“…relationships between people are like a glass sliding door. The door must be opened gently, if it is kicked it may shatter.” -Dr. Temple Grandin
Born in 1947, Temple Grandin came into a world that was often dangerous and unwelcoming to neurodivergent people, including folks with autism like herself. Autism was not officially included in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the 1980s. When Grandin was born, autism was largely believed to be caused by unloving, unaffectionate “refrigerator mothers” and treatment was often commitment to an asylum. By the 1960s, a series of exposés of atrocious asylum conditions began to shift public opinion. Psychiatrists and the medical community began to move away from hospitalization and towards community care, though the transition was far from smooth and equitable. The term “autism” itself was originally coined in 1911 by Dr. Eugen Bleuler to describe symptoms of schizophrenia, but was later revised to describe the unconscious development of children. Due to the stigma surrounding neurodivergence, there were few people who were able to successfully speak about their experiences as a person with autism. That is, until Temple Grandin.
As a child Grandin, who did not speak until she was three and a half years old, would fixate on spinning objects (like coins or lids), become enthralled picking at carpet fuzz, and would tend to shy away from human touch. When Grandin’s mother, Eustacia, took her to a neurologist in the 1950s, she was diagnosed with autism and it was recommended that she be placed in a long-term care facility . Instead of keeping with the treatment plans of the time, Eustacia hired a speech therapist and worked to solicit help from teachers and caretakers at school. Grandin regularly credits this early support network as part of the reason she was able to succeed, despite a learning environment that was not inclusive of people like her.
As Grandin navigated childhood and school life, she began to discover that her mind worked differently than her peers. In her book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, she describes the way her mind perceived the world and processed the information around her . She would remember numbers by visualizing them written on a page and remembering them left to right, instead of first to last. In school, subjects that required sequential thinking, like algebra, were challenging for her, while those that required spatial-visual thinking were a breeze. She often became hyper-focused on one subject or task, but would have a hard time filtering auditory information, such as a conversation in a loud restaurant.
When her sensory world in her Boston home became overwhelming, she found relief at her Aunt’s farm in Arizona. One day, she saw a cow being placed in a squeeze chute, a device used to restrain and calm the cow during routine care. Fascinated by the change in the cow’s demeanor, she asked her aunt to let her go inside and found the gentle pressure to be reassuring .
Once she was back in Boston, she brought that reassuring comfort home, building herself a version of the squeeze chute, the “hug box”. She gave it cushioned sides, and a comfortable place to rest her head. She also gave herself a control switch, which allowed her to control the pressure, giving her a sense of security. She would go on to build several versions of her squeeze machine and even went on to write her undergraduate thesis on her device, exploring why it was so effective for her.
Over the years, experiences at her aunt’s ranch and her visual style of thinking allowed Grandin to more easily understand how animals might perceive and process the world around them. Curious about how the animal mind worked, she went on to obtain a masters in Animal Science at Arizona State University and began working as an editor at the Arizona Farmer Ranchman, an agricultural magazine. Here, she was first exposed to the often inhumane conditions in slaughterhouses. The Humane Slaughter Act (HSA), approved in 1958, required that animals be completely sedated in order to minimize suffering of animals prior to slaughter, yet the moments leading up to that sedation were often still traumatizing and stressful. In addition to being inhumane, the animals’ stress led to lower quality meat and less efficient slaughterhouses.
Almost two decades after the HSA was approved, Grandin formed her own consulting firm, to help cattle producers create new methods that minimized a cow’s fear and stress prior to slaughter. But her innovative ideas were not always met with enthusiasm. As she put it, “in the early seventies, being a woman in a man’s industry in Arizona was a much bigger barrier than autism ever was… [she] had to be three times better than a guy.” Over the next two decades, she would become an expert in her field, obtaining a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois in 1989 and consulting with cattle handlers on their animal handling facilities. Over the years, her attention to detail and focus would earn her the respect of much of the cattle industry. By the mid-nineties she was working to improve cattle facilities for some of the largest meat processors, including McDonalds.
