I have fallen for another remarkable woman, a woman in a western-style shirt and a bolo tie. Writing these posts, my sister and I continually fall head over heels for the women we read and research, women whose contributions are undeniable.
Temple Grandin’s life journey, from a three-year-old who did not speak to a seventy-two year old still traveling the country talking about autism and the humane treatment of farm animals, is one worth exploring. What you stand to learn on both fronts is amazing.
Driven to constantly open doors in her own life, Temple Grandin has opened doors for all of us, providing an invaluable view into the mind of a person on the autism spectrum and into the minds of cattle and other farm animals.
Grandin explains in her book, Thinking in Pictures: my life with autism, that as she’s moved through life, she’s pictured literal doors that she would need to pass through to transition from one phase to another, no matter how difficult the transition or how debilitatingly anxious she’s felt.
“Though he will never know it,” Grandin explains of one of her early experiences in a stockyard, “when Ron blocked the door [because she was a woman] that led to the cattle working area, he instantly transformed a small, insignificant wood door in a fence into a special symbolic door in my pantheon of door symbols…A blocked door had to be conquered. True to form, I was like a bull filled with pure determination. Nothing was going to stop me”(Thinking 110).
And nothing has stopped her. Through experience, observation, research, and design, Grandin has transformed the treatment and lives of cattle, along with those who work with them. Earning her PhD in animal science, she continues to teach courses at Colorado State University as well.
While spending the summer before her senior year in high school at her aunt’s farm in Arizona, Grandin discovered her connection to cows, and although she’d always felt a closeness to animals, this experience opened a new area of interest, a fixation that eventually lead to her career.
“Grandin has invented a number of systems for improving livestock handling, including a diagonal pen that takes advantage of cattle’s natural instincts in order to herd them towards loading chutes, a system for assessing and scoring animal-handling in meat processing plants, and a number of cattle restraining systems. Her double rail conveyor system for bringing cattle calmly to the slaughterhouse is used to handle half the cattle in America”(Matcher).
Grandin believes in treating all animals with respect and has used her unique abilities to understand what spooks animals, what makes them anxious and fearful. She has worked to eliminate these conditions that cause anxiety, just as she has worked to reduce these physiological feelings of her own and of others on the autism spectrum.
Sy Montgomery, naturalist and writer, explains,
“The facilities she [Temple Grandin] was creating for cattle were economical and easy to build. But they were designed with more than just the builder’s convenience and owner’s costs in mind. Her facilities were especially designed to meet the animal’s needs – not just for food and water but for something they craved just as much: calm, comfort, and companionship”(95).
For someone who thinks as scientifically and logically as Grandin does, it’s interesting how powerful her thoughts are around concepts that cannot always be seen or proven. Coming face to face with death in the slaughter plants, for years Grandin has grappled with the big questions: the meaning of life and what happens to us, humans and animals, after we die?
“One night when the crew was working late, I stood on the nearly completed structure and looked into what would become the entrance to heaven for cattle. This made me more aware of how precious life is. When your time comes and you are walking up the proverbial stairway, will you be able to look back and be proud of what you did with your life? Did you contribute something worthwhile to society? Did your life have meaning?”(Thinking 197).
Grandin does not stop there. Once again, through hands-on experience and extensive research, she came to know that there is more to consider when ending life, practices that many cultures (e.g. Ancient Greece) and religions (e.g. Jewish kosher plants) have enacted for centuries.
“I believe that the place where an animal is dies is a sacred one. There is a need to bring ritual into the conventional slaughter plants and use it as a means to shape people’s behavior. It would help prevent people from becoming numbed, callous, or cruel. The ritual could be something very simple, such as a moment of silence. In addition to developing better designs and making equipment to insure the humane treatment of all animals, that would be my contribution. No words. Just one pure moment of silence. I can picture it perfectly”(206).
Of course she can. Grandin can picture most things perfectly because she thinks in pictures.
Grandin describes her mode of thinking here:
“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both the spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage”(Thinking 19).
Temple Grandin credits her mother, Eustacia Cutler, for the ultimate trajectory of her life, dedicating this particular book to her, “I dedicate this book to my mother. Her love, dedication, and insight enabled me to succeed.”
At three, Grandin remained nonverbal and was thought to suffer brain damage, so her mother had to fight hard against both her husband and the health system that pushed for institutionalization, a common practice in the early 1950s. Her mother, refusing to succumb to this pressure and fortunate to have resources, sought out the best schools and the right help for her daughter, providing her the chance to create a fulfilling life. It would be years before Grandin would be properly diagnosed as autistic.
Grandin also recognizes others who have helped her and knows that sharing her experience offers hope and important information to many.
