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An Interview with Temple Grandin

“A lot of famous musicians and scientists would probably be placed on the autism spectrum if they were [children] today. I’ve been to Silicon Valley. Half of those programmers are on the spectrum.”

Kinds of talks in Temple Grandin’s arsenal:
Cattle talks
Meat industry talks
Autism talks
Different-kinds-of-minds talks

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Temple Grandin

“A lot of famous musicians and scientists would probably be placed on the autism spectrum if they were [children] today. I’ve been to Silicon Valley. Half of those programmers are on the spectrum.”

Kinds of talks in Temple Grandin’s arsenal:
Cattle talks
Meat industry talks
Autism talks
Different-kinds-of-minds talks

by Ross Simonini
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Temple Grandin

Ross Simonini
60 Snaps

Before committing to an interview, Temple Grandin asked that I give her a call. She wanted to hear the tone of my voice. Like many people with autism, Grandin finds vocal tone easier to understand than, say, the content of an email, which can be emotionally ambiguous and easily misinterpreted.

Grandin’s own vocal tone is singular—brash and commanding, with a rounded, charming drawl that hints at a childhood spent in Boston. She didn’t speak until her fourth birthday. She is now seventy-one and speaks for a living—lecturing and teaching—and talking with her can be a bracing and refreshingly honest experience. When we spoke, her first comment to me—even before a how-are-you greeting—was about my outgoing voicemail message, which she found off-putting and confusing. She had just boarded a plane, and she then spent ten minutes describing the (surprisingly comfortable) process of passing through airport security.

People with autism often have amplified sensory experiences of common occurrences. Grandin was born hypersensitive to the haptic—to be touched in any way was painful for her. Her autism also creates an intensely focused attention and a rigorously analytical mind. As a teenager, she used these gifts to design a “squeeze machine” to desensitize herself to pressure. The device was a box with moving walls, which allowed her to give herself a kind of hug and gently calm her overstimulated nervous system. Many autistic people now use the squeeze machine, and Grandin has since famously applied this invention for soothing cattle. This was the start of her long career rethinking the treatment of livestock, a process she’s made more humane and efficient.

Despite her preference for oral communication, Grandin has built her career on writing. Since 1980, she’s published ten books and a variety of scientific papers on the nature of autistic thinking, livestock behavior, and the connections between the two. Grandin’s most recent book, Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor, traces the history of invention through kites, sailboats, stereoscopes, and a variety of human culture’s most useful creations. The book is intended for all ages, but it’s clear from Grandin’s introduction that she hopes the book will introduce children (especially those with what she calls “different minds”) to the kind of innovative thinking that transformed her life.

I spoke to Grandin from a recording studio at Colorado State University, where she is a professor of animal science. She responded to all my questions with pointed directness, and ended her responses with a sharp silence. At one point, she stopped the interview to ask where I was headed with my line of questioning, and I told her I was just trying to keep up.

—Ross Simonini

 

I. “HE’S TWENTY-TWO AND I CAN’T GET HIM OUT OF THE BASEMENT.”

THE BELIEVER: How do you define invention?

TEMPLE GRANDIN: Well, it’s designing something new that’s really totally novel. And in writing Calling All Minds, I had to read the patent office’s definition of invention. It has to be novel and non-obvious. Well, I’ve seen some patents lately that didn’t fit that description, but that was the original intent of invention.

BLVR: How did you come to inventing?

TG: When I was a young child, my favorite book was about famous inventors. You know, they were just so clever in figuring out how to make things. I remember reading about the sewing machine, and they had to stop the needle from snapping off, so they put the needle eye next to the point. And that kind of stuff fascinated me. And when I was real little, seven and eight years old, I spent hours tinkering, making little bird kites that would fly, parachutes, helicopters, and other little inventions, and my grandfather’s an inventor. He was the co-inventor of the autopilot for airplanes. And he had to tinker a lot! He worked on it with another scientist, and they had to tinker and tinker to get it to work. He came up with three little stationary coils that would detect differences in the magnetic force and that could then tell [the pilot] which way the plane was going. And it was a very simple concept, and a lot of the experts in aviation thought it was completely crazy, but it worked.

