Colorado State Programs & People
Updated April 2008 (originally published April 2006)
Temple Grandin, animal sciences professor at Colorado State University since 1990, is considered a leader in animal welfare and one of the world's most accomplished and well-known adults with high-functioning autism.
A passionate and influential animal advocate, Temple Grandin is known for explaining how animals think. Her book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2005, Scribner), spent weeks on The New York Times national nonfiction best sellers list.
A popular guest speaker with a travel schedule rivaling any celebrity, Grandin has been featured on major television programs such as ABC's Primetime Live and 20/20, CBS's 48 Hours, CNN's Larry King Live, NBC's Today Show, and has been featured in People magazine, The New York Times, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and Time magazine. Bravo cable television network did a half-hour show on her life. Interviews with her have also been broadcast on National Public Radio.
A professional livestock facility designer and consultant for large corporations, including McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Swift, Grandin teaches popular courses on livestock behavior, handling and animal welfare. She mentors and advocates for students who might otherwise lack the inspiration and motivation to succeed.
Today, at least half of all cattle in the United States and Canada, as well as many in other countries, are handled in humane slaughter systems designed by Grandin. Her animal welfare guidelines have become the gold standard in the $80 billion meat-packing industry.
However, Grandin is considered autistic. She thinks in pictures rather than words, lacks complex emotion and is hypersensitive to noise and other sensory stimuli. She was called names like "retard" as a child and was kicked out of high school for fighting.
In 1950, Grandin was labeled autistic and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. Good thing they didn’t follow that advice.
Little was known about autism when Grandin was a child in Boston. Despite exhibiting autistic traits such as emotional distance, rocking and fixation, professionals did not recognize her condition as autism for several years. She didn’t talk until she was almost 4 years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping and humming.
She was placed in a structured nursery school and considers herself lucky to have had determined parents, good teachers and supporting mentors throughout her schooling. Grandin is particularly grateful to Bill Carlock, her high school science teacher and mentor. She credits Carlock with helping her develop unique strengths through science experiments. Carlock opened his home to Grandin on the weekends and took the time to successfully develop her problem-solving skills and provide the necessary motivation for her to study.
She eventually attended a special boarding school with dairy cows and a stable with horses for the students to ride - and that experience eventually led to Grandin’s career in animal behavior. "Animals saved me," Grandin says.
Surpassing all expectations, Grandin received her bachelor’s in psychology in 1970 from Franklin Pierce College, a small liberal arts school in southwestern New Hampshire. She went on to receive her master's in animal science from Arizona State University in 1975 and her Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois in 1989.
Today, Grandin, 60, is comfortable in mainstream society, but her autism has been a constant challenge. On a daily basis, sensory overload is one of her biggest struggles. She describes hypersensitivity to loud noise and other sensory stimuli such as scratchy clothing, sudden movements or extreme changes in lighting.
Grandin became well known after being profiled by neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in his book, An Anthropologist On Mars. The title of the book comes from Grandin’s self-description of how she feels being unable to interpret social signals and of feeling mystified by cultural assumptions that allow most people to function with ease.
She thinks in terms of specific pictures - words are like a second language. She describes her thinking as having full-color movies playing in her head. Words are instantly translated into pictures. She has likened her mind to "Google for Images" – if you put in a key word, it pulls up pictures.
"I was nearly paralyzed with anxiety as a child," Grandin recalls. At age 18, she invented an anxiety relieving squeeze or hug machine. While on vacation at her aunt’s ranch in Arizona, Grandin noticed cattle being placed inside a contraption shaped like a "V" to keep them still during vaccinations. She noticed the cattle appeared almost serene when they were in the machine, so she got in the squeeze chute herself and found that the pressure helped calm her down.
With the help of a teacher, she eventually built her own squeeze machine, which she still uses. For Grandin and other children whose nervous systems seem to operate in hyper-drive, the simple pressure provides a calming release. The same kinds of devices are now being used at many schools specializing in autistic children.
Grandin's acute visual thinking has allowed her to create entire livestock handling facilities in her imagination. She has successfully designed equipment ranging from her own personal squeeze machine to corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter.
She figured out that cattle would move more easily through a livestock handling facility with curved lanes because it makes use of cattle's natural circling behavior. One of her first designs was for a curved lane leading into a dip vat at John Wayne’s Red River feed yard in Arizona.
She later began successfully applying the curved lane design to systems for meat-packing plants. Though she had little experience with drawing in perspective, she was able to create elaborate blueprints. Drawing skills often appear in young autistic children, perhaps as a compensation for their lack of verbal skills.
Grandin advises people having a problem with an animal to try to see what the animal is seeing and experience what the animal is experiencing. Anything in the sensory realm can upset an animal. Things like smells, exposure to new experiences and change in routine can upset an animal.
Students in Grandin's undergraduate livestock handling class cite the practical application of her lectures and insights. Jamie Cohn, a CSU junior majoring in animal and equine sciences, said that Grandin's first lecture of the semester immediately helped her understand her horse better. "I now realize my horse isn’t stupid at times, just reacting to something in the environment."
Grandin is now focusing her life's work on transferring knowledge to future generations. She is also committed to helping develop the talents of other autistic individuals. While CSU classes remain a priority, much of her time is currently spent traveling to share her animal behavior and autism expertise.
The leading publisher on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Future Horizons, awards funds annually through the "Temple Grandin Award" to recognize the accomplishments of those who have been diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome.
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