In his 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, Oliver Sacks studied seven individuals whose brains are wired in rare combinations of connectivity. According to Publishers Weekly, “In this provocative collection, the noted neurologist describes his meetings with seven people whose brain functions generate new perspectives on the workings of that organ, the nature of experience and concepts of personality and consciousness.”
One of the subjects of his analysis is the noted Professor of Animal Science and Poetic Justice Warrior Temple Grandin. By way of introduction, a founder of the Autism Society of America, Ruth Sullivan, relates meeting Grandin at their annual conference and asking her to speak in the 1980s,
Here, for the first time, was someone who could tell us from her own experience, what it was like to be extremely sound sensitive, “tied to the rail and the train’s coming.” She spoke from her own experience, and her insight was impressive. There were tears in more than one set of eyes that day.
As Dr. Bernard Rimland writes in the forward to Grandin’s 1986 book Emergence: Labeled Autistic, “Temple’s ability to convey her innermost feelings and fears, coupled with her capacity for explaining mental processes will give the reader an insight into autism that few have been able to achieve.”
Thinking in Pictures
In her 1995 book, Thinking in Pictures, Grandin describes in detail the specialized thinking of her mind. Clinically known as sensory processing, it is how the brain integrates all sensory inputs, both consciously and subconsciously. People whose minds inhabit some part of the autism spectrum experience hypersensitivity to one of more of these inputs. While she was able to think in photographically specific images, sound sensitivity was traumatic.
With the encouragement of her boarding school science teacher William Carlock, 18 year old Temple built her infamous “hug box.” Designed to relieve the stress caused by sensory overload, it became an obsession, and Carlock was able to redirect her creative energy into scientific experiments for testing the efficacy of her “squeeze machine”.
Grandin’s mind is gifted for being able to recall the visual memories in her head, in detail, like a moving picture. These movies can be played on an internal projector that rewinds, changes camera angle, and lighting. Compared to those of us whom Temple describes as neurotypical, words are her secondary mode of thought. Grandin’s primary thinking modality is “totally in pictures”. She also had the benefit of a loving and dedicated mother, whose second husband was able to arrange for Temple to spend her summer as a 15-year-old on his sister’s ranch in Arizona.
Grandin’s breakthrough, not considered possible for people living with autism at the time, was her successful integration of scientific inquiry, animal husbandry, and object-visual thinking into a highly productive career. She relates her good fortune as,
People on the autism spectrum don’t think the same way you do. In my life, people who made a difference were those who didn’t see labels, who believed in building on what was there. These people didn’t try to drag me into their world, but came into mine.
This is the essence of the economic way. Its what entrepreneurs do, and active minds. “The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less autistic, you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.”
Animals Make Us Human
In the 2006 version of Thinking in Pictures, Grandin upgraded her analysis of autism to include two other types of specialized thinking – the patterns of music, math and computer programming, and the logic of facts, words and historical narrative. During a presentation in Springfield, Missouri in February 2020, Grandin posed the question of how Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, or Thomas Edison would fare in today’s public schools.
Probably in the basement playing video games. Kids who are different often get obsessed with one thing. The misfits build things. Visual thinkers are good at seeing risks and solutions to problems. If you weed out all of the visual thinkers, you lose common sense.
In 1980 she published a study, and became one of the first scientists to prove, that animals are susceptible to visual distractions. Grandin later demonstrated that cattle who remain calm during handling exhibit greater weight gain. This led to designs for more humane cattle processing facilities, including curved fencing, that are now used throughout the beef industry.
As the author of over 60 peer-reviewed scientific articles, several books, and countless live presentations, Grandin also learned to adapt her preferred style of social interaction to the neurotypical world:
Autism is part of who I am, but career came first. I wanted to prove I wasn’t stupid. That was a very big motivation. I learned to show my work, that is how I got jobs.
Steve Silberman, author of Neuro Tribes, writes about Grandin that, “It became obvious to her, however, that she was not recovered but had learned with great effort to adapt to the social norms of the people around her.” As Poetic Justice would have it, Grandin is teaching the world to understand the social norms, and the neurodiversity, of the animal world.
You got to get away from words if you want to understand any animal. It thinks in pictures, it thinks in smells, it thinks in touch sensations – little sound bites, it’s a very detailed memory.
Her 2010 book Animals Make Us Human is a testament to her devotion to the respect animals deserve, and how to give them their best life, on their terms. Of course this suggests a possible contradiction, and provokes a lot of criticism. How can Temple Grandin advocate for animals who are doomed to slaughter?
Neurodiversity, Children, Animals, and Property
Academically, this is the intersection of animal ethology and commercial livestock, and she boldly addresses the issues in the September 2019 publication of Applied Animal Behavioral Science. In a previous comment, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right.” In her 2002 paper with Harvard psychology professor Marc Howard, Animals are Not Things, she makes the case that animals are property, and that law gives them ethical protections that respect reality.
As Hunter Hastings, co-chair of the Rescue California Educational Foundation, recalls upon meeting Ms. Grandin, “She’s a wonderful person who overcame major personal challenges, carved an individual pathway, changed an industry, inspired millions, and garnered high levels of respect.” But perhaps Temple Grandin’s greatest contribution to peaceful human progress will be to inspire Montessori-style childhood education, and the eradication of the greatest threat to childhood cognitive development – American progressive education. That is needed to avoid Grandin’s fear of
What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.