Temple Grandin, the author of "Emergence: Labeled Autistic," speaks to students and faculty of area high schools at Huntington Beach High School on March 22. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / March 22, 2012)

Temple Grandin may be the featured author this year at HB Reads, but she's hardly a natural book writer.

The professor and animal scientist made that clear Thursday morning, when she spoke to hundreds of students in Huntington Beach High School's gym.

Grandin's name appears prominently on the cover of "Emergence: Labeled Autistic" and other books, but she admitted to the crowd that it takes a co-author to shape them into a publishable form.

Grandin, whose memoir details her years of learning to function with autism, explained to the crowd that she thinks in visual terms — just as others think in patterns, language or sounds. As a result, stringing together words doesn't come as easily for her as it may for others.

"I'm a very good technical writer, but I'm not very good at writing narrative," Grandin said. "What I needed my co-authors for was to get a flow."

The HB Reads program, now in its fifth year, has a history of spotlighting unlikely authors.

Two years ago, it featured "They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky," a memoir of three Lost Boys of Sudan who escaped war and poverty to flee to America; last year's selection, Elva Trevino Hart's "Barefoot Heart," portrays a Mexican migrant worker who struggled to get an education.

This year, the program spotlighted an author who overcame a different hardship to get her name in print.

Grandin, who teaches at Colorado State University and has designed equipment that revolutionized the livestock industry, started her presentation by explaining that minds learn in different ways — and people with autism have a more specialized style than most.

An autistic human, she said, thinks in a way similar to animals, starting with information in small categories and working toward a larger concept. A non-autistic mind, by contrast, starts with the concept and thinks less about the smaller components.

The modern educational system, Grandin said, doesn't provide enough support for visual or pattern thinkers. She credited much of her adult success to the art classes she took in elementary school and being able to work with horses in high school.

"If I hadn't had hands-on classes, I just would have been lost," she said. "These are the things I was good at."

Students from around the Huntington Beach Union High School District attended Grandin's presentation, which came after several months of citywide events that dealt with autism and disabilities. Wednesday, Grandin spoke at a reception at the Shorebreak Hotel and gave an evening presentation to the general public in the Huntington Beach High gym.

After Thursday's event, more than a dozen students lined up to meet the author and have her autograph their copies of "Emergence."

Among those in line was a 15-year-old sophomore at Marina High School who said she had battled autism herself and found Grandin's story moving.

"I thought it was amazing how she inspired so many people with disabilities," she said. "I think she's a great speaker for everyone."

michael.miller@latimes.com

Twitter: MichaelMillerHB