Many of the improvements Grandin made over the years she discovered by noticing things her neurotypical peers were overlooking in processing plants, such as metal grates, precarious shadows, or reflective materials, all of which spooked the cattle and slowed down efficiency. Grandin’s spatial-visual skills and intense focus, once considered a hurdle for her, now helped her create novel inventions like the curved cattle chute. This chute reduced cattle getting startled on their way from the pasture into the processing plants, by preventing them from seeing too far ahead. Her inventions are now implemented in over half of the animal processing plants in the United States .
A view of Grandin’s curved cattle chute and blueprints [Source].
Dr. Grandin continues her animal welfare work as a professor in the animal science program at Colorado State University. She is also an autism awareness advocate and continues to write books about autism, science, and animals (see resources below).
However, it is worth noting that Grandin’s experiences with autism and views on autism are not universal. One of the issues that has been raised is her continued use of terminology such as “high” and “low functioning.” It’s worth quickly unpacking why these labels can be harmful.
For one, people who have been labeled as “high functioning” may have a harder time accessing the resources they need. For example, if their workplace has labeled them as high functioning, they may be denied resources or accommodations, such as a quiet work space that meets their sensory-processing needs or the provision of written rather than oral instructions. Furthermore, folks who have been labeled as high functioning may have their voices dismissed by others who don’t believe they are “autistic enough” to contribute to a conversation. Conversely, people who have been labeled “low functioning” may be denied autonomy. They may be assumed to be incapable of understanding because they do not rely on verbal communication.
Ultimately, labels like high and low functioning are poor descriptors of people’s abilities, which may vary from task to task or even day to day. In fact, these only serve to highlight how, despite advances in our diagnosis and awareness of people with autism, society relies on labels to quickly determine whether someone will be able to “get by” in a world that is not inclusive of everyone’s needs to succeed. The acceptance of neurodiversity should not be dependent on an individual’s abilities to contribute economically or intellectually and we as a society are still learning how to accommodate the diverse needs of everyone .
Dr. Grandin uses her “thinking in pictures” mind to help others glimpse into the minds of animals and her abilities as a writer also offer a glimpse into her own. She has broken into the mainstream through books, movies, TedTalks, and she was even featured in Time Magazine as a Hero in their 2010 edition of the Time’s 100 Most Influential People issue. Our understanding of people with autism is still expanding, however, there is a wide gap between understanding and acceptance. It is clear that there is still a ways to go concerning the acceptance and inclusion of neurodivergent people in science and beyond, but thanks to scientists like Dr. Grandin, we are able to learn more about the minds of others, both human and animal alike.
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?
Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers this Animal Adventure Thursday!
Check out Temple Grandin’s book list about autism, understanding animal minds, and improving animal welfare.
Watch Temple Grandin’s TEDTalk.
Check out actor Claire Danes portray Grandin’s early life in the movie “Temple Grandin.”
WANT TO CHECK OUT SOME OF TEMPLE GRANDIN’S PUBLISHED WORK?
 Grandin T. (1992) An Inside View of Autism. In: Schopler E., Mesibov G.B. (eds) High-Functioning Individuals with Autism. Current Issues in Autism. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-2456-8_6
 Grandin, T. (n.d.). About Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin, Ph.D. https://www.templegrandin.com/
 Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Second Vintage Books.
 Grandin, T. (n.d.). Livestock Handling Systems, Cattle Corrals, Stockyards, and Races. Dr. Temple Grandin’s Website. https://www.grandin.com/design/design.html
Kirsten Sheehy is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis who is committed to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia. She is exploring animal personality and behavioral plasticity using the Amazon molly, Poecilia formosa—a super rad species of genetically clonal and all female fish!
Waltz, M. M. (2015). Mothers and Autism: The Evolution of a Discourse of Blame. AMA J Ethics, 17(4), 353-358.
Evans, B. (2013). How autism became autism: The radical transformation of a central concept of child development in Britain. History of the human sciences, 26(3), 3–31.
Harmond, R. (Host). (December 1o, 2020). Why the World Needs All Kinds of Minds, with Dr. Temple Grandin (39) [Audio podcast episode]. In Autism Knows No Borders. Global Autism. https://www.autismknowsnoborders.com/e/39-why-the-world-needs-all-kinds-of-minds-with-dr-temple-grandin/ Hauser, M. (2010). Temple Grandin. Time. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1984685_1984949_1985222,00.html
[Edited by Karli Chudeau]