Not An Affliction But A Gift

By:Allison Salisbury Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration a-gift

An autistic visual thinker and an expert on animal behavior, Temple Grandin has designed humane handling systems for half the cattle-processing facilities in the United States and consults with the meat industry to develop animal welfare guidelines. PETA says, “Dr. Grandin's improvements to animal-handling systems found in slaughterhouses have decreased the amount of fear and pain that animals experience in their final hours, and she is widely considered the world's leading expert on the welfare of cattle and pigs.”

As an author, Grandin’s books about her interior life as an autistic person have increased the world's understanding of the condition. She is revered by members of the autistic community, because she is a voice for those who are sometimes challenged to be heard.

She credits her autism with her ability to “understand” livestock. She visually understands what makes them balk - rapid movement, contrast, and other distractions. Recently HBO released “Temple Grandin” a movie that documents her life as an autistic woman who, with a supportive family and brilliant teachers, broke into the slaughter industry, when men were the norm.

I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Grandin about her life, her accomplishments, and her thoughts on autism in general.

Talk about some of the barriers you have faced and how you have broken through them – both in business and in life.

a-gift Well in my professional life, women were not welcome in the cattle industry in the 1970s so I learned how to sell my work and not myself. I was determined. People thought I was a little different but when I built my systems they worked. You have to have things that work. When people saw pictures of things that I had designed, they would go, ‘ooh – wow, maybe we ought to pay attention to that.’ I also had to make myself very knowledgeable - that took a lot of effort.

I am appalled at the lack of good science teachers and that we are taking a lot of the hands-on classes out of the schools. -Temple Grandin

I have designed some good cattle handling systems. I designed the center cut restrainer system that is used in all the big plants. There are two things that will improve the industry—better equipment and better management. For management, I developed a very simple scoring system for evaluating the efficiencies of meat plants. Instead of saying things are wrong, I developed a system where you can evaluate systems based on how many cattle fell down, how many cattle were mooing their heads off, how many cattle got poked with the electric prodder, how many cattle were not stunned right? I can count these things with my scoring system.

What connections have you made between autism and the cattle industry?

My visual thinking helped me with the cattle industry stuff because animals think in sensory ways. I wrote about how animals think in pictures, they think in sounds, they think in touch sensation. Animals are sensory based thinkers. I am also a sensory based thinker. The way I think helps me understand animals. That’s the connection.

How can we better tap into visual thinking skills in the education of children with autism?

If a child is a visual thinker you have got to incorporate drawing, Legos, and other visual things. We need to be building that strength. My mother really emphasized my interest in drawing. She did everything she could to encourage that. We need to be looking at what kinds of jobs these kids can have when they grow up—graphic design, photography, industrial design—fields that really use visual thinking skills.

The movie did a great job of showing how I think in pictures. The word “horse” is said and a whole bunch of different horse pictures come up. When I design things it is the same – I can actually test run them in my head. Another kid might be a mathematics kid, so you work on the math. We have to build on the area of strength. Kids need to be working on their work skills young. a-gift

What innovations would you like to see for children living with autism?

It varies with the severity of the autism. It could be anyone from a Silicon Valley computer person to someone that’s got epilepsy is non-verbal and has lots of medical problems.

My big concern is for those smart kids where they don’t have a science teacher. I had a great science teacher that got me interested in studying. I am appalled at the lack of good science teachers and that we are taking a lot of the hands-on classes out of the schools. Those are the classes where some of these kids can really excel—you know, wood shop, art, auto mechanics, music—a lot of these specialized things have been taken out of schools because we’ve just got to study for the test. I believe you can work material for the tests into these classes.

How can we improve the way that we work with children in schools in light of budget cuts and program cuts?

Sometimes the best teachers are the quirky teachers. Mr. Carlock, my high school science teacher, was so interesting and he was a NASA space scientist. He had interesting things to do in his lab and that got me interested. All of the projects in the movie were actual projects from original drawings—the dip vat to the optical illusion room—it was all how I originally made it. You have got to tap into what these students are interested in and then you’ve got to broaden it. So if a kid likes race’ve got to do some math with race cars, look at the history of race cars, write about race cars. You must tap into that interest and use it.

Discuss the research-based correlations between autistic behaviors and diet?

While diet is very variable, I think it definitely helps people. Some people are helped by the wheat-free and dairy-free diets. Cutting out the sugar and carbs can be important too. I have personally cut out tons of sugars and have cut the wheat. It’s made a big difference in my health and how I feel. But it is important to note, that for other people, changing the diet doesn’t work. I think everybody ought to try it.

I am proud of things I have done in livestock and in autism that have made real change out in the real world. - Temple Grandin

Who has inspired you in your life?

It depends on when and why. When I was in high school it was my science teacher. Another person who helped me was Ann out at the ranch. Good teachers and mentors are instrumental.

How has collaboration played a role in your success?

I’ve had some great people I’ve worked with and I’ve had some great students who have been good at the things that I am not so good at. I have a student right now that can do all the statistics, something I’m not good at. We make a good team. The visual thinker is good at thinking up experiments and then there are those that are really good at doing the experiments. Those people working together in teams are important.

Someone said you “are a woman who has overcome a serious disability to lead a normal life...” Do you really lead a normal life? Do you see yourself as a woman with a disability or has it been an advantage?

Well, I don’t really have a normal social life. Work is basically my entire life. But the thing is... I am who I am. One thing that helped me was anti-depressant medication - it helped stop the horrible anxiety and panic attacks. Thinking In Pictures, my most important work on autism, details the careful use of medication. I think way too much medication is given out like candy and way too much is given out to little kids. I would try diet and exercise first.

You’ve achieved all these things in life – what are you going to look back on and say you are most proud of?

I am proud of things I have done in livestock and in autism that have made real change out in the real world. It is not about abstract ideology, but about real things happening on the ground with real people and animals. I like improving something.

To learn more about Temple Grandin’s work with livestock visit or to learn more about her work with autism visit

Allison Salisbury is a freelance writer who works with children with Autism and behavioral challenges. She works for the Cherry Creek School District in Centennial Colorado.