
In the book, you acknowledge the role some of your high school teachers played as mentors. How might parents and teachers of children on the autism spectrum learn from your own experience and achievements?
I’ve always acknowledged my science teacher, Mr. Carlock. He is a really good example of how a good teacher can turn a lousy student around. He had me doing different projects, and studying became a goal toward becoming a scientist. Half of Silicon Valley is probably on the autism spectrum—undiagnosed, but on the spectrum. [The spectrum] goes from Einstein to someone who can’t dress themselves. Another name for mild autism is just “geeks” or “nerds.”
I’ve worked with a lot of steel workers who are dyslexic or on the spectrum. Why do these workers have a job and kids [with autism] today have so much trouble? They had a paper route at 11 and learned how to work. Today, so many schools have taken away all the hands-on classes. How will kids learn that they like auto work or building?
I do a lot of speaking events, and I always talk about different kinds of thinking: visual, mathematical, and word thinking. The visual thinkers, like me, can build any piece of equipment. They often are great artists, photographers, and graphic designers. Mathematic or pattern thinkers can be great mathematicians and computer programmers. Word thinkers have detailed knowledge about things. We need to take the thing a kid is good at and build on it. I loved art at a young age, and my mother encouraged me to do lots and lots of art. I’m interested in seeing these kids that are different getting up and being successful.
Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor by Temple Grandin, with Betsy Lerner. Philomel, $18.99 May 15 ISBN 978-1-5247-3820-4