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Deep Breath

Temple Grandin’s stress-management lessons

Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe

When we think about people with disabilities, we often focus on what’s wrong with them, what they need help with, how we can help them. But at MIT’s Media Lab, researchers are trying to learn stress management from people with autism.

Autism’s symptoms often include paralyzing anxiety. The rocking and hand flapping associated with the condition is one sign; meltdowns are another.

In adulthood, though, many people on the spectrum master their anxieties.

So recently, Media Lab professor Rosalind Picard hosted Temple Grandin to get some tips on managing stress.

Grandin, an accomplished author and animal sciences professor who has autism, said she used to live with constant fear. Her life, she said, felt like being trapped in a closed building with 100 poisonous snakes. She never knew when she might open a drawer and find one inside, or a turn a corner and meet one face-to-face.


Grandin, who was played by Clare Danes in a 2010 TV biopic about her life, said she believes that a lot of people who are visual thinkers like her suffer from anxiety, even if they’re not on the autism spectrum.

Low-dose antidepressant medication, which she started in her 30s, helped tremendously — essentially ridding the building of snakes. The 100 sit-ups she does every night keeps them away.

Like many people with autism, Grandin said she’s sensitive to sensory overload from sights, sounds, and smells, which wear her out. So having a regular sleep schedule is crucial. She told a group of MIT students that she planned her schedule weeks ahead in college so she wouldn’t have to pull all-nighters and still tries to avoid early flights that throw off her 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. sleep schedule.

Back in college, Grandin used to decompress during the late afternoons — her most stressed-out time of day — by watching “Star Trek.’’ Spock was her favorite character.


Making friends who have shared interests was also crucial, Grandin said. She was bullied mercilessly as a child and early in her career, leaving her struggling with depression. Friendships she made riding horses and in the electronics lab helped her bounce back.

Now 67, Grandin said her anxiety has been transformed into hyper-
vigilance. She’s aware of every little movement the airplane she’s riding on makes, but isn’t worried that the plane might crash.

“What’s gone is the fear response,” she said.