BLVR: What contemporary inventors do you see transforming society?

TG: The guy who invented the World Wide Web. He simply said it’s “www dot domain name dot com.” And the guy who figured out email. It’s your name at a server that’s somewhere. Those are very simple ideas, but sometimes the simple things are hard to think up. My concern is with all the stuff that’s going on with social media. Ten years ago I gave a talk at one of our cattle meetings, and I said that one of the problems [of] social media is that it magnifies the voices of the extreme right and extreme left. Like-minded folks just talking to like-minded folks.

That’s why when I accept speaking engagements, I do some cattle talks; I do some meat industry talks; I do some autism talks; I do some general different-kinds-of-minds talks, especially at tech companies, because when I go to tech companies, I see all kinds of engineers [who] are undiagnosed on the milder end of the autism spectrum.

BLVR: Do you think they should be diagnosed? Would that be helpful?

TG: I’ve had graduate students [who] were probably undiagnosed on the spectrum, and one of them got a really good job and is doing really well. With older folks, where a diagnosis can be helpful is to give them insight into relationships. I have a book called Different… Not Less[: Inspiring Stories of Achievement and Successful Employment from Adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD]. It’s fourteen older people on the mild end of the autism spectrum [who were] diagnosed later in life because their marriages and relationships had a lot of problems.

I had two granddads write to me just within the last week and tell me, “Yeah, I figured out I was on the autism spectrum after the kids got diagnosed.” And granddad’s had a job all his life because he had a paper route at eleven. So now I tell parents [to] find new things to substitute for the paper route, like walking dogs, community center jobs, church volunteer jobs. I want them doing something on a schedule outside the family, and it’s a job.

BLVR: Do you think everyone is on the autism spectrum?

TG: The thing is, the autism spectrum is a continuum, and when does “socially awkward” turn into a diagnosis? And then you get to people [who] are hyper-social, on the opposite end of the spectrum. Einstein would definitely be labeled autistic today. He had no speech until age three. A lot of famous musicians and scientists would probably be placed on the autism spectrum if they were [children] today. I’ve been to Silicon Valley. Half of those programmers are on the spectrum. They don’t have very many social skills.

BLVR: You often speak about the importance of acknowledging “different minds.” Besides autistic minds, what kinds of minds are you talking about?

TG: I’m talking about the guy [who’s] a genius with mechanical stuff, the guy [who], if given the opportunity to be a genius with computer programming, well, how’s the kid going to learn computer programming if he’s not exposed to it? And what I have found now [about] video gaming is that they’re not learning programming. The old-timers [who] played games learned programming because the games were more primitive. But I have moms come up to me and say, “He’s twenty-two and I can’t get him out of the basement. And he doesn’t have a fabulous career in video-game programming.”

BLVR: It’s one of the largest media industries in the world.

TG: The World Health Organization just came out with a statement about video-game syndrome. It’s sort of like drinking wine or alcohol. In moderation, it’s fine. There’s lots of people who like and enjoy a [glass of] wine once in a while or a beer once in a while, and it’s just fine. But there’s others [for whom] it is an addiction.

BLVR: Do you play?

TG: I don’t. I’m afraid I’ll get addicted.

BLVR: What about wine?

TG: I don’t really like the effect of it. I like to just take little sips and get the flavor.

 

II. “I AM NOT A WORD THINKER.”

BLVR: How often are you thinking about ideas for inventions?

TG: Well, it depends. I am not a word thinker. Everything I think about is a picture. When you said “idea,” I actually got a picture of “IKEA.” And that’s not an appropriate association, but it’s something that sounds similar. You see, I am not a word thinker.

BLVR: The relationship between “idea” and “IKEA” is sound.

TG: I think one of the reasons I said “IKEA” is because I have the head of IKEA in my slideshow because he was dyslexic. You know, when I give talks about autism and people [who] have different kinds of thinking, I like to show famous businesspeople [who] are either dyslexic or have ADHD. 

