Temple Grandin: 'I'm an anthropologist from Mars'
The academic world's best-known autistic scholar tells David Cohen about her life and work
October 25, 2005
On a Sunday morning, academic star Temple Grandin, decked out in her signature black cowgirl garb and well-tooled boots, is at a table in a Nashville hotel lobby enjoying a light breakfast of fruit and juice, while some diners nearby are tucking into more substantial fare: here a plate of bacon and eggs, there a minute steak. The air is thick with the clink and slide of cutlery.
Grandin, who is in Music City to address a seminar for journalists at nearby Vanderbilt University, allows herself a faint smile. The meat being consumed around her has almost certainly been processed in plants whose standards she personally audited.
Indeed, as the science magazine Discover noted recently, Grandin, a 58-year-old Colorado State University associate professor of animal science, has probably done more to improve welfare for animals at the point of slaughter than any human alive. More than half of all cattle in the US, and a growing number in Britain, are moved through handling facilities she designed. Restraint chutes are one of her acknowledged specialities; she also developed the curved lane design used by some yards, intuiting that cattle would move more comfortably through something that made use of their natural tendency towards circling behaviour.
Empathy with animals
But Temple Grandin has a second claim to intellectual fame, one that closely affects her work in animal welfare through her striking ability to empathise with animals and to produce intricate blueprints for more humane animal systems.
In the soothing ointment of today's sensitive campus-speech codes, Grandin is a differently abled academic. In her own words, she's an "anthropologist from Mars". In anyone's language, this differently abled anthropologist from Mars is probably America's - and indeed academia's - best-known autistic person.
"I think like an image-only search engine," she explains, biting loudly into a red apple. Words, this widely published scholar explains, are for her only a second language.
The earliest of Grandin's books, Emergence: Labelled Autistic, published in 1986, offers an unprecedented inside look at autism, an incurable and quite dreadful neurological disorder first described in 1943 by Leo Kanner.
Typically, autism is characterised by profound difficulties with communication and imaginative activity, an iron-walled detachment from the physical environment, bizarre behaviours and an indifference to ordinary social cues.
The brains of autists, Grandin says, her pale blue eyes staring into the distance as she speaks, tend to be far less "interconnected" than those of non-autists. "And when that happens, you get a whole lot more specialisation, which is why autistic people often tend to be very good at one thing and no good at a bunch of others."
Her own academic history is a case in point. Though she was "totally useless" at algebra and foreign languages in high school in Boston, she eventually succeeded in parlaying a passion for animal welfare into a doctorate from the University of Illinois. Despite having no formal training in perspective drawing, she also discovered that she could illustrate her ideas in pictures. One of her intuitive designs was the "squeeze machine", a chair still used in the treatment of autists in Britain, which envelops the user in a tight embrace.
She has also published more than 300 papers on autism and animal science. In her latest book, Animals in Translation, which has just been published in Britain, Grandin speculates that autism can be a tool for helping to decode how animals think and feel. Autistic people's frontal lobes, she writes, almost never work as well as other people's do. Instead, the autist generally makes do with the part of the brain that animals rely on. Put another way, the price most non-autistic individuals pay for having big, well-connected frontal lobes is that they usually can't empathise with animals the way people like Grandin sometimes can.
The "problem" with normal people, she has written, is that they're just too cerebral - "abstractified", she calls it. They lack a "cow's eye" view of life.
Not that this scholar lacks for a woman's eye, either. Among her latest book's startling introductory anecdotes - and one that sets the tone of its generally accessible style - is the story of how, as a young psychology researcher in the late 1960s who was known to have an unusual condition, she was summoned to Harvard University to meet the noted behaviourist BF Skinner. "I was very nervous just about walking up to see him," she writes.
For her, entering the great scholar's office was like walking into "the Temple of Psychology". In the event, the room was a humdrum affair, and so was Skinner's couch conversation, at least initially.
"Then he tried to touch my legs," Grandin continues. "I was shocked. I wasn't in a sexy dress, I was in a conservative dress, and that was the last thing I expected." She remembers telling him, "You may look at them, but you may not touch them."
