Few people in the world think in images like Temple Grandin, a CSU veterinary professor and one of the most accomplished and well-known autistic adults in the world, who says that words are a second language to her.
“When I was young, I assumed that everyone perceived the world the way I did,” Grandin said at a book signing on Monday night in the Lory Student Center for her latest book, “Animals Make Us Human.”
Grandin has used her autism, a severe developmental disability that limits a person’s ability to communicate, to become a successful livestock handling equipment designer and gives credit to her visualization abilities with helping understand the animals she works with.
“I visualize designs being used in every possible situation with different sizes and breeds of cattle and in different weather conditions,” she said.
At the book signing, Grandin discussed the emotions of animals and how her autism causes her thought process to work much like theirs. She said autistic people and animals are sensory-based thinkers, not language-based.
“The animal mind and my mind are bottom-up thinking. You take a few pieces of information, and you have to work hard at putting them together,” she said. “When you teach an autistic child not to run across the street, you have to teach him the same lesson on a bunch of different streets. The same goes for animals.”
Grandin was the first autistic to author books on the way the autistic mind works including “The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s” and “Emergence: Labeled Autistic.” In her books she emphasizes the fact that despite others’ beliefs, she is living proof that autism can be modified and controlled.
Grandin, who didn’t speak until she was about 4 years old, said that she goofed off in high school and didn’t do her work until, at the end of high school, her science teacher realized her abilities and interests and mentored her.
“Good teachers make a big difference,” she said. “My high school science teacher sparked my interest in science and increased my motivation to study and stop messing around.”
Grandin was turned on to animals by a college professor where she discovered that she could put her visual mind to work.
Many of Grandin’s own troubles with autism she translated into useful tools for animals.
“When I got into puberty I had tremendous anxiety attacks all the time that consumed me so I created a ‘squeeze machine’ that would put pressure around certain parts of my body to relieve the stress,” she said of a mechanism designed to relieve stress. “As described in one of my books, I created the same ‘squeeze machine’ for animals some years later as a stress reliever for them.”
Grandin said that she cannot pinpoint her greatest challenges in living with autism but does experience sensitivity to loud noises and scratchy clothing daily.
“I experience severe sensory problems that don’t bother most people,” she said.
Grandin has been such an inspiration that HBO developed a semi-biographical film about her life and her accomplishments, with famous actress Claire Danes playing Grandin’s character.
“I was flabbergasted to learn that someone wanted to make a movie about my life,” Grandin said. “I worked with the producers a lot when it came to the cattle,” the animal she most commonly works with.
The movie is due out in 2010.
Robin Pals, a junior equine science major who attended the book signing, said that the way Grandin has learned how to use her autism to her advantage and to inspire others is incredible.
“We have autistic kids who come ride horses during therapeutic riding because they are not over-stimulating like people,” she said. “I appreciate how Temple has applied her autism to animals. She has taken it far.”
Collegian staff writer Chloe Wittry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.