Temple Grandin: Thinking Like a Cow, and Succeeding

A video of Temple Grandin's presentation at SLC is available below

Temple Grandin stood in a feedlot with a herd of cattle. The animals were refusing to enter the gate to the veterinary facility, and no one could figure out why.

Grandin has autism, and she thinks in pictures rather than words—“kind of like Google for images,” she says. She processes information in the same way animals do, she says, and as a result she understands cattle the way few other people can.

Grandin noticed a big flag whipping in the wind near the gate, and saw that its rapid movements and high contrast were frightening the animals. Once the flag was removed, the problem was solved—saving the owner the cost of building a new facility. “Sometimes the simplest, most obvious thing is not what people see,” Grandin notes.

Grandin is widely regarded as the most famous person with autism today. On September 23, she spoke to an overflowing crowd at Sarah Lawrence, giving the annual Longfellow Lecture sponsored by the Child Development Institute. Though Grandin’s autism has posed significant challenges in both her personal and professional life, thinking in pictures and being hyper-aware of sight and sound has helped her become a top animal scientist.

She designed a curved corral that reduces animals’ anxiety as they are led to slaughter, and her humane designs are used to handle half the cattle in the US. A professor of animal science at Colorado State University, she also consults for firms like Burger King, Swift, and McDonald's. HBO recently released a biopic about her, in which Grandin was portrayed by Claire Danes; the film garnered a staggering 15 Emmy nominations and seven wins.

But Grandin is quick to defer admiration to those she credits for her success. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of really good teachers,” she said, frequently reiterating the necessity of early intervention for autistic children.

Though the severity and symptoms of autism range broadly from child to child, Grandin’s problems were primarily related to her non-verbal thinking. She didn't talk until she was 3 ½ years old, communicating instead through screams of frustration and animal-like hums and peeps. Because the autistic brain processes information more slowly, shifting attention between two different things was also very difficult for her.

But mentors like her childhood nanny and high school science teacher recognized that the intensity of her fixations on certain subjects and activities could be used to motivate her to expand her interests. “There is resistance to change” in autistic children, Grandin said, “but you’ve got to do some pushing so they don’t stay stuck in a rut. The key is how much you push.”

The lessons she learned as a child on taking turns, sharing activities, and solving tactical problems also forced her to learn to engage with other people, instead of reverting into her autistic fixations and solitude. Her mother taught her invaluable—and non-negotiable—lessons in social decorum, she said. “Being eccentric and different is okay, but you can’t be a filthy, dirty slob,” Grandin joked.

It is imperative to help students with unique minds become successful, Grandin said, eliciting applause from the audience.  She asserted that too much emphasis has been placed on autistic students’ deficits, and she challenged the audience to think about how to cultivate these students’ strengths so they could become contributing members of society.

And there are plenty of contributions to be made. People with autism are particularly good at solving practical problems, Grandin said, suggesting that they could be instrumental in addressing environmental challenges, such as the BP oil spill.

“We’ve got to figure out how to get different kinds of minds to work together. We need the different kinds of minds.” Grandin herself is a good example why.