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Temple Grandin: Scientist, Activist, Pioneer

by Lauren Clark

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., considers herself foremost a scientist. She sees her autism as a strength and an asset: Her ability to think in pictures enables her to make new discoveries and gives her a valuable perspective different from that of her peers. And that perspective allows her to continue pioneering in the fields of animal behavior and autism. Whitworth University was honored to bring Grandin to its campus and to the Spokane community on Feb. 19-20, 2016, for a series of lectures sponsored by the Whitworth Center for Gifted Education and the university's special education department.

Q. You wrote The Autistic Brain, about different kinds of minds and how they work together in different ways. Could you elaborate on that?

A. I'm a visual thinker. I think in photo-realistic pictures. And when I was really young I thought everybody thought in photo-realistic pictures. Then I found in interviewing people about how they think that some people think more in words. But then there's a third group where they think in patterns. And when I worked on my book The Autistic Brain, I was very, very happy to find out that there were scientific journal articles that supported object-visual thinking being different from pattern-mathematical thinking. There actually are two types of visual spatial thinking. And these two types of thinking can work well together. You take the iPhone, for example. The interface was made by an artist. Steve Jobs was an artist. He was not a programmer. Then the engineers had to figure out how to make the phone's insides work. So that's an example of the different kinds of minds working together, and I discuss that in detail in my book. And when it gets to autism, a little bit of autism gives the ability of an artist or a programmer. Too much of the trait and you get a very, very severe handicap.

Q. What are the misconceptions that people have about autism?

A. Well, the problem you've got with autism now [is that] doctors keep changing the diagnostic label. Autistic diagnoses and other kinds of behavioral diagnoses are behavioral profiles. They're half based in science and half based on squabbles in conference rooms. Nobody sits in a conference room squabbling about how to diagnose tuberculosis. That has got very specific laboratory tests that you do. So, over the years, they kept changing the diagnosis. It used to be that in order to be labeled autistic, a kid had to have speech delay, obviously, and to be socially awkward – not very good socially. Then, in the early '90s, they added in Aspergers [syndrome]. No speech delay, but the kid is socially awkward. Now today, they put them together. So you have this huge spectrum going from guys who ought to be working in Silicon Valley, gifted students, to kids who can't dress themselves. And it all has the same name. And I'm seeing bad situations where I see a smart kid who maybe ought to be in a gifted class [but] ends up put in a special-ed classroom with nonverbal kids who aren't potty-trained. Well that's not going to help that kid go places. People get too hung up on the labels and not enough hung up on what the kid can do... there's almost no overlap between the autism world and the gifted world.

Q. How did other kids treat you as a child, and how did you react?

A. I was bullied and teased horribly in ninth grade. I retaliated by getting in fights. I got kicked out of high school for that, ended up going to a special boarding school for gifted kids with emotional problems. You've got to remember, this was the early '60s, so everything was "emotional problems." And I didn't do very much studying, but boy did I learn how to work. And I basically took care of the horse barn, cleaned eight stalls every single day, and I think [my teacher] realized that I was learning work skills. I'm seeing a lot of kids today who are not learning those skills. Then I had a great science teacher who got me interested in science by giving me interesting science projects, and that gave me a motivation to study because now I wanted to be an experimental psychologist working on optical illusions, and I got interested in that because I saw it in a science movie.

Q. What about the hugging machine that you created? Can you tell us more about why you developed it?

A. When I got into puberty, I started having horrendous panic attacks. A lot of us visual thinkers tend to have a lot of anxiety, especially the artists and visual thinkers. Exercise helped, but I also found that pressure helped and I got the idea from a cattle squeeze shoot, which you use to hold cattle still for vaccinations. So I built a squeezing machine I could get into that would help calm me down. Another thing that's really helped with the anxiety is a low dose of anti-depressant medication. I've worked with a lot of really creative designers on various projects in the meat industry. A lot of these visual thinkers, they're taking Prozac, too, and it helps keep them off the drugs and the alcohol. Visual thinkers and artists, we tend to be the panic monsters, and a little bit of anti-depressant stopped it... I learned from a brain scan that my fear center is three times larger than normal, and anti-depressants should be called 'anti-fear drugs' because they totally calm down a fear response. It has to be a low dose. If you get too high a dose, you get agitation and insomnia. That's the big mistake – often the label doses for depression are way too high. You've got to do a really low dose. I explain that in Thinking with Pictures, and even though that book is over 20 years old, it's still accurate. The medications have not changed that much. New ones are mostly what is called 'patent extenders' and the old drugs work just fine.