You have to let these kids out there find something that [their] disability doesn’t prevent [them] from doing well. That’s what Stephen Hawking said. And when I was a young child, my ability in art was always encouraged, and I was encouraged to draw pictures of lots and lots and lots of different sorts of things. You want to take the thing that the kids are interested in and expand it. He likes cars: let’s teach [him] the science of how a car works. Let’s teach [him] the history of making cars. In other words, use cars as an associative link to study a whole lot of other subjects.

BLVR: Do you still make art?

TG: No, I’m pretty much speaking and writing now.

BLVR: For someone who is so visual, you’ve become dedicated to words.

TG: Well, I’ve always been dedicated to words. You know, starting out as a woman in a man’s industry back in the early ’70s wasn’t easy. And one of the things that motivated me was that I wanted to prove I could do it. I wanted to prove I was not stupid. And I had to make myself twice as good as the guys. In fact, it’s kind of disheartening sometimes. I’ve worked for every major meat company, and I’ve been in the boardrooms of a lot of big corporations, and you can find some guys [who] do some really stupid stuff that costs a ton of money, and they still manage to keep a job.

BLVR: Whereas a woman would not be—

TG: Oh, a woman would get fired for doing that. You know, I had to make myself super good at what I did.

BLVR: Have you found that it’s become easier for you and for other women in the industry?

TG: It’s a lot easier now. Like today—OK, in the beef industry, for example, there’s lots of women in it now. When I started out there were no women working out in the yards with the cattle. I was one of the first ones in Arizona. Now there are lots of women in it.

BLVR: Do you think women take a different approach to this industry?

TG: The people [who] come to me [who] want to study animal welfare, the people [who] email in—they are mostly women.

 

III. “THE LITTLE OLD LADY FROM PASADENA”

BLVR: As a visual thinker, what’s your relationship like to the internet?

TG: I have a visual memory that you can search, and putting in keywords brings up certain files. Now, I don’t remember every hotel room I’ve ever been in, but I remember the really terrible ones, and I remember the really weird ones. But if you put keywords into my mind, I can start pulling up images.

So I found that finding stuff on the internet was easy for me. Lots of people aren’t creative on their keyboards. When I talk to my students, I say to remember that cattle has got five different keywords: cows, bulls, calves, heifers, steers, and you’ve got to use all the keywords in separate searches or you may not find some of the papers. So I spend time surfing the internet, especially for scientific information.

I was sort of flabbergasted to realize it works exactly how my mind works, because I am a bottom-up thinker. I don’t make an abstract top-down theory. I put my theories together based on the information that I get, and I put that information into different categories. And then, just two years ago, I learned that’s how an artificial-intelligence program works. And that was a real mindblower for me.

BLVR: Do you approach the writing process by beginning with the particular?

TG: Well, I do a lot of technical writing, and so let’s say I’m talking about cattle handling. I see it, and then I describe how to move the cattle, and then I make diagrams showing it. But as I write about it, I see it. It’s not abstract. In fact, I see it in a specific place. You know, it’s—it’s not just something abstract. I even name the ranch or the feedlot that I’m describing. People have asked me, “What’s helped you to make positive differences in the cattle industry?” Well, when I’d just started out, I did lots and lots of writing. I designed a project, and then I would write about it.

BLVR: What about reading? Mostly technical?

TG: Right now I’m going over some scientific studies and differences in methods, and everybody else concentrates on what statistical package they used. That is not my good subject. I’m going to let some other journal article reviewer look at that, but I’m going to look at the methods. Exactly how did they do the experiment? And when I reviewed the journal articles, I said, “Wait a minute: you didn’t tell me what breed of pig you used. That could totally change the results.” So I look at the details of the methods, and on many research projects from many different kinds of things, small changes in methods can totally change the results.

There was an article either in Science or Nature about problems replicating biomedical experiments, and a very slight difference in methods—shaking cells versus just gently stirring them—totally changed the results of some cancer experiments. So details of methods matter.

