Famed animal and autism expert rides through Dillon

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Temple on the mount

Dr. Temple Grandin emphasizes a point during her keynote address this month at the Of Horse, Human and Nature conference in Dillon. See related story page 9. M.P. Regan photo

Temple Grandin spent the earliest years of her life shrouded in a fog of autism that kept her from effectively communicating with others.

“I was a severely autistic as a little child. I didn’t talk until the age of four,” Grandin told the Dillon Tribune in an interview leading up to her keynote address at this month’s Of Horse, Human and Nature conference at the Montana Center for Horsemanship in Dillon.

“A lot of people didn’t think I’d amount to much,” admitted Grandin, who during her remarkable life and career has amounted to a whole heck of a lot—a successful business owner; the author of more than a dozen books and dozens of published academic papers; earner of a master’s degree and a doctorate in animal sciences; one of the country’s Top Ten College Professors, according to CEO World magazine, for her work teaching at Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences (which this spring opened The Temple Grandin Equine Center); an innovator in agricultural practices; an energetic advocate for people with autism; the subject of an Emmy-award-winning film produced by HBO; and a member of Time magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

“I wanted to prove I could do things,” recalled Grandin of the determination she gained during her difficult youth, a drive that has helped her to do many things very well—and in some cases, things that no one else had done before.

Grandin’s debut book, “Emergence: Labeled Autistic,” compelled famed neurologist and bestselling author Oliver Sacks to comment, “In 1986, a quite extraordinary, unprecedented and, in a way, unthinkable book was published, Temple Grandin’s “Emergence: Labeled Autistic.” Unprecedented because there had never before been an ‘inside narrative’ of autism; unthinkable because it had been medical dogma for 40 years or more that there was no ‘inside,’ no inner life, in the autistic, extraordinary because of its extreme (and strange) directness and clarity. Temple Grandin’s voice came from a place which had never had a voice.”

More than three decades on from the publication of her first book, Grandin continues to use her unique voice to communicate across a variety of media about her experiences with autism and animal behavior—at the intersection of which she’s gained remarkable insights that have helped many farmers and ranchers run more humane and more efficient and more profitable operations.

“Temple Grandin put an understanding of autism and animals—cows and horses and other animals—how they think, how they feel, how they see—on the global map,” said Janet Rose, the director of development, communications and strategic partnerships for the Dillonbased Montana Center for Horsemanship that brought Grandin to town this month to deliver the keynote address at its Of Horse, Humans and Nature.

“Temple has made it possible for us to treat animals better because of her understanding, her science, her research, the books she’s written, the lectures she’s given. Ranches all over the United States have adopted a lot of her recommended practices. Because as an autistic person, she sees the way animals see. She knows what they fear; she knows what makes them feel more comfortable,” said Rose of Grandin, whose innovations include the designing of “The Hug Machine” to reduce anxiety in people with autism and curved corrals to limit stress and injury related to panic responses in livestock.

“And when animals are less fearful and more comfortable, they live better and they produce better,” added Rose of the impact of some of Grandin’s innovative designs that Cargill became the first company to embrace, leading to a quick spike in the quality of its meat production and Forbes’ magazine’s publication of the article, “How Temple Grandin Changed the Food Industry Forever” in 2016.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication,” of a condition that the Centers for Disease Control estimates affects nearly 2% of the people in the U.S.

“The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior. The term ‘spectrum’ in autism spectrum disorder refers to the wide range of symptoms and severity.”

Some people with autism, like Grandin, see the world in pictures instead of words.

“It was a shock for me when I was in my 30s I discovered not everyone thought in pictures,” Grandin explained to the Tribune of a way of thinking she shares with animals and many others with autism that helped inspire her advances in animal handling practices.

“One of the things they found in the brain scans, and I discussed that in one of my books, ‘The Autistic Brain,’ is that I have huge circuits for visual thinking. Everything I think about is a picture. That helps me with animals, because they don’t think in words; they think in sensory terms,” added Grandin.

“They are more attuned to what they see, hear, feel. They are sensory based instead of word based. I have seen cattle feel a low pressure system storm coming, 12 hours out,” said Grandin, who ranks appreciating how animals think visually as opposed to verbally as the key to gaining greater understanding of their behavior and management.

“I am an extreme visual thinker. Another autistic kid might be a mathematical thinker, think in patterns; this is the kid who is going to be good at computer programming. That’s not me—I tried computer programming and couldn’t do it. Also, I can’t do algebra. I see algebra requirements screening out a lot of visual thinkers like me, and we’re the kind of people who start metal fabrication shops,” said Grandin, who realized early in her career as a successful agricultural equipment designer that many of the accomplished professionals she interacted with also worked through challenges similar to hers.

“When I was working on the big meat packing plants installing equipment, things I had designed, I worked with brilliant welders, designers, people that had metal fabrication companies with whole bunches of patents, and I estimated that maybe 20% or so of them were autistic or dyslexic or had ADHD,” commented Grandin, who believes recognizing the abilities in people who might be dismissed due to such issues not only costs those people the chance to lead more productive lives, but hampers the entire country’s economy.

“The autism spectrum is such a big spectrum. When the kids are little—and I was really terrible when I was three—you have some that are full verbal, you have some that socially awkward and there’s no speech delay,” said Grandin, who sees some of the most successful business people in the world as fellow residents along the autism spectrum.

“And then you’ve got someone who never learns to dress himself and is nonverbal at the other end of the spectrum,” added Grandin.

“But even ones who are nonverbal are capable of doing things—putting up a fence, working on a ranch, typing by themselves, open up their possibilities,” said Grandin.

