Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Temple Grandin: Animal Scientist, Author, and Autism Educator

Temple Grandin is an animal scientist, author, and renowned lecturer who credits her autism as granting her with a way to view the world that others cannot. With this view she has invented systems that transformed the way the cattle industry handles livestock. 

Temple Grandin was born on August 29th, 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts. From an early age Temple displayed the signs of autism; screaming, rocking, humming, and not speaking. She was diagnosed at age two, and did not start speaking until she was 3-1/2.

Autism was not well understood in the 1950s. It was considered a form of brain damage, potentially requiring institutionalization. Doctors put the blame on Temple's mother, Eustacia Grandin, indicating Temple's condition was due to Eustacia not being affectionate enough.

Temple's mother sought the best care and treatment for her, including extensive speech therapy. Temple could understand speech but screamed because she did not know how else to communicate, though she could get her words out if placed in a "slight stress situation."

Temple's therapist knew how to push just far enough to get Temple to speak; push too far and Temple would start having a tantrum, don't push far enough, and no progress would be made. Speech therapy helped Temple develop socially by drawing her out of isolation and reshaping her communicative skills.

The squeeze machine

Temple also faced challenges due to stimulation overload; her senses were oversensitive to loud noise and touch, so much that a slight touch or loud noise would cause physical pain. She withdrew from sources of noise and physical contact, finding the overstimulation unbearable.

To regulate her anxiety and overcome the stimulation of touch, Temple dreamed of creating a "squeeze machine" that she could lie in, and control the amount of pressure being applied to her body. From the age of five she had recognized the soothing effect of controlled heavy pressure; while she could not tolerate light touch, a firm touch or pressure had a calming effect and could help reduce what she called "nerve attacks."

Like many children with autism and other sensory processing disorders, Temple found herself seeking out ways to create that feeling. Some children bury themselves under heavy blankets to achieve that feeling of pressure; in Temple's case, she would crawl under the couch cushions, and have her sister sit on them.

During adolescence Temple's daily anxiety increased to the point where she was having panic and anxiety attacks. While she was still in high school she invented her own squeeze machine, consisting of two padded boards that were laid next to each other, forming an upright V-shape. When Temple laid along the boards, facing down, she could use a lever to squeeze the sides of the V together, applying pressure to her whole body.

With this machine Temple managed her anxiety attacks and taught herself to be less sensitive to touch. It would also be a precursor to the kind of work Temple would get into after her school career, as she took her self-soothing principles and applied them to soothing animals.

Learning interaction

Temple's mother made her get a job and learn social skills while she was still young, forcing her to learn responsibility and how to function "in the real world." Temple got a job cleaning horse stalls, a job that afforded not only the chance to practice her social interactions, but let her be close to her beloved animals.

On the value of being forced to socialize: "When I was 8 years old, my mother made me be a party hostess - shake hands, take coats. In the 1950s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught."

Looking back on high school, Temple recalled the challenges, calling herself a "goof-around" who was not interested in school. "High school was a disaster. I got kicked out of a large girls' school because I threw a book at a girl after she teased me. And I was sent away to a special boarding school for emotionally disturbed children."

There was no real understanding or support for autistic children. Temple got in trouble frequently and was teased by some teachers and classmates, but eventually thrived by finding mentors and pursuing subjects she was interested in.

She enjoyed horseback riding, and model rocket club, and electronics. A science teacher that recognized her abilities took her under his wing and showed her how to build upon her strengths, like her talent for thinking visually.

With the support of her mother and mentors like her elementary science teacher, Temple did not have an easy path but she was able to navigate the educational system as an autistic person, teaching those around her about her condition and what she was capable of, and learning about it herself.

College Years

Despite having the support of her mentors, interacting with peers and teachers in the classroom setting was challenging, and Temple was teased for some of her behaviors. Again, Temple focused on the things she was good at, like art and finite math.