Q. What are you working on now in terms of your research?

A. Well I had [a student] just finish up a big survey on handling practices in large feed yards. This is a place where there have definitely been improvements. You see a lot of undercover videos and bad stuff online. I've been around for a long time. Some of the videos they've got online now, they're training videos compared to some of the stuff that I saw.

Q. You've worked a long time to change the way people approach animal handling. How has that improved over the years?

A. People were very rough with cattle in the '70s. Electric prods all over them, screaming at them, hitting them, just absolutely terrible. Things are much better today. There's a lot of people out now teaching about low-stress stockmanship. People are getting much more interested in handling animals right. There's a lot of scientific research now showing very clearly that animals [who are mistreated] are afraid of people, gain less weight, have less reproduction. There are good economic reasons to handle animals right, and it's also the right thing to do because animals do feel fear and pain. Another issue for me [is that], in the '70s, when I got started, being a woman in a man's world was not easy. That was much harder than some of the other things. As it was shown in the HBO movie, people put bull testicles on my car. That actually happened. Some of the stuff they call sexual harassment today is mild compared to some of the things that I went through.

Q. Your life is very full with research, teaching, speaking at conferences, and much more, but if you have free time, what do you enjoy doing?

A. Well, I like movies. I went and saw the latest Star Wars movie and you know what I liked about that movie? The young people need us old people. That's what I like about that movie. And I went and saw Gravity, Avatar... those are the kinds of movies I really like. Those are movies that you definitely need to see in the theater. There are others you can watch on the plane, but not those movies. I [also] saw The Martian. Great movie, and the thing I liked is, I looked into the history of that movie. That started out as a computer programmer's blog. People started reading it online and then it was put on a 99-cent Amazon Kindle sale, and it took off. There are all kinds of platforms today where talented people can promote their stuff, platforms that are free. And that book and movie are really good examples of that. You take the kids out there that are kind of different. They can show off their writing online. They can show off their artwork, their computer coding online. Let's talk about where we have shortages of jobs. Auto mechanics, diesel mechanics, welders... there are shortages. Those are great jobs for visual thinkers. There's also a shortage right now in coders, people who can just do coding. Guess what? The classes for coding are free online. These are the sorts of things I always tell parents. Your hot languages today are Javascript - that makes Minecraft work, C++, Ruby and Python. You learn those, put them up online on computer forums. But I want to caution you – it's your portfolio. Only put the good stuff up; don't put the rubbish up. You might want to test drive your artwork, your programming, with knowledgeable people before you post it.

Q. Are there movies that you don't enjoy?

A. I don't want to see stuff with really graphic violence and I want to make a differentiation. If someone shoots someone with a laser and it breaks up the wall and the person falls down, that's cartoon violence. What's bad is graphic depictions of cruelty. I will read movie reviews and I'm like, 'I don't need that one. I don't want those images in my head.'

Q. You said that from an early age you had artistic talent, and it was something that was encouraged in you. At this point in your life, how do you stay creative?

A. I'm actually past retirement age. And I want to get kids turned on [to possible lifetime careers/pursuits]. As Jane Goodall has lectured for years and years and years, you've got to get the young ones interested. And I want to see little kids succeed. So I'm at a stage in my career where I'm going to talk about it, to try to get other kids turned on and help them be successful.

Q. How would you define your an ideal day?

A. Well, an ideal day is one when I've talked to a lot of people and I think it's made a difference. I had several parents come up to me, saying my talks and my books have made a difference in their lives. I think that's really important. And the work I've done with animals [is important to me]. Back in 1999, I implemented the McDonald's animal-welfare program that resulted in great improvements in the meatpacking industry. It's a whole lot better today than it used to be. That's something that makes a difference. It's making a difference in a positive way.


Watch a video of the full Temple Grandin interview.