Speaker provides inspiration for those affected by autism

Published 7:30 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When Austin’s Haylie Bawek was younger, she struggled with simple math — like 1 + 1 = 2 — on paper.

But if you gave her something to visualize, such as adding one apple to another, she could solve the equation much more easily.

For Bawek, who is now 19, such was life growing up with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that leads to difficulties in social interaction and, often, repetitive behavioral patterns. In Bawek’s case, her brain has simply always worked better with patterns and colors than with numbers and words.

Email newsletter signup

While such a condition could be seen as a negative, Bawek is a bright young women who has seemed to embrace her different way of thinking, and she now has designs on starting a career in media production.

On Tuesday night at Knowlton Auditorium, Bawek and others affected by disorders within the autism spectrum found someone to look up to, someone who has dealt with autism but has made a successful career nonetheless.

That someone is Dr. Temple Grandin.

Grandin is a renowned speaker in the autism community, a foremost expert on animal behavior and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most-influential people in the world. To get to such a point, Grandin, 62, had to learn how to capitalize on her strengths, rather than focus on her weaknesses.

Like Bawek, Grandin’s strength was visual thinking. While she struggled in algebra, Grandin did much better with shapes and pictures, comparing her brain to a Google images page that always refreshed itself.

“The autistic mind tends to be good at one thing, bad at another,” Grandin told the crowd Tuesday.

Realizing she excelled with visuals, Grandin focused her career on designing livestock corrals that were based on how animals saw the world. These designs, the doctor said, simply popped into her head.

However, Grandin said she may never have had the courage to pursue her dreams without good parenting and mentoring. She urged parents and educators in the audience to learn how to work with autistic children, and to not accept failure — or bad behavior — as an answer.

“I can not emphasize enough the importance of early educational intervention,” Grandin said.

For Bawek’s mom, Diane, raising a child with Asperger’s was a difficult task. It wasn’t because she was a bad mom, or because Haylie was a bad kid, but rather because autistic thinking can simply be so different from standard thinking. Diane Bawek said she didn’t know exactly how to teach her daughter.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know,” Diane Bawek said. “We didn’t know the questions to ask.”

However, Diane Bawek began to realize her daughter learned in patterns and colors. When it began to sink in that Haylie could learn, but would just do so differently, parenting became easier.

“You grow together,” Diane Bawek added.

Dr. Grandin said learning to be a flexible parent, and to teach in different ways, is vital. By working from the “bottom up,” as she calls it, and focusing on patterns and examples — rather than hierarchical rules — many autistic children who may otherwise struggle learning have potential to learn.

Grandin also said it’s important to embrace different people and their ways of learning, something Bunny Johnson has lived by. Her 10-year-old son, Landon, has autism but is a highly functioning boy, and Johnson said she feels privileged to have him in her life.

“There is nothing wrong with (autism),” she said. “It can be a good thing.”

Bunny Johnson and Landon came from Ellendale, Minn., to see Grandin speak Tuesday night.

“She’s wonderful,” Johnson said. “She’s just so (positive) about it.”

Johnson said she’s learned to encourage her son to keep doing something if he enjoys it, and to try to make something positive out of it, as Grandin did with her visual thinking skills.

But while Johnson, Diane Bawek and others raising children with an autistic disorder certainly can learn a lot from Grandin, so can others less affected by autism — a fact that was made clear by Tuesday’s large, diverse crowd.

Dick Carroll, a farmer, and his wife Rosalie, a retired teacher, came with different perspectives. So did Susan Oftedahl, who came to Austin from Northfield, Minn., with her daughter, Annie. Annie Oftedahl is currently working on a master’s degree in special education.

Others still simply came to see an impressive person, one that people from all backgrounds seem to be inspired by.

Including Haylie Bawek.

“I’d like to do what she does,” Bawek said.