BLVR: Do you read novels?

TG: I like reading novels. I don’t really like mysteries, because there’s too much convoluted plot. I’m not good with sequence stuff. I like stuff that describes faraway, interesting places, and then as I read it I can, like, watch a movie in my mind, like maybe a science fiction book that describes another planet or describes a futuristic technology. And then I can see it.

BLVR: Novels can be written poetically—

TG: I was just reading a book the other day and I’m going, Really? You know, they’ve gone crazy with the flowery language.

BLVR: Right. I wondered how you would respond to that kind of artful approach to writing.

TG: Well, I’m really interested in different ways that people think, and you need the different minds working together. A visual thinker sometimes will think up the idea for something, but then the engineers have to figure out how to make it work. The iPhone is a good example of that.

BLVR: You brought up science fiction earlier, it always strikes me as an interesting platform for invention. It can allow for new ideas that might not be accepted in science.

TG: Well, I think it’s interesting that Arthur C. Clarke, for example, came up with the idea of the communications satellite long before one was launched. And then you take something like the tablet computer. You go back and you look at the old [1968 movie] [2001: A] Space Odyssey, and there’s a scene in the [film] of a tablet computer sitting on a counter. I found out how they made that back in the old days. They put a 16 mm movie camera underneath the desk to make that picture. But that predicted the tablet computer.

BLVR: What are the classic books for you?

TG: Well, when I was a young child I loved The [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz. Now, of course, the pictures for it are the illustrations in the book and the movie, which I’ve seen probably twenty times throughout my life. So I get those pictures.

BLVR: You’ve often talked about how to better understand animals we should get away from words and move toward pictures.

TG: An animal’s memory, and everything an animal does, is sensory: pictures, sounds, smells, touch sensations. This is now getting me thinking about Oliver Sacks’s piece about a guy who took some drug and got a greatly enhanced sense of smell. And he said he could imagine maybe the smell world a dog would be in.

BLVR: You’ve also talked a lot about sound as it relates to animals. How are you taking sound into consideration when you design slaughterhouses?

TG: Well, I developed a scoring system for slaughterhouses, and if you’ve got cattle bellowing when you’re handling them, you’re doing something bad. So I use the vocalization scoring to pinpoint really severe problems. And [if they’ve] got something bad going on, like lots of electric prods, hold[ing] them too tight with a restraint device, slam[ming] a door on them, your vocalization score might be 20 to 30 percent of the cattle, and then I get that stopped, [and] it drops down to 5 percent. And so that’s a very good method.

BLVR: And what about the sounds around them in the slaughterhouse?

TG: Well, I have found that visual things are more of a distraction to the cattle. That something as simple as a paper towel hanging out of a holder can make the cattle stop and refuse to move, or just seeing people walking by up in front, or maybe a little piece of metal that’s jiggling, or a reflection on the water that’s on the floor that’s jiggling. And then I change the lighting to get rid of the reflection, and the cattle walk right up the chute.

BLVR: And these triggers are associative.

TG: Well, you see, now you’re getting into an abstraction. The association is: you say something to me, and it’s like a keyword in Google. You’re using Google Images. You put in keywords, you get pictures. And then sometimes it gets off the subject. That’s where I use the word associative.

BLVR: Is classical music good for calming animals, as they say it is?

TG: When you say classical music, I see that picture from 2001: A Space Odyssey of the space station with a Pan Am space shuttle docking with it, and they’re playing “The Blue Danube,” and “The Blue Danube” for me is forever associated with that space-shuttle-docking scene.

BLVR: This is the association.

TG: Everything in my mind is associative, and sometimes I’ll see something visual and get a musical association. Like, for example, I was driving along and I saw this old wooden rickety garage, and I immediately started hearing [sings], “Go, Granny! Go, Granny! Go, Granny, go! Parked in a rickety old garage is a brand-new shiny red Super Stock Dodge!” [from the song “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” by the Beach Boys] And I saw a garage that would have been perfect for that car.

