Temple Grandin is a world-renowned expert in two seemingly unrelated topics: autism and livestock behavior. She uses her unique perspective as a person with autism to gain insights into human and animal behavior, practicing biological anthropology through firsthand observations and visual thinking.
While autism spectrum disorder (ASD) made communication and socializing difficult for Grandin, she says that autism helps her notice tiny, important details that most people overlook. She has advocated for the ASD community and has done incredible scientific work with animals during the course of her career.
Childhood and Education
Born in Boston on August 29, 1947, Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism as a young child. She didn’t start speaking until age four, according to Biography.com. With support from her mother and early intervention, Grandin found ways to manage the difficulties that she faced with communication, social behavior and anxiety. She earned a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and remains in academia at Colorado State University.
As a teenager, Grandin witnessed cattle being handled in a squeeze chute at a relative’s farm. She noticed that animals calmed down when pressure was applied by the chute. This inspired her to invent a device called a “hug machine,” which is a therapeutic tool that provides deep pressure to help with anxiety. In a scientific paper archived on Grandin’s website, she described how the device helped her reduce anxiety and panic attacks, and overcome her sensitivity to human touch.
More Humane Livestock Handling Systems
Grandin’s mind, which she has described in countless books and lectures as “thinking in pictures,” gave her a unique perspective on animal science. According to Elsevier, she noticed the kinds of tiny distractions such as a reflection in a puddle or a nearby waving flag that could spook livestock. She noticed fear tendencies in animals and invented techniques to minimize fear and eliminate panic responses in animals before they’re slaughtered. Her practices are not only more humane, but they also make good business sense because calm animals are more predictable and easier to handle. She has written books and scientific papers about livestock handling, with active research on cows and horses, according to several articles she authored in 2019 listed on Research Gate.
Autism has enabled Grandin to better understand the minds of people and how their thinking styles relate to their scientific abilities, Elsevier points out. She says that people who are visual thinkers are often good at art and building things, although they might struggle with abstract concepts such as math. They are great candidates for scientific careers, such as designing experimental methods.
According to Biography.com, Grandin became nationally known after appearing in Oliver Sacks’s 1995 book, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” which was inspired by Temple Grandin’s description of how she feels in social settings. Grandin has demonstrated the benefits of including diverse minds in science.
“When I look at the methods of an experiment, I see the actual animals, I see the experiment,” Grandin told Elsevier. “So when I review journal articles, I tend to really go over the methods: the sampling procedures, what kind of animals they use. Other people are tearing apart the statistics, and I’ll (notice) they didn’t even tell me what breed of pig they used in the experiment. And that can affect the results in a really bad way.”