OURAY AND SAN MIGUEL COUNTIES –Temple Grandin, whose career spans her development of a hug/squeeze machine while still in high school to her pioneering design work as an animal behaviorist for more humane livestock-handling facilities to her emergence as the world's first ambassador for autism as the best-selling author of Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism (and the subsequent award-winning HBO movie, Temple Grandin, starring Clare Danes), comes to Ouray and San Miguel counties next week.
When asked in an interview how she has managed to be so productive, the no-nonsense Grandin, diagnosed with autism in 1950 at age 3, responded, “I read and read and read and read.
“And I read fast.”
But although an avid reader, Grandin emphasizes that she is a visual – and not a verbal – thinker.
“My mind works like Google for images,” she said in a speech last year at TED, the groundbreaking nonprofit annual ideas conference (the acronym stands for Technology Entertainment Design), one on a list of speakers including former President Bill Clinton and Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates.
For example, she told the 2010 TED audience, when she hears the words “church steeple,” a series of specific pictures of church steeples flash up in her photographic memory, unlike most of us, who envision a generic church steeple, and leave it at that.
'I Was Oversensitive to Both Touch and Sound'
Today almost half of America's beef cattle are processed for slaughter in a center-track restrainer system designed by Grandin, who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's and doctorate in animal science, to make their final experience less terrifying.
Terror was something she experienced early on, as an autistic.
“When I was age 3,” writes Grandin in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, “I had standard autistic symptoms such as intolerance to being touched, inability to speak, tantrums, and stereotypic behavior. I would stiffen and pull away when people touched me, and I was oversensitive to both touch and sound.”
Understanding fear is a theme in Grandin's work, and she has described her hug/squeeze machine as a “deep touch pressure device” developed in the course of her own efforts to “overcome problems of oversensitivity to touch.” It works well, she reported, with “children with autistic disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder,” causing “similar calming reactions…in higher animals,” too.
A childhood love of horses and regular visits to a family ranch in the West led Grandin to a career in animal behavior.
A Powerful Voice for Animal Welfare
At her first stop, on Monday, May 2, for a Cattle Call presentation at the Ouray County Fairgrounds (12-1:30 p.m. ), Grandin “will be talking about basic principles for handling livestock, [and about] things like distractions that scare animals.
“Animals are afraid of things like shadows, or a coat on the fence; they notice all kinds of little things we don't notice,” she said, things she learned by observing the “body signs” animals show when they are scared, like showing of the whites of their eyes and tail-swishing.
Grandin's observations have led her to become a powerful voice for animal welfare, with a focus on “issues about how the animals are raised,” and her current work to improve barnyard conditions for chickens and pigs. On that front, she will discuss her “colony house” project for hens, a step up, as she explains it, from the too-often-cramped conditions in which laying hens now live. Describing the new structures as offering a kind of “apartment living for chickens,” the design will “give egg layers a lot more room.
“It's still a kind of cage system,” she allowed of the new model, but with “a lot more ceiling height, so chickens can walk in a normal posture,” and “a private nest box” in which to lay their eggs.
“Hens really want privacy” when laying, she emphasized, as opposed to being exposed, which leaves them feeling “exposed and scared.”
'We Need to Help Students Who Have Unique Minds to Be Successful'
On Monday afternoon, Grandin heads to Telluride to discuss autism, at the Palm Theater starting at 5:30 p.m., with a book-signing at 7 p.m.
Asked if autism is more prevalent today than in years past, she said that it is “severe autism [that] has actually risen.
“But mild autism – the geeks and the nerds, the mild autistics – they've always been here. There are kids I went to school with,” she added, who would be diagnosed “with mild or severe autism today.”
Grandin is concerned that today's cookie-cutter educational system, with its declining “hands-on” classes autism-spectrum students are most likely to enjoy – drafting, shop and art – is hurting a generation of autism-spectrum thinkers.
“One of the things that really worries me is that the younger versions of those kids today are not going to end up in Silicon Valley, where they belong.
“The autistic mind tends to be a 'specific' mind, good at one thing, and bad at something else,” said Grandin, citing Mozart, Einstein and Nicolas Tesla as examples of the kind of autism-spectrum thinkers who are, she contends, being failed by our educational system today.
“If by some magic autism were erased from the face of the earth,” she once wrote, “then men would still be socializing in front of a wood fire in front of a stone cave.”
Grandin, who logs more than a million miles a year of air travel, largely in the course of her autism-outreach work, said, “I see a lot of smart, nerdy, geeky kids, who just aren't very social,” and whose teachers “are not working in developing their interests.
“We need to get these kids turned on.
“We need to help students who have unique minds to be successful” is the rallying cry for Grandin, who in her early years benefited from speech therapy, attending a structured nursery school and playing turn-based games with a nanny.
Diagnosed as autistic at age 3, she began talking a year later.
In school, however, she found herself the “nerdy kid,” teased by fellow students, who called her “tape recorder” because of her habit of repeating words and phrases over and over again.
“I can laugh about it now,” she said, “but back then it really hurt.” She says she was lucky to have an “unaccredited” high school science teacher, retired from a career with NASA, who developed her interest in science.
But she also laments the loss of a bygone era, in which children were “taught the rules” for various social interactions, “like how to be on time, or table manners.”
As a child, “I was made to do stuff,” she said.
For example: “I didn't want to wear an Easter hat to church” on Easter Sunday, “no.
“But I had to.
“Kids lead too controlled a life today,” she suggested, and can miss out on opportunities like working together to “build a treehouse, to negotiate with the kids, figure out how to work in a group.
“As an autistic kid, [activities like] that really helped me” learn to navigate situations requiring the development of social skills.
In her day, Grandin, said, “I had to learn social skills – like being in a play; you just kind of had to learn it.”
Then as now, on the autism spectrum, she emphasized, “There is no black and white dividing line between autism, Asperger's,” a relatively newly diagnosed and low-level autism-spectrum condition, “and nerds.
“The geeks and nerds that run Silicon Valley that give you all the iPhones and everything are not an aberration,” she emphasized. “There is a point where it's a continuum.
Following her 2010 TED presentation, Grandin was asked whether the parents of autistic-spectrum children will ever know that their children love them.
She didn't miss a beat.
“They will be loyal,” she said, of relatively undemonstrative autism-spectrum children. And their parents can know this, she said, for certain: “If the house burned down, they're going to get you out of it.”
Temple Grandin has authored over 400 articles in both scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design. In addition to Thinking in Pictures, she has written Livestock Handling and Transport, Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals, and Humane Livestock Handling. Two of her books – Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human were on the New York Times best seller list. Grandin speaks at the Ouray County Fairgrounds, in Ridgway, on Monday, May 2, 12-1:30 p.m., and at The Palm, in Telluride, 5:30-7:30 p.m. She meets with interested parents Tuesday, May 3, in the Telluride Middle School cafeteria at 8 a.m.