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Temple Grandin: A Heroine to the Autism Community, Brings Humanity to Animal Science

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Temple Grandin. Credit: Rosalie Winard

Temple Grandin is world-famous for being a high-functioning person with autism, but there is so much more to her than that. As she puts it, for her, “being a scientist comes before being autistic.”

Grandin, a 2017 AAAS Fellow, has been a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, since 1990. She teaches, mentors students, has authored books on both autism and animal science (Animals in Translation, which merged the two topics, was a 2006 bestseller), has published a dozen research papers in the past year alone, and maintains a prominent profile as a public speaker and consultant to the livestock industry. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2017, and has been one of Time magazine's “100 Most Influential People.”

The most important thing she's done, Grandin said, is the simple scoring system she created for cattle handling in the meat-packing industry: five outcome-based measures that moved the focus away from equipment — and Grandin has designed some of the most-used handling equipment in the industry — to emphasize how the animals are actually treated.

Grandin invented a center track restrainer system that half the cattle slaughtered in the United States and Canada pass through. Her goal was to create a humane system, which she believed was critical to efficiency, because frightened animals do not go calmly to their fate. She accepts that humans eat animals, but she contends that we owe them a decent life and a painless death. “Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be,” is one of her best-known aphorisms.     

Grandin was born into comfortable circumstances in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother bucked the erroneous understanding of the time, that autism was caused by an unloving mother, to fight for her daughter to be treated much like any other child. Grandin’s path toward a career in the animal sciences began most concretely with a summer she spent as a teenager on a relative's Arizona cattle ranch. She got a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College (now Franklin Pierce University), in Rindge, New Hampshire, in 1970. Her master's degree in animal sciences is from Arizona State University in Tempe; her PhD is from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Grandin has said she can understand animals’ reactions to sensory stimuli because she has had much the same reaction to loud noises and sudden movements herself. “Animals are very aware of small, sensory details in the environment,” and so are people on the autism spectrum, she said in a 2014 interview for the Stanford Medicine website

Grandin gained public attention after the late neurologist Oliver Sacks profiled her in The New Yorker in 1993. The piece also appeared in his 1996 book about people with neurological disorders, An Anthropologist on Mars. The book’s title came from Grandin's description of how she told Sacks she felt much of the time in social situations. Grandin was also the subject of a 2010 HBO movie, Temple Grandin, with Claire Danes in the title role. The persistent media attention has given Grandin stature in the autism community, which has allowed her to advocate for high-functioning children with autism — much as her mother advocated for her — to be educated in line with their distinctive ways of learning and operating.

Grandin frets that a 2013 change to the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which folded Asperger’s Syndrome into autism, has caused young people who at another time would have seen themselves as fit even for cognitively demanding jobs to slip into “a handicapped mentality.”

She said, “Somebody who is really talented is now under the same label as someone who can't dress himself.”         

It's critical that autistic children get plenty of exposure to the world, Grandin said. “Autistic kids do think differently. We form concepts by putting things into specific categories.” But autistic people “need to have a lot of information to put into the database. If you let kids sit in the basement playing video games for hours and hours, they're not going anywhere. You have to get them out doing things.”

Grandin characterizes herself as a visual thinker: “All my thoughts are pictures.” Visual thinkers don't always do well in school (“Algebra is a total mystery to me,” she said), but they often provide a perspective no one else has.

A self-described “total NASA geek,” Grandin had a chance to visit the Mars launchpad of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, last October.

“Such a fantastic trip!” she said.

The thing that stayed with her was a raccoon she saw “waddling across the landing of the launch platform, down the stairs and into the grass” from his perch far above the area’s alligator population. “He was sleeping in there!”

Grandin said, “I saw that raccoon evade all the security, and nobody else noticed him, and I got to thinking, ‘What have you been chewing in there?’ And that's why you need your visual thinkers!”

 

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Temple Grandin. Credit: Rosalie Winard
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Delia O'Hara