Like many autistic people, Temple is a photo-realistic visual thinker, whereby understanding comes from being able to see and work through a concept in images. This style of thinking would lead Temple to conceptualize the series of inventions she developed later, but would leave her unable to perform such skills as basic algebra.

With dedicated study and the support of her mother and mentors, Temple completed a degree in psychology at Franklin Pierce College (1970). Having grown up around animals and following her love of horses and cattle, she then embarked on a master's degree in animal science at the Arizona State University.

Temple with livestock. Photo by Rosalie Winard
A connection with animals

With her strength for thinking visually and her extreme sensitivity to light and sound, Temple was in a unique position to understand how animals see the world. Her understanding of their experience was first demonstrated when she visited feed yards in the 1970s, and observed as the cows would walk up the chutes to get their vaccinations.

Some animals would just walk right up to get their shots, while others would refuse to move along the chutes. To find out why this was, Temple got inside the chutes and took a look at what the animals were seeing.

As discussed in a 2006 interview with NPR, Temple says "And people thought that was just kind of crazy." What she found however was that the animals were afraid of several visual cues, and that if you removed them, then then animals would be much calmer.

As Temple tells it, "...they were afraid of shadows. They were afraid of the reflection off a bumper of a truck. They were afraid of seeing people up ahead." But when these cues were removed, the animals would walk straight up the chute.

Yet "In the beginning when I first started doing that, people just couldn't even see why I was doing it."

Temple's work on restraint devices for calf and beef slaughter plants let her see how poor the existing chutes in feedlots were. Through observation and study, Temple determined that even under ideal conditions, cattle could become bruised or injured by going through a conventional squeeze chute. When cattle was more calm the animals would walk through the system more readily, resulting in decreased panic, injuries, pain, and trauma. By changing the design, Temple hoped to introduce a system that would making the handling of the animals easier and the entire process more humane.

As noted on her website for Colorado State University, the Department of Animal Sciences:
Quiet handling of cattle will reduce stress and injuries in squeeze chutes. Excited animals are more difficult to handle. It takes up to 30 minutes for an excited animal to calm down. To keep animals calm in a restraint device they must be calm when they enter it. Cattle should walk into a squeeze chute and walk out of it. Feedlot operators have found that calm handling of cattle in squeeze chutes will enable cattle to go back on feed more quickly.
Though unconventional (and occasionally rejected outright, due to the fact that she was both autistic and a woman), Temple's ability to design systems that were more humane was recognized for its value. As animals that are traumatized will tend to have a lower weight and tougher meat, it was not just (or even) for efficiency and ethical reasons that feedlot owners wanted animal handling methods that would avoid many of the issues of traditional systems - it was also for the better product they yielded.

From 1975 to 2000 Temple worked in the field of animal science and attained a master's degree (1975) and doctorate (1990). Throughout her studies, Temple continued to study and work with animals on feedlots, observing the systems used to handle and even slaughter them.

Original Hand Drawing of Curved Livestock Handling Facility by Temple Grandin
Duel Half-Circle closed pen, designed by Temple Grandin
A system Temple designed at an American meat handling plant
By 2000 Temple had worked as a consultant for all of the leaders in the industry. The most widely used device is the center-track restraining system, that focuses on behavioral principles and reducing outside stimulus rather than the use of force. She designed, introduced, and improved so many restraint and handling systems that it is estimated that when cattle in North American goes to a meat processing facility, half of them are handled in systems she designed.

Besides the US and Canada, Temple also designed livestock handling facilities in New Zealand and Europe, and introduced an objective scoring system to assess the handling of cattle at large plants. Her papers, lectures, and inventions addressing the efficiently and humane handling of animals at meat handling plants transformed the industry and reduced the pain of millions of animals.

