Earlier this week, I got to hear a presentation by Colorado State University animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, PhD, who is widely known not just for her extensive work to enhance animal welfare, but also because she is one of the world’s most prominent individuals with autism. Like many others, I first became familiar with Grandin’s work through Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars. (The title came from Grandin’s description of how she feels when trying to decode the subtleties of social interactions.) Since I first read Sacks’ book, I’ve written frequently about autism research and treatment, and I’ve gotten some sense of how phenomenally important Grandin is to the autism community. So it was quite a thrill to be sitting just a few feet from her as she spoke to an overflow crowd at the School of Medicine.
Grandin’s talk focused on understanding animal behavior and reducing animals’ stress, but she interwove descriptions of her research with comments on how living with autism has influenced her work – and, indeed, how it influences the world around us. “A little bit of autism gives you Silicon Valley,” she quipped in the introduction to her talk. Although her subject was animals’ stress, at the heart, she was explaining different ways of thinking: in words or in pictures.
Animals think in pictures, especially when it comes to determining which elements of their environment are stressful or frightening, Grandin said: “Animals are all about sensory detail, little bits of detail we tend not to notice.” At one point in the talk, she showed a photo of a cow bending forward to investigate a spot of sunlight on the floor of the room where it was about to have a veterinary exam. To a human, this spot would likely seem insignificant, but to the cow, it is a foreign object that needs to be approached with caution.
“Novelty is a strong stressor for animals,” Grandin said, adding that if something visually new is forced in an animal’s face, it’s scary. The cow in the photo needs a few minutes to sniff the sun spot and figure out that it’s harmless; a human trying to force the situation will soon have a frightened, resistant animal to handle. Humans also have to keep in mind that our word-oriented brains may not categorize “novelty” in the same way that an animal does. For instance, an animal that has become accustomed to the sight of a blue-and-white umbrella may still be frightened by an orange tarp, Grandin said. To people, they’re both rain protection, but to a horse or cow, “It’s a different picture!”
Like many children with autism, Grandin began speaking later than most kids, and she still thinks in images more intuitively than words. “I see movies in my imagination, and this helped me understand animals,” she said. She likened her memory to Google Images, explaining that for her, a particular word will pull up many associated images, categorized by type. Her designs for meat-processing plants, now in use in half of the meat-processing facilities in North America, rely on her ability to mentally take a “cattle’s-eye view” of each step in the animal’s journey before slaughter, playing out a movie in her head that shows her where animals could be forced to encounter new things that might frighten them.
As well as describing her own work, Grandin advocated for broader acceptance of different kinds of thinkers, both with and without autism. People may think predominantly in pictures, or in patterns (that’s the math whizzes among us), or in words, she said, and we need educational and employment systems that can nurture and benefit from each of these ways of thinking. “There is too much emphasis on deficits [of children with autism], and not enough on building their strengths,” she said.
Previously: A conversation with autism activist and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, Growing up with an autistic sibling: “My sister has a little cup” and Finding of reduced brain flexibility adds to Stanford research on how the autistic brain is organized
Photo by Rosalie Winard