By Darold Treffert, MD
Temple Grandin is well known around the world. She has become an extremely valuable and articulate ambassador for raising awareness of, information about, and insight into autism and Asperger’s as she shares the story of her own “emergence labeled autistic,” as she calls it, through the years. She is a fierce advocate for “training the talent” and provides a stellar example and role model of the success of that strategy for anyone with autism or Asperger’s disorder.
But Temple Grandin is also known equally well around the world as a leading animal scientist with special expertise on the design of animal handling facilities; she lectures and consults worldwide on this topic. One-half of the cattle in the United States are handled in equipment she has designed for meat plants. Temple obtained her PhD in Animal Science from the University of Illinois in 1989 and currently is a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her recent book, Animals in Translation has been a New York Times bestseller and she has several hundred industry-related publications in addition to numerous industry awards.
Dr. Grandin attributes much of her success as a livestock facility designer to her ability to think visually—“Thinking in Pictures” as she calls it in her very insightful and popular book on that topic—coupled with an extraordinary ability to recognize and remember detail in tape recorder or hard disk-like, digital image fashion. Her visual thinking patterns, abilities and memory are closely linked, she feels, to her autism. Mechanical/spatial skills, coupled with massive, literal memory of the type that Temple Grandin demonstrates, do occur in savant syndrome in some persons, along with the more frequently reported art, music and math skills.
Dr. Grandin maintains a very active website on these animal science matters at www.grandin.com/. That site is devoted to “help educate people throughout the world about modern methods of livestock handling which will improve animal welfare and productivity.” Dr. Grandin spends a great deal of her time lecturing, consulting, writing and doing research in this area of her special expertise.
Temple Grandin first shared her story of autism in her 1986 book Emergence Labeled Autistic. Dr. Bernard Rimland captured the significance and mission of that book well: “To my knowledge this is the first book written by a recovered autistic individual. It is an exciting book. The readers share the adventure of growing from an extremely handicapped child who appeared to be destined for permanent institutionalization to a vigorous, productive and respected adult who is a world authority in her field.”
That first book about her personal journey with autism is a marvelous documentation of Temple’s life from childhood to her early thirties. It is both a subjective and objective account of that “emergence,” because, in addition to Temple’s personal recollections, there are numerous verbatim entries by others gathered from letters, reports, notes and diaries of her mother, teachers, doctors and other significant witnesses to those early years. The book documents the symptoms of early autism—lack of language until age 3 ½, withdrawal, flatness, spinning, rituals, and exquisite super-sensitivity to touch, sound and other sensations. It also chronicles her struggles in elementary school, junior high and boarding school. It tells of Temple’s discovery of the calming effect of the “magic device”—the cattle chute squeeze machine—that Temple modified to her own use at about age 18. The squeeze, or hug machine, had a calming influence on Temple at that time and that method of dealing with sensory overload continues to work for her to this day.
In graduate school, Temple switched her major from psychology to animal science, and the “rest is history,” as the saying goes.
The final chapter, “Autistics and the Real World,” in that first book gives 17 very specific, understandable and practical “hints, tips and pearls” for anyone dealing with autistic children, whether it’s a parent, teacher or therapist. It provides easily applicable advice for dealing with the special interests, hypersensitivity, need for structure, fixations and many other unique needs that autistic children have. It is very practical advice from a real ‘expert’ who has experienced the world of autism from the inside.
In 1995, Oliver Sacks published his very popular book, An Anthropologist on Mars, which contained a sensitive and eloquent description of Temple Grandin. In fact, the book takes its title from Temple’s description of herself: “Much of the time I feel like an anthropologist on Mars.” Sack’s perceptive and engaging description of Temple Grandin in that book brought her more and more into public visibility and many more articles and major television program appearances followed.
In 1996, Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism was published and became an immediate bestseller. That book was re-issued in an expanded version in 2006. In the meantime, in 2004, her book Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism was published. That book is particularly pertinent to “training the talent” as seen not only in savant syndrome, but in Asperger’s and high functioning autism as well. In 2005, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior was published and has been widely distributed. Temple’s book, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, was published in 2006 and was winner of the prestigious Foreword Book of the Year award. It was co-authored by Sean Barron and Veronica Zysk and focuses on understanding and learning the social “rules” that often present such obstacles to people with autism and Asperger’s disorder.
As the above demonstrates, Temple Grandin really is really on two main missions in her life, and she divides her time fully and selflessly between them. One is her extraordinarily successful vocational calling as an animal scientist. The other is her extraordinarily successful calling as teacher, role model, interpreter and mentor toward wider acceptance and better understanding about autism among parents, professionals and the general public with whom she interacts. Correspondingly, she has two websites to differentiate those activities: http://www.grandin.com/ is directed toward her animal science expertise and endeavors; http://www.templegrandin.com/ highlights her activities, articles, books, videos, DVDs and speaking engagements regarding autism. That site also provides an in-depth “up close and personal” look at Temple’s remarkable history and ‘emergence’ to the present time.
On 2010 HBO aired the made-for-TV movie Temple Grandin. Playing the part of Temple was Claire Danes. The movie was very well-received and is still available for purchase.
Throughout her writings and presentations, Temple Grandin gives credit to some very important caring and understanding people in her life, and, in turn, points out the very positive influence that those people around the autistic individual (or savant) can have on that person. One such person in her life was her high school science teacher, William Carlock, whose philosophy is reflected in Temple’s life, and in all of her writings and presentations. That teacher “didn’t see any of the labels, just the underlying talents. Even the principal had doubts about my getting through tech school. But Mr. Carlock believed in building what was within the student. He channeled my fixations into constructive projects. He didn’t try to draw me into his world but came instead into my world.”
Mr. Carlock has been very pleased by what has happened to Temple in her career and life. And his advice, which was so helpful to Temple, is good advice for everyone—parents, teachers, therapists—who have contact with autistic children: “Temple has demonstrated without question, that there is hope for the autistic child—that deep, constant caring, understanding, acceptance, appropriately high expectations, and support and encouragement for what is best in him will provide a base, from which he can grow to his own potential.”
Blueprints are essential in Temple Grandin’s animal science work and she does those spectacularly. But her high school science teacher’s advice, which was so valuable to Temple, is also a “blueprint” for success with persons with autism, Asperger’s and savant syndrome. And in her autism awareness work, Temple Grandin draws such blueprints, for all those interested, spectacularly as well.
We were honored to have Dr. Temple Grandin visit the Treffert Center in 2016.
Grandin, T. (2008). Thinking in pictures: And other reports from my life with autism. New York: Vintage Books.
Grandin, T., Zysk, V., & Barron, S. (2017). Unwritten rules of social relationships. Ingram Pub Services.
Grandin, T., & Johnson, C. (2006). Animals in translation: Using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behaviour. London: Bloomsbury.
Grandin, T., & Winard, R. (2015). The way I see it: A personal look at Autism & Asperger's.
Sacks, O. (2012). An anthropologist on Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. New York: Knopf.
Treffert, D. A., & Tammet, D. (2012). Islands of genius: The bountiful mind of the autistic, acquired, and sudden savant.