A special episode of PBS’ “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum” hinges on the principle that “sometimes people think and do things differently, and that’s OK.”

But Temple Grandin knows firsthand that varying modes of thought are more than just OK. They’re essential to human progress.

“If you get the right teams of people to do things that have complementary skills, it can really, really make for great things getting done,” the animal welfare scientist, author and autism activist told the Los Angeles Times on a recent video call from her home in Fort Collins, Colo.

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“We need the different kinds of minds … Often, educators concentrate too much on the area of deficit and not enough on the area of skill.”

Multiple PBS series are celebrating Autism Awareness Month in April by spotlighting new characters with autism, including one based on Grandin. The 73-year-old professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University appears as a child in the aforementioned episode of “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum,” which premiered last week and is available to stream in full on the PBS KIDS YouTube channel.

Additional reruns of the “I Am Temple Grandin” episode are slated to air April 22 on all PBS stations and April 30, May 1 and May 2 on PBS KIDS.

“I Am Temple Grandin” sees its principal trio of curious kids — Xavier, Yadina and Brad — time travel through their secret museum portal to visit a younger version of the titular scholar in 1953 Massachusetts. There, a cartoon Grandin (voiced by Sara Ralph) teaches her guests that “sometimes people think and do things differently” by showing them there is more than one way to fly a kite.

While Xavier, Yadina and Brad stand still and watch their kites float directly above them, Grandin attaches her homemade “bird kite” to her bicycle. The other children look on in awe as Grandin’s kite glides through the air in her wake — a soaring testament to the creative power of divergent minds.

“I liked the fact that it highlighted (that) I like kites,” Grandin told the Los Angeles Times after viewing the episode.

“I was very good with kites. Liking kites is something that’s a positive thing. And I used to spend hours tinkering with different kinds of kites to get them to work. A lot of kids today are growing up, and they don’t tinker with things anymore. They’re too afraid to make a mistake.”

In a conversation edited for length and clarity, the Los Angeles Times spoke with Grandin about her appearance in “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum” and the importance of autism representation in children’s programming.

How did the idea for this episode come about, and how did you get involved?

(PBS) just approached me. That’s how I got involved. And I’ve watched the episode. It’s really cute, and I think it’s going to be very good for helping out the kids to understand other kids might be autistic. … One thing that was good for me, when I was in elementary school, is my teacher explained to the other children that I had a disability, but it wasn’t visible like a wheelchair, and they needed to be helping me. So I managed to get through elementary school without being bullied. High school was a nightmare of bullying. I had no speech until I was 4. I had all the classic symptoms of autism. But I thought they did a nice job with that episode.

How closely did you work with PBS to develop the storyline?

I had a few phone calls with them. Actually, when they did the HBO movie on me (2010’s “Temple Grandin,” starring Claire Danes), I had a lot more input, working with the writers and producers. (PBS) had access to many, many talks I had online, but I did really like the way that they showed it.

What was it like to see yourself as a cartoon?

It had gray hair on it, which I was kind of surprised (to see). And I had my western shirts on. But I think it’s a really good thing to be showing to kids, because one of the things I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding is sensory problems — that a sound that doesn’t bother you, like maybe the school bells going off, for example, might just be like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve to a kid with autism. Or they might have problems with certain kinds of lighting — it’s too bright or it flickers. The sensory issues are extremely variable.

What is the significance of seeing people with autism represented in children’s programming?

It’s important because it’s showing (that) people with autism are part of the world, of humanity. And we wouldn’t even have these computers and Zoom and things like this that we’re talking on now without some people with autism. It’s sort of similar to having the Paralympics. I was really happy to see that happening in the same venue as the regular Olympics, and wheelchair basketball is a pretty cool thing to watch. And it’s becoming normal. And that’s good.

What do you hope parents and kids take away from your story as depicted in the episode?

One thing is to teach kids to treat others that are different nicely too. It’s important to teach kids to be tolerant and kind. And (my elementary school teacher doing so) made it possible for me to have a very nice, pretty much good elementary school experience and not be bullied.

But there’s other kids right now in elementary school that may be autistic, or maybe they have some other issue, and they’re getting bullied in elementary school. I want to thank my teacher for doing what’s now called peer-mediated intervention. And that helped the other kids be a lot nicer to me.

What can typically-developing people do to support the autism community during Autism Awareness Month?

Be aware of some of the sensory issues. I can’t multitask. I would show people my drawings, and they’d go, “Oh, maybe you’re weird,” but then they’d hire me. I learned how to sell my work. I’d sell my work, not myself. And that’s why it’s so important to develop skills. You might have another kid that’s good at math. Well, then introduce them to programming.

My mind thinks in photo-realistic pictures. Right now, I’m working on a book on visual thinking, and I’m working with my fabulous, totally verbal thinker (and editor) Betsy, and I look at how she rearranges my stuff. She’s like magic how she does this. But then the things I write, she wouldn’t be able to do. See, that’s where it’s different minds working together.

© 2021 Los Angeles Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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