“As I grew older, the people who were of the greatest assistance were always the more creative, unconventional types…Mr. Carlock [high school science teacher] took my interests and used them as motivators for doing school work…He told me if I wanted to find out why it [her squeeze machine] relaxed me, I had to learn science. Instead of taking my weird device away, he used it to motivate me to study, get good grades, and to go to college”(Thinking 98-99).
This “weird device” or “squeeze machine” was an idea Grandin discovered on her aunt’s farm that fateful summer. Noticing the contraption the farmers used to calm cows for their shots, Grandin, who was living with an enormous amount of anxiety, decided to try it on herself and it worked. Being in the machine that simulated a hug, something Grandin couldn’t tolerate from other humans, did indeed relieve some of her anxiety. Grandin then designed and built her own “squeeze machine” and her science teacher, Mr. Carlock, encouraged her to research its effectiveness and collect data about how others responded to it. Although Grandin no longer needs this particular device, similar designs are still in use with those on the autism spectrum today.
This incredible role model and teacher also taught Grandin how to access the information she needed: “Mr. Carlock’s training served me well. Later in life, when anxiety attacks were tearing me apart, I was able to research what medication I needed in the library. Through the Index Medicus I found answers”(99). Everything Grandin has learned about biochemistry in her search for relief, she shares with others, those desperate for answers and advice.
Grandin recognizes co-workers who have had her back too. Those who cared, noticed and said something were so critical in Grandin’s career and her ability to make a difference in a field that didn’t often include women and didn’t have patience for those who were non-mainstream.
“When a new manager took over at the Arizona Framer Ranchman, I did not realize that he thought I was weird and I was in danger of being fired. A fellow employee told me that he was turned off by me. My pal Susan saw the warning signs, and she helped me assemble a portfolio of all my articles. After the manager saw how many good articles I had written, he gave me a raise”(Thinking 109).
Grandin’s discoveries of how to best function in this society continued well into adulthood. She came to realize that what she did, her designs and articles, would promote her more than who she was because who she was did not initially impress and was not readily valued.
Grandin also learned to avoid highly social situations, eventually admitting, “I’ve remained celibate because doing so helps me to avoid the many complicated social situations that are too difficult for me to handle”(Thinking 133).
She’s aware of what she may be missing by avoiding social and intimate situations, but what she has in their place is fulfilling.
“I know that things are missing from my life, but I have an exciting career that occupies my every waking hour. Keeping myself busy keeps my mind off what I may be missing. Sometimes parents and professionals worry too much about the social life of an adult with autism. I make social contacts via my work. If a person develops her talents, she will have contacts with people who share her interests”(Thinking 138-139).
Sy Montgomery explains this trade-off in the biography she’s written for children about Temple Grandin:
“Temple has made for herself an unusual life. She doesn’t have many of the things most people think they need: a spouse, kids of her own, a big, expensive house, a closetful of fancy clothes. She doesn’t need them. What she does have is far more important: a life rich and full of meaning. “When I get to do something to improve the treatment of animals, when I get to help a mother with her autistic kid, when I help one of my students get a good career…” Temple pauses. “Well, that’s the meaning of life for me. It’s that simple.”(Montgomery 129).
This meaning of life, the one that involves what you do to help others, is what drives Temple Grandin. Her website reads:
“As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise nationally, Grandin is sharing her message about the disorder and “differently-abled brains” with packed houses. At the heart of that message is this: Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that, while it might struggle to conjugate a verb, could one day take us to distant stars.
“Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job,” said Grandin, who addresses scientific advances in understanding autism in her newest book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.” These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don’t hold these math geniuses back. You’re going to have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let go ahead in math”(templegrandin.com).
If Grandin didn’t think the way she does, if she wasn’t on the autism spectrum, she would not have accomplished and contributed what she has: “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not – because then I wouldn’t be me. Autism is part of who I am”(Thinking 16).
After much observation and research, Grandin has concluded: “There is one thing that completely separates people from animals. It is not language or war or toolmaking; it is long-term altruism. Altruism exists in animals, but not to this degree. “(Thinking 201).
I would categorize Grandin’s altruism as far-reaching and long-term, extending way beyond her immediate circle and far into the future of human and animal experience.
Grandin has written over twelve books, most dealing with autism, and others about livestock handling. To be published in 2020 is Different, Not Less and published in 2017 is Working with Farm Animals: Safe, Humane Livestock Handling Practices for the Small Farm. I plan to read and share both.
Grandin continues to travel around the country speaking about autism. She has seven venues lined up between now and June. Get your tickets ahead because her gatherings sell out!
Temple Grandin is an inspiration for all of us, two and four-legged, and a Nasty Woman Writer by nature. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
© Maria Dintino 2020
Matchar, Emily. “Temple Grandin’s Pig-Stunning System Came to Her in a Vision.” Smithsonianmag.com, 5 April 2019.
Montgomery, Sy. Temple Grandin: how the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012.
Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures and other reports from my life with autism. New York: Doubleday, 1995.