Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures: Explaining Autism from the Inside Out

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Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures was on our 2009 list of The 25 Most Powerful Books of Past 25 Years. Since the HBO movie of her life story cleaned up at the Emmys last night, we thought now was a good time to post this excerpt.

Thinking in Pictures
by Temple Grandin (1995)

A leader in both autism advocacy and animal welfare, Temple Grandin is undoubtedly the most famous autistic person in the world. Her 1995 memoir let readers into the minds of autistic people, destigmatizing the disorder and debunking the myth that they can't lead fulfilling lives. As Grandin wrote, "If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am." The book covers everything from the talents of high-functioning autistics to the struggles of the most severely afflicted. It explains why autistic people often avoid direct eye contact (they're disturbed by the movements of other people's eyes) and describes why they find it easier to recognize people by their voices rather than by their faces.

In Thinking in Pictures, Grandin also talks about her personal struggles with the disorder.

In 1950, when she was 3, her nonstop tantrums and delayed speech landed her in a neurologist's office, where the doctor declared her brain-damaged. A few years later, as knowledge of autism became more widespread, her diagnosis changed, but her prognosis remained bleak. Grandin's mother was encouraged to institutionalize her daughter. Instead, she enrolled Grandin in a nursery school for speech-handicapped children and tirelessly encouraged her intelligence and creativity. By the time Grandin was a teenager, she was already making a name for herself. Because many people with autism crave pressure stimulation but cannot tolerate being touched, she invented a "squeeze machine." The device helps both children and adults cope with panic attacks, and today it's widely used within the autistic community.

Grandin went on to earn a Ph.D. in animal science and become a world-renowned expert on cattle psychology. She credits autism for giving her a unique understanding of cattle.

"I think in pictures, like an animal," she writes. "My nervous system is more like an animal's. The sounds that bother me are the same sounds that bother an animal. My emotions are simple—and the main one is fear."

Grandin's insights have revolutionized slaughtering methods for cattle, making them both more humane and more cost-effective. In the old system, electric prods drove the animals from holding pens straight to the slaughterhouse, terrifying them and producing bruised meat that couldn't be sold. Grandin's approach keeps animals calm. Instead of walking the cattle in a straight line, the cows are slowly coaxed through a curved chute that takes advantage of their natural circling behavior. The chute's high walls block random activity and images that might be confusing or frightening. At the end, the cows are gently positioned into a restraint and shot in the forehead with a pneumatic gun. They die instantly, without a moment of pain or fear. In addition to being more compassionate, Grandin's methods save meat processors between $100,000 and $1 million a year per plant.

Today, Grandin is a consultant to Burger King and McDonald's, and her systems are used by one-third of all livestock-handling facilities in the United States. She travels and lectures widely, spreading the message that autism is not a death sentence for achievement. In fact, she notes that the majority of hits on her Web site come from Redmond, Wash., where Microsoft is located, and San Mateo, Calif., near Stanford University. This, she playfully interprets, is evidence that autistics are employed and flourishing.

-- Rosemary Ahern

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August 30, 2010 - 8:20am
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