 

IV. LAVENDER PAPER

BLVR: In the past, you’ve said you were especially responsive to tone of voice.

TG: Tone of voice was one of the few social cues I could get, and if I was worried that maybe a client wasn’t happy with some of my work, I’d call them up and make sure he didn’t have a whiny tone in his voice. I could tell if he was happy or not.

BLVR: You’ve also worked toward desensitizing yourself to certain sensory stimulation.

TG: Well, I can now tolerate people hugging me, and I use my squeezing machine to help desensitize me. And there’s actually a therapy that’s used to desensitize sensory problems. A child can tolerate it a whole lot better if they have control over it. When I used the squeeze machine, I had control. If a kid is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, let the kid play with the vacuum cleaner. So he is or she is turning that vacuum cleaner on and off. It’s having control.

And then there’s this paper that’s really good called “Environmental Enrichment as an Effective Treatment for Autism.” It’s done as an adjunct to other therapies, and what you do is you stimulate two senses at the same time, like maybe listen[ing] to classical music and smell[ing] an aromatherapy smell. And you’re always changing the pair of stimuli that you stimulate. One of the senses is always one of the more primitive senses, like touch, smell, or balance. And you’re always changing the pair of senses that you stimulate, and when you have psychologists [who are] blind to treatment, it seems to make improvements. You’re talking about something you can do with simple household things [in] two fifteen-minute sessions a day, so even people [who] are on a budget can do it.

BLVR: Have you had to desensitize yourself to other senses as well?

TG: Visual stimuli have never been a problem for me, but there are other individuals [for whom] visual stimuli—especially sharp contrasts of light and dark, stripes, checkerboards—are really bad. There are some people [for whom], when they go to read, they see the print jiggle on the page, so they usually end up labeled with dyslexia. And a real simple thing that can sometimes fix the print jingling on the page is printing the book onto different pastel papers, like maybe lavender, light gray, light blue, all your different pastel colors, the light pastel colors. I don’t know why it works, but I helped about five students not flunk out of school by telling them about colored paper.

I know a person who’s really important in the cattle business, and he’s spent thousands of dollars on his dyslexia, but he’s got lavender paper in his printer now and is loving it! It doesn’t work for everybody, but if somebody has dyslexia and they see the print jiggle on the page, and they tend to be the person who’s terrified of escalators—they can’t tell how to get on and off of them—and they see flickering on old-fashioned fluorescent lights (which are pretty much getting phased out now)—for these people, the pale colored paper can really work.

 

V. “THE WORLD OF PHYSICAL THINGS”

BLVR: Do you think all people are music, math, or verbal thinkers?

TG: Well, when a person has a label like autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, there tends to be more uneven skills. Really good at one thing, really terrible at something else. I was horrible in algebra. That made no sense to me. I’m an object visualizer. Another kind of thinker is a pattern thinker. These are your mathematicians, your engineers and programmers. They think in patterns. And then there’s a person who thinks pretty much mainly in words, and I find lots of them in radio. In fact, one radio person said to me, “Well, I went into radio because I hated TV because I didn’t know what to do with the pictures.”

BLVR: Do you feel you have more in common with people who are pictorial thinkers?

TG: Well, I think it’s important to learn how to work with other kinds of thinkers, because they complement [one another]. Some of my books have coauthors, and one of the reasons for that is [that] as a visual thinker I ramble around all over the place because it’s associative. So I’ve got to have a word thinker to keep my thoughts in line.

Sometimes the simple kind of visual inventions are the hard things to think up. Let’s look at the problem of risk. Engineers try to calculate the risk of having a hundred-year storm that’s going to wreck the city or whatever. Engineers try to calculate risk, a visual thinker sees risk, and when I found out why the Fukushima nuclear power plant burned up, I just couldn’t believe it. They made a visual-thinking mistake so basic I couldn’t believe they made it. It’s not a very good idea [if] you live next to the sea to put your super-important, electrically operated emergency cooling pump in a non-waterproof basement. If they had had watertight doors, it would not have happened. You see, I see the water going into the basement. The engineer doesn’t see the water filling the basement.

