How Temple Grandin’s autism gave her a ‘cow’s-eye view’ of the world
By Anna Kelsey-Sugg and Bec Zajac for Life Matters
Updated 2 Aug 2019, 12:21am Photo: Temple Grandin has been described as one of the most influential people in the world. (Supplied: Rosalie Winard) Related Story: Is ‘humane’ food the next big consumer trend?Related Story: ‘Autistic’ or ‘has autism’? Why words matter and how to get it rightRelated Story: My daughter concealed autism for 23 years. The diagnosis was life-changing
In the battle against inhumane livestock conditions, Temple Grandin was way ahead of the curve.
Since as early as 1965, she’s been working towards more humane cattle facilities, with her ideas making her one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world.
Professor Grandin believes her autism — or what she calls her “cow’s-eye view” — has been her special tool, providing a unique insight into how animals see the world.
In fact, she believes they see the world in the same way she does. Photo: Temple Grandin says her career is accurately represented in the film about her life, in which she is played by Claire Danes (right). (Getty: Michael Buckner)
She empathises with cows in particular, and says that’s enabled her to understand what makes them distracted or stressed, and what calms them.
And in helping farmers around the world improve their treatment of cattle, Professor Grandin learnt that some of the things that alleviate animals’ stress, reduced hers, too.
Take a look at how a child, whom doctors thought should be institutionalised, went on to become a world-renowned expert in the field of animal science.
Autism offers ‘insight into the animal mind’
It’s perhaps unusual that someone raised in an urban, rather than agricultural, environment could inspire a rethink of farms around the world with her cattle station designs.
Yet, by her mid teens, Professor Grandin, who was born just outside Boston, had “never been west of the Mississippi”.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume. Audio: Hear more from Temple Grandin and how she developed her world-renowned designs. (Life Matters)
At 15, she visited Arizona to stay on her uncle and aunt’s farm and noticed the cattle there were, at times, quite agitated.
She says her autism, which causes her to think “visually”, gave her a unique insight into what was impacting the cows.
In a 2010 TED Talk, which has amassed over 5 million views, Professor Grandin explains that she doesn’t think in language, but rather in pictures, which has been a “tremendous asset” to her.
“Visual thinking gave me a whole lot of insight into the animal mind,” she explains during the talk.
“An animal is a sensory-based thinker, not verbal. [It] thinks in pictures, thinks in sounds, thinks in smells.”
YouTube: Watch Temple Grandin’s TED Talk: The world needs all kinds of minds
Professor Grandin says for animals, sensory-based information is placed into categories, and says she shares this compartmentalised way of thinking.
She can also relate to the cattle’s stress.
“When I got into puberty and I went out to the ranch when I was 15, I started having horrible panic attacks and anxiety,” she says.
She noticed that stressed cattle relaxed inside the tight confines of a “squeeze chute” — or cattle crush, as it’s known in Australia — a cage that holds livestock while they’re examined.
She wondered if it might have the same impact on a person.
“I went to try it,” she says.
And it worked.
“So then I built a device that I could get into that applies pressure,” she says.
It was a rubber-padded machine that she could use herself.
She says pressure “doesn’t work with everybody”, but is a sensation many people with autism derive comfort from.Changing attitudes to autism
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Professor Grandin also noticed that cows don’t like distractions and says removing those from cattle facilities is really important.
“I’ve been into abattoirs where paper towel hanging out of a rack moving slightly stopped the cattle. They tend to notice little things we don’t notice,” she says.
“They also don’t like going into the dark.”
In her designs she’s lit up cows’ darkened entrances and noticed improvements in their behaviour.
“Very simple changes can make a big difference,” she says.
Having autism wasn’t the biggest hurdle — being a woman was
It’s no small feat that Professor Grandin’s designs have led to changes in cattle stations around the world, and she’s received international recognition for her work.
As well as being a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and one of Time’s most influential people, her life is the subject of an eponymously titled movie starring Claire Danes.
But the early days in her career proved tough. Photo: Grandin says her autism causes her to think visually. (Getty: Michael Roman)
“When I started out … in the cattle industry in the US in the early ’70s, it was totally a man’s world. There were no women working out the yards,” Professor Grandin says.
“Being a woman in a man’s industry in the early ’70s was a much bigger obstacle than autism was — a much, much bigger obstacle.
“There’s a scene in [the movie] where I was thrown out of the feed yard because the cowboys’ wives didn’t want me to be there. They put bull testicles on my vehicle. That actually did happen.”
She says she wasn’t defeated. She was incensed.
“What I had to do is make myself really good at what I did,” she says.Listen to the podcast
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She worked hard to gain the credibility, qualifications and knowledge to introduce change.
And while she says her autism made certain things difficult (with algebra, for example, “there’s nothing to visualise”), she became adept at playing to her strengths.
“I love Stephen Hawking’s comment right before he died. He said, ‘concentrate on the things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well’,” she says.
“I really like that.”
Professor first, autistic second
Professor Grandin, who also devotes her time to educating and inspiring children and young people with autism, is clear about — and proud of — who she is.
“I’m a college professor first, autistic second,” she says.
“Autism is an important part of who I am. I like the logical way I think, but the college professor and the animal science and cattle design, that comes first.”
She still has her squeeze machine, but finds she needs it less these days.
“It broke a number of years ago. I still have it, but I’m hugging real people now,” she says.