The world needs all kinds of minds: An interview with Temple Grandin
As part of National Autism Awareness Month in April, Temple Grandin, worldrenowned animal scientist, sat down with one of her graduate students at Colorado State University (CSU) to discuss her work in autism advocacy, animal behavior and food-animal welfare.
Grandin—who thinks in pictures—describes her life experiences to demonstrate that people with different abilities contribute vitally to the world.
“It’s important to have different kinds of minds because different kinds of minds are good at different things. For example, in scientific research, what I’m good at is visualizing the methods of the experiment,” says Grandin, a professor in the CSU Department of Animal Sciences. “I can actually see the cattle or other animals in my mind. Then you need to have the mathematician kind of thinker to do the statistics.
“But you need both kinds of minds to get good projects.”
The HBO movie based on her early life, “Temple Grandin,” won a coveted Peabody Award on March 31, adding to accolades including seven Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Grandin, a CSU faculty member since 1990, struggled with autism as a child but found solace in her unique connection to animals. She ultimately built a career in humane livestock handling—largely because of her sensory insights and visualthinking abilities.
“The worst time of my life was in high school, and the only places I could get away from teasing was the specialized activities—riding horses, model rockets club and electronics lab,” says Grandin, who a year ago was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
She began to flourish with encouragement and persistence: “There were good people that helped me, and one of the things I had to learn was I had to sell my skill rather than myself. When I showed off my drawings, they’d go, ‘Wow, you did that?’ Then maybe they would talk to me.”
In the videotaped interview, Grandin describes the impact of her work: Her innovations are used by the world’s largest food producers, processors and retailers.
“When I first started out working with cattle in the early ’70s, the idea of looking at a chute and seeing what cattle were seeing—people thought that was just crazy. Now, it just seems like common sense,” she tells one of her doctoral students, Ruth Woiwode, in the interview. “I didn’t know that most people didn’t think visually.”
Grandin travels internationally to discuss her work in livestock welfare and to encourage families coping with autism spectrum disorders. As she says in the CSU interview, Grandin thinks it’s critical to identify the strengths of students on the spectrum—and to match those strengths with career paths that will allow them to contribute meaningfully to the world.
She is also passionate when discussing her teaching goals with CSU students: She wants students to more closely observe livestock and to consider animal-handling equipment with an eye toward animal welfare and problem-solving.
“I really want to emphasize getting students to be more observant. What’s the horse’s or the cow’s eyes doing? If the eyes are bugging out and you see the white of their eyes, your animal is starting to get upset,” she explains. “Another thing I have my students do is actually lay out and design a cattle-handling facility from a real job. And, no, it’s not a multiple-choice question. It’s not fill-in-the-blanks. They’ve got to figure out how to do it.”
During National Autism Awareness Month, CSU recognized Grandin’s work with an advertisement in TIME magazine. — WLJ