BLVR: Do you often think in terms of risk?

TG: Well, I’m concerned about some self-driving cars stuff. Years ago they had the problems with airbags killing babies and young children. There’s no way I would have made that mistake. I would have looked at a few videos and gone, “Hey, this isn’t going to work. That full-size man, he’d better get his seat belt on.” Because if you make the bag strong enough to hold in the unbelted full adult male, it’s going to kill babies and children. There’s no way I would have made that mistake. You see, what the engineers were doing was just building it to a spec, to a calculation.

BLVR: Are you concerned that the world is moving in a less hands-on sort of direction through computers?

TG: I am very concerned. Well, one of the reasons I did the book Calling All Minds is they got kids growing up today [who] don’t do any hands-on stuff. For over twenty-five years, I’ve been teaching my livestock handling class, and the students have to make a drawing of a cattle-handling facility. And what we’ve been finding in the last five years or so is that they’re having a harder and harder time doing this. I have students who don’t know what a compass is. They’ve never drawn with a ruler. I now have to explain to them why learning how to do a scale drawing is a useful skill. Let’s just look at something simple: you bought this big couch; will it fit in your apartment? That’d be a simple reason for knowing how to use a ruler. And we are getting a lot of kids today [who are] growing up totally separated from the world of physical things. And we have a huge shortage of skilled trades, electricians. We’re building a lot of buildings right here on campus [at Colorado State] right now, and I’ve talked to two of the bosses on the jobs and they can’t find enough electricians, people to fix all the damage after the floods, people who work on power lines, plumbers, auto mechanics, welders. Huge shortage. And these jobs are not going to go away and they’re not going to get replaced by computers.

BLVR: Are you finding this in your students?

TG: Writing skills are absolutely horrible in college students. Run-on sentences. I get asked all the time: how did you influence the cattle industry? I was a very good writer, and I wrote lots of articles for trade magazines, for scientific journals. But we’ve got students today [for whom] I have to do high school English corrections on their papers. And I indict the educational system for that.

You know what I’m seeing? I’m seeing the papers that I read on an airplane and spent more time copyediting than I did reading for content. I was halfway back in the plane in an aisle seat. I think it was on JetBlue, so I actually had legroom. You see, I’m getting a picture of that. And then also we had to have a discussion recently in my class on adding additional information for the students on just how to use the scale ruler and how it works. So now I’m sitting in the conference room and I actually can remember what seat in the conference room I was in.

BLVR: The way you talk about the association, it sounds almost overwhelming. Out-of-body-like.

TG: Well, the images come and go.

BLVR: As a visual thinker, do you gravitate toward visual art?

TG: We have a physics sculpture that I had to walk right under to come into the studio, and it has a quote on it by Newton, and it talks about being able to see farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants that worked before him. That is really true.

BLVR: Whose shoulders are you standing on?

TG: I had an excellent animal behavior class when I was in college, which got me interested in animal behavior. And this was in the era when everything was operant conditioning, B. F. Skinner, and stimulus response. But still, I had an animal behavior class from a person who was a reptile specialist, and he explained how animals had instinctual, built-in, fixed action patterns or behavior patterns. That was important for me because everybody else at the time [believed in] the stimulus response. Everything is learned; everything is stimulus. Well, the old ethologists don’t say that. That was a very influential course for me.

BLVR: For someone who works so much with animals, do you ever have pets?

TG: Well, I’m traveling about 85 percent of the time right now, so I can’t.

BLVR: Would you like to?

TG: Yeah, I would.

BLVR: Would you have dogs or cats?

TG: Probably a dog.

BLVR: You seem like a dog person.

TG: My assistant used to have this little dog named Annie, and she was a blue heeler. Annie loved me. I’d drive up to his place, she’d come running. So I’d rub her on the belly. I was best buds with Annie. I think she liked me better than she liked her owner.

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