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Q&A: Temple Grandin, animal scientist and autism advocate

Q&A: Temple Grandin, animal scientist and autism advocate

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In a recent interview from her field station in Colorado, the renowned animal scientist describes the benefits of 'thinking in pictures,' misunderstandings about autism and what keeps her motivated.

Temple Grandin didn't utter her first word until she was almost four. As a person with autism, she struggled for years with social situations. But now, Grandin is a renowned animal scientist and professor best known for her work in humane livestock handling. She was the subject of an acclaimed 2010 HBO biopic featuring Claire Danes. And she's been named one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people.

In a recent interview from her field station at Colorado State University, Grandin described the benefits of 'thinking in pictures,' misunderstandings about autism and what keeps her motivated. Our talk is excerpted below.

You've said, famously, 'I think in pictures.' What are the benefits of being able to do that?

For certain kinds of work, thinking in pictures is a real benefit. It's a tremendous asset. Different kinds of minds working together complement each other. In my livestock work, thinking in pictures helped me to imagine what it'd be like for the cattle. I immediately thought about what the cattle would see when they'd walk through these chutes. When I first started doing that, people would think I was weird. But when I was in my 20s, I didn't know other people didn't think in pictures. It was kind of a revelation for me to find out that wasn't the case. As a designer, thinking in pictures is a real asset.

For those of us who think in language, can we train our minds to be more like Google Images?

When I ask you to think about a church steeple, how does it come into your mind?

I see an image of a general church steeple.

That's what most people get. Most people get an image of a general one. But if you push yourself, you can see specific ones. For me, I have no general one. I have a slide [I prepared for a talk] with a drawing of a steeple. That's what I see as a general one. But that's still specific. Let's see if you can push yourself. If you push yourself, can you start seeing specific ones?

I can see a few church steeples in my town.

That's right. You've got to push yourself to do it, whereas I don't think any other way.

Do you think it's beneficial for people like me to push themselves to think in pictures?

It's beneficial for people to realize there are different kinds of thinking. Different kinds of thinkers are good at different things. You're a journalist. You're good at writing. I'm terrible at math, but I'm good at visualizations. Look at the Japanese power plant. They made a mistake I would never make. They put their generating equipment in the basement and when it flooded the generators wouldn't run. There's no way I would have put those generators in a non-waterproof basement.

So more visual thinking could avoid mistakes like that?

You need to have both. I visualized design projects for big meatpacking plants. One person lays out the plans and the other has to calculate the right steel to use. You have Steve Jobs the artist, who makes the user experience on the iPhone. The engineers have to make the insides of the phones work. You need both kinds of minds. When I did [go down in cattle chutes] back in the 1970s, people thought it was crazy. But to me, it just seemed obvious because I'm a visual thinker.

What other careers would suit visual thinkers?

Industrial design. Who designs what the case on your printer looks like? Who makes the next shampoo bottle? Visual thinkers are also good at photography. They'd be good at drawing, computer animation, carpentry work, building mechanical devices. There are a lot of things visual thinkers are good at.

You spend a lot of time doing autism outreach and advocacy. Do many people still misunderstand autism?

Autism is such a big spectrum. On one end, you have a kid that's non-verbal. At the other end, you have half the leaders of the biggest Silicon Valley companies. I go to Silicon Valley, which is full of people on the mild end of the autism spectrum, and those people are in great careers. Then I see a 10-year-old kid with mild autism who is not making friends in school. I don't like it when 10-year-olds only want to talk about their autism. I'd rather them tell me about their history project or that they like psychology or art or math. This is one thing I constantly talk about that I'm seeing too much. They might say about someone with autism: ‘He can never shop. He can never learn how to order his own food at McDonald's.' That's just ridiculous. He needs to learn how to order his own food at McDonald's.

I just spent some time with Brazilian cattlemen. One of the men has a friend with an autistic son who is 20. This kid is verbal, but probably not working at quite as high a level as I am. He didn't graduate. He works in a market with all these little shop stalls. He's appreciated because when one of the people there was kidnapped, he was able to remember the car. Now nobody steals anything in that shopping center because they know he'll catch them. He's found a niche. He's appreciated in the community because he's a crime stopper.

How do people with autism achieve success?

It's all about teaching kids skills. Kids need to be stretched and pushed to learn things like table manners. It makes me crazy the number of kids who come up to me and don't know how to shake hands. Nobody taught them to shake hands. That's ridiculous. We've got to start that kind of thing. When kids reach middle school, they need to be doing jobs. I have this book called Different... Not Less, and it's about people on the autism spectrum who got jobs. They all had paper routes when they were 12. There are other things they could do, like walk dogs, volunteer at the farmer's market, run the church newsletter, be a docent at a museum.

You want to take their interest and build on it. I had a mom write to me and say, ‘My kid loves railroad and bus schedules.' The perfect job for him would be at the information kiosk at Grand Central Station where people come to ask about the train schedule. He'd have it all memorized! That would use his ability. We've got to build on that area of strength.

You've been teaching animal science for more than two decades. Do you still do work in the field?

Just last week we did animal auditor training. We do training twice a year. We teach people how to do animal welfare audits at meatpacking plants. I'm not doing as much as I used to. But I was just with the Brazilians today and I'm sitting out at our experiment station at Colorado State right now looking at the cattle. I take my students out here. I've got a curved facility I designed.

Was the HBO movie about you, Temple Grandin, accurate in the way it depicted how you became interested in working with cattle? It showed you visiting your aunt's ranch as a young adult.

That was accurate. Claire Danes became me. All the things I built were accurate. There were some events they compressed and changed around. But everything was totally in character. All the main characters in the movie are real.

I was an easterner. That was my first trip to the west. Boy, I ended up really liking the west. The wide, open spaces. It was less formal and stuffy.

In addition to your cattle work, you also do autism advocacy.

I still do plenty of autism advocacy. I don't want autism to totally take over. I do a lot of autism meetings, a lot of talks. They're for parents and teachers mainly. I try to keep the cattle work around 60 percent. I think it's important that I have a real job. I'm seeing too many students on the higher end of the spectrum where autism becomes their entire life. For me, being a professor comes first. I'm writing book chapters right now in my academic books. Having a real job makes me a better role model for students. I have a book coming out on the autistic brain. They wanted me to do a book tour on top of my animal auditor training and I said ‘no.'

What keeps you motivated?

I had a parent email me the other day. She said, ‘You really motivated my son and he became a cook. He loves it.' That's making real change in the real world.

Photo: Rosalie Winard

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure