Tag Archives: Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin Goes to Hollywood

Claire DanesAsperger’s Syndrome, a disorder in the autism spectrum first identified in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, has become a popular dramatic plot device in television shows such as House, Bones, Law & Order and Degrassi: The Next Generation. It defined the fascinating profile of the literary protagonists in Mark Haddon’s 2003 award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and in Stieg Larsson’s 2008 posthumous work, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Now Claire Danes is pegged to play the role of Temple Grandin, in an HBO movie to be released in 2010.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal. But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.
~~ Temple Grandin

Grandin overcame the limitations imposed by the disorder to become a top scientist in the field of humane livestock handling.

High school was especially harsh for Grandin, who was called “tape recorder” by other kids because she repeated things over and over, and she was hypersensitive to many forms of sensory stimulation. She eventually graduated with degrees from several universities, going on to write influential essays on animal welfare and designing humane slaughterhouses. She appears regularly on the news talk show circuit and was the subject of a BBC documentary, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, and Errol Morris’ First Person: Stairway to Heaven.

In part, the fascination with Asperger’s is due to the growing social acceptance of neuro-diversity – a buzzword that aims to promote an awareness that not all brains are similarly wired. Many of the books about the disorder have been written since the 1990s, and along with that interest has come a revisionist diagnosis of many creative and scientific geniuses.

The ascendancy of Asperger’s as a popular fictional device or “It Disability,” as some have called it, is partly due to the fact that patients often present as “normal,” except for their social awkwardness and obsessive interests.

Hollywood likes to portray them as tragically misunderstood and endearingly eccentric.

“Any kind of awareness in the mainstream culture is good, I suppose. But it’s a double-edged sword. You have to ensure that it doesn’t negate the severity of the problem,” says Margot Nelles, founder of the Aspergers Society of Ontario.

Aspergers: Separating Reality from Hollywood.


Animals in Translation

Animals in TranslationEarlier, we blogged about Dr. Temple Grandin, an astonishing woman with autism.

For many years, toddlers who, like Grandin, couldn’t speak and raged for no clear reason were usually institutionalized. Grandin, who is now in her late 50’s, was almost certainly the first such child to grow up to become a specialist in animal behavior.

When Thinking in Pictures, Grandin’s second book, appeared in 1995, experts had learned that autism was a spectrum disorder; in other words, its triad of difficulties — social problems, behavioral problems, obsessiveness — hobbled some people more than others. Grandin calls it neurodiversity.

Temple Grandin put the lie to many assumptions about autism. Of course, she wrote, autistic people have to learn social rules — in a methodical, structured way — but their obsessions may not be handicaps; they may even provide certain advantages. After all, Grandin herself had channeled her fixations and sensory differences into a successful career designing livestock equipment.

Her amazing new work, Animals in Translation, is crammed with facts and anecdotes about her favourite subject: the senses, brains, emotions and amazing talents of animals. Written with Catherine Johnson, who may have provided its colloquial, informal tone, Animals in Translation expands on an idea Grandin first sketched in Thinking in Pictures: that her autistic sensory perceptions (in particular, her intense focus on visual details) enable her to take in the world as animals do. In fact, she argues that autistic people and animals see, feel and think in remarkably similar ways.

Birdy CollageAlthough startling, this observation serves mainly as a segue into Grandin’s larger point. Animals — not just chimps and dolphins, but dogs, crows, pigs and chickens — are, she contends, much smarter and more sensitive than we assume.

There seem to be no features of human thought that animals don’t share to some degree, except perhaps the ability to craft complex conceptual metaphors. Most of the hallmarks of so-called human uniqueness turn out not to be unique: mathematical skills, introspection, forming and executing plans, language and tool-making.

She writes of prairie dog communities that have developed highly complex communications with the characteristics of human language, including sophisticated use of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Prairie dogs are at the very bottom of the predator/prey pyramid; Grandin speculates that development of a complex language was essential to their survival.

She also cites the intelligence of birds, which remember complex migratory paths after the first one-way flight, and documents tool-creation by a crow who bent wire into various shapes to extract food.

When she describes the emerging relationship between early humans and wolves, she notices how much we learned from canid social relationships, to our benefit.

Grandin’s most startling assertion is that many animals are smarter than us in the ways that count for them. We’re simply not equipped to perceive their intelligence, any more than they are equipped to understand what we’re doing when we speak to one another. But Grandin sees it all the time. She literally sees things other humans don’t, and claims that animals do too.

Human beings have lived for aeons immersed in a vast congress of reasoning, perceptive, communicating beings. But overlaid, in parallel, on this planet are numerous strands of sentience that have to be judged not in comparison to us but according to their ultimate impact on the animals that use them.

Intelligence, language, consciousness and tool-making therefore have to be considered not as values in their own right, but as strategies; their value lies in how well they fit a particular species’ needs. They fit ours very well, as it turns out.

But Grandin’s new book implies that the landscape of neurodiversity and intelligence is considerably more complicated than we’ve thought. She demands greater respect for the beings we live with – especially those to whom we have adapted.

Image: Christine Marie Art

Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin“Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be ‘normal.’ But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures.”

Dr. Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures was interviewed by NPR in August, 2006. Here is an excerpt.

Because I have autism, I live by concrete rules instead of abstract beliefs. And because I have autism, I think in pictures and sounds. I don’t have the ability to process abstract thought the way that you do.

Here’s how my brain works: It’s like the search engine Google for images. If you say the word “love” to me, I’ll surf the Internet inside my brain. Then, a series of images pops into my head. What I’ll see, for example, is a picture of a mother horse with a foal, or I think of “Herbie the Lovebug,” scenes from the movie Love Story or the Beatles song, “Love, love, love…”

When I was a child, my parents taught me the difference between good and bad behavior by showing me specific examples. My mother told me that you don’t hit other kids because you would not like it if they hit you. That makes sense. But if my mother told me to be “nice” to someone, it was too vague for me to comprehend. But if she said that being nice meant delivering daffodils to a next-door neighbor, that I could understand.

I built a library of experiences that I could refer to when I was in a new situation. That way, when I confronted something unfamiliar, I could draw on the information in my homemade library and come up with an appropriate way to behave in a new and strange situation.

When I was in my 20s, I thought a lot about the meaning of life. At the time, I was getting started in my career, designing more humane facilities for animals at ranches and slaughterhouses. Many people would think that to even work at a slaughterhouse would be inhumane, but they forget that every human and animal eventually dies. In my mind, I had a picture of a way to make that dying as peaceful as possible.

I believe that doing practical things can make the world a better place. And one of the features of being autistic is that I’m good at synthesizing lots of information and creating systems out of it.

When I was creating my first corral back in the 1970s, I went to 50 different feedlots and ranches in Arizona and Texas and helped them work cattle. In my mind, I cataloged the parts of each facility that worked effectively and assembled them into an ideal new system. I get great satisfaction when a rancher tells me that my corral design helps cattle move through it quietly and easily. When cattle stay calm, it means they are not scared. And that makes me feel I’ve accomplished something important.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be “normal.” But I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures. I believe in them.

Dr. Temple Grandin has traveled all over the world, designing livestock facilities in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. She has designed one-third of all livestock facilities in the United States with the goal of decreasing the fear and pain animals experience in the slaughter process.

As head of Grandin Livestock Systems and Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, many may claim that Grandin has overcome the difficulties autism poses. However, Grandin’s achievements are not in spite of autism; autism, in fact, has played a complex and integral role in her life. She has slowly learned ways to live with autism and minimize its effect on daily activities.