How a 17-Minute Phone Call With Temple Grandin Changed Me

temple_grandinTemple Grandin will speak at the Von Braun Center Concert Hall on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35.00 and can be purchased here. The evening will begin with a book signing at 5:30 – buy one of her books on site or bring your own copy. Her speech will begin at 7, followed by a Q&A with representatives from five organizations who are working to expand opportunities for people with autism spectrum disorders and other diagnoses into our workplaces and our community. If you haven’t seen it before, watch Temple’s Ted Talk here.

When my phone rang, I was unloading groceries from my car. I didn’t know the number and normally would have let the call go to voice mail until I could finish what I was doing. But for some reason, I shifted the groceries sacks and said, “Hello?”

I knew who it was after she uttered about four words.

Temple Grandin was on the other end of the phone line.

I panicked. I was scared, intimidated and slightly star-struck. I’ve been watching endless hours of Temple’s speeches, read her books on autism and am breathlessly awaiting her visit to Huntsville next week. And here she was, on the other end of the phone, asking me what Huntsville is like and what we hope to accomplish after her talk.

I was intimidated to talk with her, not because she has autism but because she is one of the most accomplished women in the world. Time Magazine listed her among the 100 Most Influential People of 2010 thanks to her achievements as a scientist and advocate for people on the autism spectrum. A biopic about her life, Temple Grandin, won multiple Emmy© Awards. She’s written dozens of books and is recognized the world over for her brilliant design innovations used extensively by cattlemen and ranchers around the globe. I’ve talked to a few celebrities in my work at Merrimack Hall but none have left me as tongue-tied and awe struck as Temple Grandin.

I’m one of those “social yackity-yacks” that she references in her speeches. I immediately began trying to moderate my speech…the tempo, the volume, the tone. I thought of all my friends with autism who have given me feedback, sometimes verbal and sometimes nonverbal; feedback that tells me my delivery can be hard for them to take. They tell me, “Slow down.” “Be still while you’re talking to me.” “Keep your hands to yourself.” I tried to temper myself so that I could communicate effectively in a manner that I assumed she would prefer.

“Different, not less,” is what Temple says. I’ve always assumed she was referencing people with autism and other intellectual disabilities, that it was them who are different but never less. But in the first few minutes of that phone call, I realized it is me who’s different, not Temple.

I use 20 words when five would suffice. I muddle my message with excessive body language, intense eye contact, rapid speech and frequent, unexpected changes in topic. I dilute the effectiveness of my communication by going off on tangential rants, mixing emotion with facts when trying to persuade others or win them over.

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Halfway through our 17 minute phone call (yes, I checked the phone log to be sure how long I had actually been able to talk with her), I started to relax. She asked me lots of questions about our community and the purpose of our event. When I told her that we hope to motivate and inspire our community of thought innovators to find new ways to integrate people with autism spectrum disorders into our workplaces, she was enthusiastic and excited. She told me, “Good job!” when I described the panel of local scientists, advocates and employers who will be asking her questions after her speech. She said, “I look forward to meeting you,” when the call was coming to an end. When we hung up, I was elated…I did it! I managed to carry on a conversation with someone I revere and won her over despite my communication disorder.

Because yes, I’m the one with the communication disorder, not Temple. She has learned, after years of diligent practice and observation, to tailor her preferred communication style to match what we call “normal.” She has mastered the art of listening and uses language in a measured, appropriate and careful way that allows her to connect without nuance or hidden agendas or emotional baggage that should have no place in our communication with each other. She says what she means and she means what she says.

I can’t say that about myself all the time, as my communication is too heavily influenced by ego. I’m too busy preparing my response to someone to truly listen to what they are saying in the moment. I have trouble zoning in on the most important point of whatever I’m saying because random thoughts and subtle manipulations are constantly zigzagging through my brain, bursting through my filters and muddying the water of my point. I rely on emotion, not facts, too often. I tell myself that I’m an effective speaker because I am exceedingly verbal but 17 minutes with Temple Grandin left me with the stark realization that it’s not Temple who’s different…it’s me.

Temple says, “Different…not less.” I always applied that sentence to the people with special needs I work with, never to myself. But the call with her showed me that deciding who and what is “different” is malleable and depends on your perspective. To me, people with autism are “different” but to them, I’m the one with deficiencies. When you boil it down to its most elemental message, “Different…not less,” applies to all of us. Each of us is different from the other and none of us is less.

For 10 years now, I’ve said that we are all more alike than we are different and that we all have special needs. Thanks to one conversation with Temple, I realize that there’s so much more to it than that. We are ALL different in subtle and obvious ways. Each of us is born with our own unique set of challenges and dysfunctions that are further ingrained through our social interactions. Each of us has a particular slant through which we see each other, the world and our places in it. It will be a better world when we all learn that Temple isn’t different, nor is anyone with a physical or intellectual disability.

WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT. AND NONE OF US IS LESS.

What problems could we solve if we approached everything with that mindset? What new friends could we make? What new ways of doing things or what new insights could we uncover if we all just accepted the reality that no two of us are the same and none of us is perfect. No one is right and no one else is wrong in their approach or thought process or communication style because we are all unique, born exactly the way we were supposed to be.

 

I am different. And so are you. But I am not less and neither are you. If I learned this much about myself from 17 minutes with Temple, I can’t wait to learn even more powerful insights from her next week.

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