“We’re losing people like that with valuable skills. If you want to buy a state-of-the-art poultry processing plant right now, it will come to you in a hundred shipping containers from Holland. Because the kids who should be growing up and making this stuff are playing video games in the basement,” asserted Grandin.

“Also, I know people with autism are very good at handling cattle and very good at training horses. Because they don’t think in words and horses don’t think in words,” said Grandin, author or co-author of over five dozen wellregarded academic papers, including 1997’s “Feedlot Cattle with Calm Temperaments Have Higher Average Daily Gains Than Cattle with Excitable Temperaments” and 2003’s “Transferring Results of Behavioral Research to Industry to Improve Animal Welfare on the Farm, Ranch and Slaughter Plant.”

Struggling to effectively interact with other students in her youth, Grandin found purpose working with animals.

“When I was back East, I was at a boarding student that had horses. I was a terrible student. They put me to work running a horse barn, so every day for three years I cleaned the stalls, put the horses in and out, and fed them, and so I learned how to work. Because another big problem I’m seeing with kids who are different is they are just not learning any work skills,” said Grandin, who believes people with autism can be uniquely well suited for particular jobs

“And then I had a great science teacher who finally got me interested in studying by giving me interesting projects and making studying a pathway to a goal of becoming a scientist. Then I had a reason to study,” said Grandin, who has provided an immense return on the time her early mentors invested in her by ‘paying it forward’ to young people, animals and the agricultural industry.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of mentors. My mother, my science teacher, my aunt,” said Grandin of the aunt who invited her to spend time at her small ranch, altering the course of her life and ultimately the course of ranching practices.

“My first trip out West was in high school. I went to Arizona to my aunt’s ranch. That was the first time I’d been in the West. I was an absolutely horse-crazy teenager, showing and riding horses. They had plenty of horses at my aunt’s ranch. Then I also got introduced to cattle industry and also to the West. And I really, really liked the West,” said Grandin, who spent most of her childhood in New England, but almost her entire adulthood in the West.

“And so after I graduated from college back East, I went to graduate school at Arizona State University. I originally started out as a psych major and then switched over to an animal science major,” Grandin told the Tribune.

“This brings up a really important thing about how people get into careers—you get into things you’ve been exposed to. And then you decide whether you’re going to like it or whether you’re not going to like it. I decided I liked it compared to back in New England. I really liked the landscape. They had lots of cattle there,” recalled Grandin,

“As a teenager, horses were a very big part of my life. I wrote an article called, ‘How Horses Helped a Teenager with Autism Make Friends and Learn How to Work,’” recalled Grandin, who interacted with horses regularly during her time attending high school on the East Coast.

“That was when I was in high school, and horses were a very important part of my life. They were one of the few places I could go where I had friends. I was bullied a lot in high school. I had friends riding horses; and I had friends in electronics lab and friends in bottle rocket club—and everywhere else I got bullied. So I really want to emphasize the importance of having friends with shared interests. When I was a teenager, horses were my world, and they helped me a whole lot,” said Grandin, who uses the bully pulpit of her renown to advocate for kids who, like her younger self, may find themselves misunderstood, underappreciated and underdeveloped.

“I always emphasize to parents of kids who are different—get them involved in stuff where they can share their interests, because that is where they can make friends,” declared Grandin, who speaks with a unique directness and the authority of someone who earned her insights through hard study, hard work and hard experience—and is eager to share those insights with others.

A highly sought-after public speaker and interviewee, the seemingly tireless 74-year-old Grandin travels the country to deliver dozens of presentations each year, including the pair she offered in Dillon this month.

And to answer any questions in her unique, forthright manner, posed by those who come to hear her speak.

“As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, do you have advice,” a mother of an autistic teenager asked Grandin at the conference in Dillon during its Q&A session.

“What are his strengths?” wondered Grandin, who rates the Q&A sessions as her favorite part of giving public presentations.

“He likes wood working and machining and anything he can do with his hands,” replied the mother.

“He needs to be a mechanic,” insisted Grandin, who takes a direct, seemingly personal interest in the young people she advocates for.

“I want to get him right into a shop,” said Grandin, a strong proponent of teaching young people traditional skills and trades, as well as for the inclusion of subjects like cooking, mechanics and the arts on a school’s curriculum.

“That’s where he needs to go,” answered Grandin, who emphasized the importance of challenging students facing internal challenges, to help them gain confidence and find a path forward to a productive life.

“I had a great science teacher who finally got me interested in studying by giving me interesting projects and making studying a pathway to a goal of becoming a scientist. Then I had a reason to study,” Grandin told the Tribune of the impact of William Carlock, a teacher at the boarding school she attended in New Hampshire.

“Has he ever taken a programming class? He might be very good at that,” Grandin asked the mom of the autistic teen at the Dillon conference.

“And what about video game playing—does he have that under control?” wondered Grandin.

“He doesn’t play them,” replied the mother. “Good! I’m glad he hates them. Good!! I’ve seen too many problems from kids getting so addicted to video games that they’re just going nowhere,” said the plainspoken Grandin, never one to shy away from speaking her mind.

“I think that video games are a really big problem, limiting video games. I don’t recommend banning them, but if you’ve got a kid who’s spending eight hours a day playing video games. And the problem is the kids playing video games all day are not becoming game designers—they’re just playing video games,” said Grandin, who admitted to dabbling in video games in her youth.

“The games today are so addictive. The games from my generation, like Mario Brothers, they just weren’t that addictive. They just weren’t like the games you’ve got now,” Grandin told the Tribune.

“The older games would break all the time, and then you’d see all these blue screens full of computer code. And that would get kids interested in the programming,” recalled Grandin.

“I just want to help these kids who are different to be successful,” said Grandin.

“Going forward, encouraging young people to be successful, that is what I want to do.”