A trip on autistic savant Temple Grandin’s train of thought is a wild ride. To illustrate the associative nature of her mind, the world’s foremost expert on livestock handling asked me to come up with “a really original key word.”
Looking at the wilting purple flowers next to my phone, I said, “Iris.” Grandin’s visual brain seemed to flip like a slide projector through a series of individual images.
“Well, I saw the flower, and now I’m seeing a warehouse that had a really funny name for a grocery distributor — the Smart and Final Iris Co.,” said Grandin, who was in a hotel room in Philadelphia, where she was gearing up to receive an honorary doctor of sciences degree at the University of Pennsylvania. “Now I’m seeing a whole bunch of new warehouses out by the Denver airport. I’m seeing the Amazon.com warehouse. That’s how I got from ‘iris’ to warehouses.
“Now I’m seeing the iris of the eye, which I know is the wrong kind of iris. Now I’m seeing the iris of a camera, where you adjust the —” She interrupted herself, apparently trying to make her words catch up with her brain. “Now I’m seeing the James Bond old movies, where you had the pointing of the gun and the iris of the eye like a camera. You see,” she said, “it has a logic to it.”
At the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, June 6, the 71-year-old discusses the different ways people think. Grandin, one of the first people on the autism spectrum to have publicly shared her perspective, has been lecturing on the subject for more than 20 years. Her research as a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and consultant to the livestock industry has also fundamentally changed how cattle are treated in the United States. More than half the cattle in North America are handled in systems that she designed. In 2010, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Grandin’s work and connection with animals are closely linked to her autism: Her “hug machine” invention is a deep-pressure device modeled after a cattle squeeze chute and designed to calm individuals on the autism spectrum. Before her lecture on June 6, she’ll spend the day with horses and children with autism spectrum disorders. She’s scheduled to make stops at the New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding and the May Center for Learning, a school that serves students with learning differences.
The most formative instance of how Grandin’s brain allowed her to connect with an animal’s perspective is dramatized in the 2010 HBO movie Temple Grandin, which won a slew of Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. In one pivotal scene, Claire Danes, in her role as the budding animal scientist, gets on her belly in a squeeze chute.
Grandin recalled, “I noticed the animal stopping when there was a coat hung on the fence, and so I got in the chute to see what they were seeing. And when you get down in the chute, you say, ‘Well, OK, I can see a car through the fence. Or I can see a person behind there,’ and so I got down there to see where the distractions are.”
In her 1997 article “Thinking the Way Animals Do,” Grandin writes, “A horse trainer once said to me, ‘Animals don’t think, they just make associations.’ I responded to that by saying, ‘If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think.’ ” Her research lies in the kind of visual and place-specific connections that animals make — how one horse, for example, might shy away from a piece of paper on the riding trail but would likely investigate it if it were lying in a pasture. “Remember that horse in the Kentucky Derby who got disqualified?” she asked. “I think his name is Maximum Security. He shied at a puddle. That’s why he moved out of his lane. Because the track was muddy and there was a puddle on the track.”
Grandin’s research on cattle temperament is now the basis of the majority of cattle selection programs in the industry. She proved that when cattle get excited and scared during handling, they have lower weight gains and that cows with hair whorls higher up on their heads tend to be more temperamental and fearful. As a result, she said, “It’s actually hard, in some parts of Colorado and now Nebraska, to find cattle with a hair whorl way up on the forehead, because we’ve been doing 20 years of temperament selection.”
She’s currently engaged in research to combat the ill effects of over-selection in livestock. “You never want to over-select for a single behavior trait or production trait — weight gain or milk — or a performance trait or an appearance trait — like the bulldog with the smashed-in nose, and then they have breathing problems. You over-select for any single trait, you will wreck your animal, period.”
Though she said she tried vegetarianism as a young woman, she is an avowed carnivore, and her insights into livestock behavior have benefited both animal welfare and the meat industry. On the subject of cow methane emissions, she said, “When it comes to greenhouse gases, your two biggest emitters are power generation and transportation. They’re by far the two biggest, leaps and bounds bigger [than cattle].” She has even defended the sale of “pink slime” (the derogatory term for processed carcass trimmings that the industry calls “finely textured beef”), writing in Modern Farmer that “throwing it out is like tossing a whole truckload of cattle into the garbage every day. The product just needs to be labeled properly.”
She is also a proponent of finding the proper terms for different types of autism. “The spectrum is going from computer programmer genius to somebody who can’t dress themselves. And they all have the same name, which makes it kind of difficult. The problem is that it’s not precise. People think an autism diagnosis is precise, like a diagnosis for tuberculosis.”
She maintains that being able to work on practical problem solving with animals was a lifeline for her, a frequently overstimulated child for whom something like a school bell ringing “was like a dentist drill in my ear,” she writes. She first designed the hug machine for herself when she went away to college, finding that much as a squeeze chute calms cattle, the hug machine’s deep-pressure embrace of her body quieted the anxiety the outside world produced. Hugging actual people felt too unpredictable.
She frequently lectures about the need for hands-on, experiential education for kids both on and off the autism spectrum so that they can engage themselves in their own projects and inventions. “What would happen to some really famous innovators today — Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Edison? They were all kids that were kind of different. Where would they be today? I’m worried that they might be in the basement playing video games. And we’ve got to work on helping these minds that are different to be successful.”
She’s certainly come a long way on her own. Her personal hug machine broke a few years ago. “I never got around to fixing it,” she said. “I’m hugging real people now.” ◀
▼ Calling All Minds: An Evening with Temple Grandin
▼ 7 p.m. Thursday, June 6
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $20, $75 includes preferred seating and reception with Grandin; 505-988-1234, ticketssantafe.org