Not every professor she encountered early on was to be as oafish. It was the neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose groundbreaking descriptions of people with various neurological disabilities helped to educate an earlier generation on the workings of the mind, who first introduced her to an international audience in the late 1980s, lauding the earliest of her books for its unprecedented inside narrative of the still-mysterious spectrum of disorders that afflicts perhaps as many as one in 166 Britons. How many of those sufferers might, like Grandin, occupy positions at universities is a question of growing interest to sympathetic scholarly observers, too.
A few years ago, one of Britain's best-known autism specialists, Cambridge University's Simon Baron-Cohen, along with the mathematician Ioan M James, of Oxford University, made scientific headlines by arguing that at least three of the well-known personality traits of Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton - fanatical personal interests, difficulty in social relationships, and profound communication problems - suggested that these men were autistic. Elsewhere, Baron-Cohen has made much of academia, with its emphasis on narrow, even obsessional fixations, providing a natural resting place for other "high-functioning" individuals with the condition's traits.
Grandin doesn't disagree, although she points out, ironically, that it may have been easier in the days when the condition was less well understood for gifted sufferers to land plum positions at universities than in what she sees as today's more strait-laced times.
In the case of Einstein, in particular, she argues that if the great physicist were alive now, his personality "quirks" would have made it hard for him to gain admission to a university, which in turn would have made it all but impossible to get his early work published, thus robbing the last century of one of its most muscular scientific minds.
"How," she asks, "could a patent clerk, as Einstein was at the time he wrote it, get a groundbreaking paper published in a physics journal in 2005? I just don't think it would happen. An Einstein today would end up driving the FedEx truck or something, rather than concentrating on his theories."
Need any further proof? "Well, look at me," she continues warmly. "I could do medical school, no problem. But could I do the prerequisites required to get in today - you know, algebra, calculus, chemical equations? I don't think so. Yet here am I, one of America's leading people when it comes to the medication of autism. What does that tell you?" It worries her that too many others with the same condition are probably falling by the academic wayside.
Of course, that didn't happen in Grandin's case. She is, she says, pleased to have been a child of the 1950s who was taught to shake hands, sit properly at the table, and generally mind her ps and qs. "That sort of thing isn't taught today," she says.
Another point she makes about the era in which she was raised is that it was a time when the severely autistic were simply institutionalised, but mildly autistic children "were moulded and shaped" into social beings. While her wish is clearly not for all classically autistic children to be locked away, the latter circumstance does not strike her as altogether bad. Similarly, the primary schools of the 1950s tended to emphasise many more trade skills - metalwork, woodwork, and so on - "the things that autistic kids often can do well".
A heavy workload
Grandin, however, has gone on to manage more than the typical load of a working academic. "When I first started presenting papers I was very nervous about it, but it's not so bad any more. Teaching my class is something I've learned how to do without any problem." Each semester, she instructs up to 60 full-time students, lecturing on cattle behaviour and design, and also arranging for mentors for those young people who have been identified as sharing her own disability.
Away from Colorado State University, she maintains a punishing schedule of international speaking tours, book-related events and consultancy work with meat-processing plants. Later in the Nashville day, she will have a hall full of visiting journalists, along with geneticists, epidemiologists, paediatricians, toxicologists and neuroscientists, eating out of the palm of her hand during an insightful, sometimes hilarious, half-hour address.
"I basically don't have any personal life," admits the anthropologist from Mars. What about an emotional life? "I've probably got the emotions of an 11-year-old," she replies evenly. "But I would say I do have visual empathy, say, in the case of a 600kg animal being shackled and hoisted. And I would say most normal people have a very poor visual theory of mind when it comes to these kinds of things. Not like me."
Education: BA (psychology), Franklin Pierce College, 1970; MS, Arizona State University, 1975; PhD (animal science), University of Illinois, 1989.
Current jobs: Associate professor of animal science, Colorado State University; consultant and designer of livestock-handling facilities
Likes: Biochemistry, animal welfare, pictures, Star Trek
Dislikes: "Ideological politics", television news