Temple Grandin is one of my intellectual and cultural heroes, who transformed the meat industry through her design of more humane handling systems for livestock. And she’s transformed our conversation about autism, which affects (by some estimates) 2.2 million people in the United States. Grandin is a scientist, author, and professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
Grandin didn’t have an easy start to life. She was diagnosed with autism when she was three, ostracized by her peers, and socially isolated. She joined us on the Science of Happiness podcast to talk about those who supported her along the way to become who she is today: an advocate for people with autism, a leading scientist, and the world’s leading expert on humane animal handling.
Below, we share more of our conversation with Grandin—including tips for parents of children with autism, what helped her become successful in life, and why the world should make room for different types of thinkers.
Dacher Keltner: When you were growing up, kids with autism were treated brutally and institutionalized. You’ve made it known that your mother was a fierce supporter of you. What was that like?
Temple Grandin: Mother was very creative. We were always doing art projects together, carving pumpkins, making Halloween costumes. She was very much encouraging all of those kinds of activities. She also had a very good sense of what I’d be able to handle and what I would not be able to handle.
My mother was always encouraging my ability in art and pushing me to do new things. I started out just drawing the same horse head over and over again. Then mother said, “Well, we need to draw the whole horse. Let’s draw the stable.” She took that fixated interest on the horse heads and expanded it. It’s very important to expand the kid’s interest.
Social skills were taught in a much more structured way in my generation. When kids were seven or eight, they had to put on their good clothes and (when the parents had a party) greet the guests, pass out the snacks, learn how to talk to the guests.
Also, in my generation, grownups corrected children, no matter where you were. If I touched too much stuff in the store, the staff at the store would say, “Only touch the things you’re going to buy.” They would give the instruction on what you were supposed to do. They didn’t just scream, “No!”
DK: I’m curious what words of wisdom you have for parents and families and children of different ages on how to live a life with autism.
TG: If you have a two year old that’s not talking, regardless of cause (as long as there’s not deafness or something wrong with the mouth), you need to get into therapy right away. And if you’re in a situation where you can’t get one-on-one therapy, then get grandmothers in the neighborhood to work with the kid.
Teach them language. Teach them how to take turns at games, and teach them skills, like putting on clothing. The worst thing you can do with a child that’s not talking at age two and three is do nothing and let them zone out on electronics.
Now, when the kids get a little older, we need to be looking more at what they can do. A lot of those that remain non-verbal have more skills than you think they might have. Build on the thing the kid is good at.
But kids have to be exposed to things to find out what they might be good at. I feel so strongly that schools made a big mistake when they took out all the hands-on classes, because I was super good at art. Well, that’s not gonna show up if art is never encouraged. For another kid, it might be music.
And work on what they’re good at. I’m very much into career. Students get interested in what they get exposed to. I got interested in the cattle industry because I was exposed to it as a teenager. I just watched that movie, The Fabelmans, that’s about Steven Spielberg’s childhood. He had a movie camera when he was 12 years old and filmed a train wreck with toy trains. He was exposed to movie cameras very young and got to use them.
DK: How has your own autism been a source of support for you in your life and work?
TG: I’m an extreme visual thinker, and that helped me in my work with animals. Animals live in a sensory-based world. It helped me in my design work because the visual thinkers like me see the world in photorealistic pictures.
The kinds of jobs that my kind of mind is good at are art, animal behavior, mechanical devices, and photography. And I absolutely can’t do algebra; it’s too abstract.
I’m very concerned about all these draconian math requirements, screening a lot of kids out of many fields where you simply don’t need algebra and some of the higher math. The thing is, you need us to fix infrastructure that’s falling apart. When I was out working with big companies on equipment design, I worked with equipment designers and welders; I’m going to guess about 20% of them were autistic, ADHD, or dyslexic, and they owned large metal fabricating shops and they had 20 patents.
Then you have the mathematical minds—visual-spatial pattern thinkers—who think in patterns. They’re the ones who ace algebra; they’re going to be computer scientists [or go into the] more mathematical parts of engineering.
Then, of course, you have the word thinkers. There’s scientific research that shows that these different kinds of thinkers really do exist, and a lot of people are mixtures of the different kinds.
DK: What appealed to you about science? What struck you or activated your curiosity?
TG: I was very interested in optical illusions. I watched an old Bell Labs movie about optical illusions that they showed in a science class, and I got fascinated with the Ames distorted room illusion. It’s an illusion where you have two people in a room and one person’s twice as big as the other person. The reason why it works is the room is actually a trapezoid.
I was then challenged to figure out how to make it myself; they weren’t going to just show me how to make it. I had one hint where I got to see a brief, five-second look at a picture in a book. That’s all. There was no internet back then, and I had to figure out how to make it work, which I did. And it took a lot of effort.
DK: I would imagine you’ve faced considerable obstacles in making the cattle industry more humane.
TG: I didn’t change the cattle industry overnight. I started with something a lot more targeted, working on improving cattle-handling facilities. And I learned very early in my career that people want the thing more than they want the management. It was easy to sell people new handling facilities, but getting them to operate them correctly, that’s the difficult part.
So I started out with the handling facility design, and then I wrote about it. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of great stuff, but they never write about it. So I’d write in Beef Magazine how to design a handling facility, and then I would write behavioral principles of handling cattle.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote about my projects, and then I learned that the most important person for me to train was the ranch manager, the feed yard manager, the meat plant manager—because a manager had to get behind operating the facility correctly and using behavioral principles.
What really made the big change—and that would have been in 1999, 25 years later—was getting the power of large buyers such as McDonald’s behind things. But this didn’t happen just overnight.
The big mistake that people make is they’ll go, “Oh, the world treats animals horrible.” OK, but where do you start? I started on something specific. Verbal thinkers overgeneralize—big grand principles—but how do you actually implement these big principles?
I also saw doors to opportunity. I went to this cattle event and the editor of the magazine was there, and I had the guts to go up to him and get his card, and then I produced a decent article. I knew if I wrote for that magazine, that would help my career. A lot of people don’t see doors to opportunity.
DK: I know there are a lot of young people who will be very inspired by these ideas.
TG: Find something you can be good at, that you can turn into a satisfying career. You might have an autistic kid where math’s going to be their thing, they’re going to be doing computer programming; and then you have the word thinker that knows every fact about baseball statistics. Some of those [people] can be super good in specialized retail.
That’s one of the things that has made life worthwhile for me.