Advocate and Educator for Autism

Outside of her profession as an animal behavioral scientist, Temple became a natural advocate and educator about the autistic spectrum. The squeeze machine that she invented as a teenage was adopted by occupational therapists and psychologists and used with hyperactive and autistic children, as well as those with ADHD and learning disabilities. The primary purpose of the machine is to calm and to teach the user to adapt to the stimulation of touch, reducing hyper-awareness.

In an article for the Journal of Child and Adolescent Pharmacology, Temple described how the squeeze machine taught her to become less sensitive to touch.
At age 18, I constructed the squeeze machine to help calm down the anxiety and panic attacks. Using the machine for 15 minutes would reduce my anxiety for up to 45-60 minutes. The relaxing effect was maximized if the machine was used twice a day. Gradually, my tolerance of being held by the squeeze machine grew. Knowing that I could initiate the pressure, and stop it if the stimulation became too intense, helped me to reduce the over-sensitivity of my 'nervous system.'
Using the machine enabled me to learn to tolerate being touched by another person. By age 25, I was able to relax in the machine without pulling away from it. It also made me feel less aggressive and less tense. Soon I noted a change in our cat's reaction to me. The cat, who used to run away from me now would stay with me, because I had learned to caress him with a gentler touch. I had to be comforted myself before I could give comfort to the cat.
Temple became a prominent author and speaker on the subject of autism, publishing her experiences in a series of books. For many it was the first time they had an inside view as to what it was like to experience autism. Though every case will vary, Temple's description of her world as one filled with pain and overstimulation shattered the myth many had of autism as a silent world that could not be penetrated. Moreover, her ability to learn and adapt her system to the outside world and become a highly successful animal scientist proved that a diagnosis of autism was not the death sentence to achievement many took it to be.

Not that she was the first person with autism to accomplish such feats, Temple was quick to point out. There are many individuals with autism around us to varying degrees, and they have been productive and valued members of society. Based on descriptions of their development and behaviors, Albert Einstein was autistic, along with Mozart and Steve Jobs, Temple believes. What is important is focusing on the strengths of a child, and not getting too wrapped up in a label.

Says Temple, "One of the problems today is for a kid to get any special services in school, they have to have a label. The problem with autism is you've got a spectrum that goes from Einstein down to someone with no language. Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you've probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That's a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism."

While the increased identification and diagnosis of autism over the last few decades can be viewed as a positive (in that it helps parents and educators better understand a child's behaviors), it can also be something of a trap, if the label leads to expectations for the child that are too low.

As parental expectations can greatly shape the momentum of a child's therapy and progress, Temple encourages caregivers to challenge autistic children, teaching them social skills and encouraging them to get jobs in the community so they can practice those skills. She advises that children should be "nudged outside of their comfort zone, given responsibilities and tasks - not allowed to become recluses playing video games by themselves all day."

Temple in 2014 giving a speech at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
Photo by Melanie Rieders
Far from seeing autism as a handicap, Temple views it as a gift, and encourages others to consider it as such. Given that the skills of the autistic are unique to their condition, they should be "brought to the table and nurtured," not only for their benefit, but also for society's.

Temple notes that if a cure for autism were found, she would choose to stay the way she is. "I like the really logical way that I think. I'm totally logical. In fact, it kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are," she said. "If you totally got rid of autism, you'd have nobody to fix your computer in the future."

Dr. Grandin presently works as a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She also speaks around the world on both autism and cattle handling.

  • Temple Gradin, PhD. Temple Grandin's Official Autism Website, templegrandin.com, 2016
  • Temple Grandin: Autism is an Ability, not a Handicap. Erica Grossman, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls, amysmartgirls.com, December 4th, 2015
  • Biography: Temple Gradin, Ph.D. Dr. Temple Gradin's webpage, grandin.com, 2016
  • Restraint of Livestock, Dr. Temple Grandin, Dr. Temple Grandin's website, grandin.com, March 2000
  • A Conversation with Temple Grandin, Talk of the Nation, NPR, npr.org, January 20th, 2006,

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