Widgets Magazine

Autistic activist Temple Grandin talks autism experience, animals

An auditorium packed with more than 150 Stanford undergraduates, medical students, professors, researchers and community members. People on the floor, leaning against the walls and packed like sardines to squeeze inside. A crowd gathered outside the closed doors begging the security guard to let them in. This crowd was not gathered to hear a famous politician or visiting musician, but rather Temple Grandin, a rock star of a different sort.

Grandin is known around the world for her work with animals and autism, often in combination. Grandin is currently a professor at Colorado State University and has published several best-selling books, her most recent entitled “Animals Make Us Human.” She was also featured in the HBO film “Temple Grandin.”

Grandin’s talk at Stanford began with an explanation of autism and how being on the “autism spectrum” has affected Grandin’s life and career. Grandin joked about the autism spectrum when she said, “[a] little bit of autism gives you Silicon Valley.” This comment drew applause from the crowd.

“When does being socially awkward and geeky become Asperger’s? Part of the problem with the autism spectrum is that it’s so huge,” Grandin explained.

Grandin claims that her autism has helped her connect more with animals and allows her to be the empathetic animal lover she is.

She came to the talk dressed in a cowboy shirt emblazoned with bedazzled cattle. She is known well in the meat industry and has designed the cattle handling system in nearly half of the slaughterhouses in North America.

Grandin explained to the audience Wednesday that because she is an object-visual thinker, as many on the autism spectrum are, she sees things that most “math-minded” people don’t.

“Why are there still loose chains [an immediate stressor for the cattle who are placed there] in cattle shoots,” Temple asked the crowd, “People just don’t see them,” she explained.

“I see movies in my imagination and this helped me understand animals,” Grandin said. “My mind works like Google Images.”

Animals take snapshots of things they experience and store them to retrieve when they need to call up that memory again, Grandin explained. For example, Grandin once knew a horse that was scared by black hats because he was abused by a man who wore a black hat. White hats were fine, black hats on the ground were okay, but once the hat was on a head, the horse panicked.

Grandin automatically understood this image association because she too takes pictures in her mind to remember specific memories.

“If you say ‘airport’ to me,” Granding explained, “I see specific images of LAX, Washington Dulles and others. Not some generic image like most people would come up with.”

Grandin argued that people who are visual thinkers, like herself, are crucial in any operation. Grandin told the audience that the disaster at Fukushima wouldn’t have happened if the engineering team had run the design by her first.

“All you math fanatics need people like me to say, ‘You should install waterproof doors,’” Temple said.

Most of Grandin’s talk centered around her observations on animal behavior and how important the treatment of animals is.

“Do animals have emotions? Yes.” Grandin said. “Prozac works on dogs,” she added.  Grandin said animal emotions include fear, rage, panic and seeking. She explained that animals experience separation anxiety, reassuring all the students in the room missing their pets back home that their cats and dogs miss them as well.

Grandin said her keen intuition with animals has led her to help herself in the process. Knowing how much pressure wraps (therapeutic devices that utilize pressure to create a sense of secureness) help animals experiencing the effects of separation, Grandin made a wrap for herself similar to the one she had designed for cattle, for when she was experiencing bad panic attacks in her twenties.

As Grandin finished her speech, the audience was eager to ask questions ranging from advice on handling feisty horses (“Don’t shove things in their face,” Temple said shortly) to the future of autism in the workplace and higher education (“You can be geeky and socially awkward but it doesn’t matter if you produce good work,” Grandin said).

For those who were unable to get into the talk or who want to learn more, the Stanford School of Comparative Medicine will have the talk available online within the next few days.


Contact Elizabeth Wallace at wallacee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Elizabeth Wallace

Liz Wallace, class of 2018, is a reporter for the Stanford Daily with a love for environmental science, literature, and late night discussions over mugs of hot chocolate. Wallace hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and can be contacted at wallacee@stanford.edu.
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