When Temple Grandin shows you an image of a holding pen for cattle -- one she designed -- she's not telling you how to handle livestock.
She's making a point.
"The way you sell yourself is you show off your work," she said.
Grandin told students to build up a portfolio of their own work for future employers during a visit to Glenbard East High School in Lombard Wednesday as part of the Glenbard Parent Series.
Grandin explained how her autistic mind works -- and thrives -- in the field of animal science. She made no fuss about becoming a high-profile advocate or the subject of a 2010 HBO biopic starring Claire Danes.
But Grandin was here to show students who fall on the autism spectrum how they can translate their passions and assets into jobs.
"Don't get hung up on the labels -- just don't," she said bluntly.
Grandin, who did not speak until she was almost 4 years old, was diagnosed with autism in 1950.
"When I was young, I used to think everybody thought in pictures exactly the way I did," she said.
But she had a mother who knew how to push her beyond her comfort zone and who exposed her to "new things -- with some choices."
So Grandin, a visual thinker, did "hands-on" work. Art class became her "salvation." At 15, she started cleaning out horse stalls.
"You want to understand animals? You've got to get away from verbal language," said Grandin, now a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
That understanding made Grandin a good fit for designing livestock facilities. She kept in mind that "an animal's world is a sensory-based world" and incorporated nonslip flooring into her work.
"Little things that most people don't seem to notice I noticed," Grandin said.
For Melanie Silver, Grandin reminded her of her own's son potential. Silver's 16-year-old son, a junior at Schaumburg High School, also falls on the spectrum.
"For me, I can see what he can achieve just by listening to her," she said.
Concerned that kids are now too removed from "practical things," Grandin voiced her support for 4-H and learning work skills long before they graduate high school.
"When you get really down to it, it's about outcomes," she said.