Temple Grandin on Where Cattle Go When They Die and the Value of Nerds

Categories: Q&A

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In the last decade, social media and the Internet have assisted in getting more eyes and ears on the subject of autism, giving us a better understanding of what children on the autistic spectrum need on a daily basis, whether or not vaccinations play a role and how to edge them into adulthood. As more research has been done, its spectrum has broadened as well.

Temple Grandin was lucky that her diagnosis in 1950, when little was known about autism, also came with a mother who made sure she got the one-on-one contact she needed. When she was in graduate school, Grandin visualized and developed a system for herding cattle into slaughterhouses.

It was a more humane approach, which involved viewing the slaughterhouse from the cattle's perspective, and pinpointing what made them stressed or scared. Her design is now used in most modern abattoirs. More recently, her life story was told via Temple Grandin, a 2010 movie for HBO, in which Claire Danes played her.

In addition to a busy schedule of teaching classes at Colorado State University and working with her company, Grandin Livestock, she is currently on a tour for her latest book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum. She'll be at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas today, as part of the DMA's Wit & Wisdom series.

Grandin thinks in images. When asked what she pictures when she thinks about the autistic brain, she cites "anatomical maps, Google image searches of what the brain looks like." Animals often think in images too, which is why she's been able to design to their needs.

"Mainly what we're seeing now is more problems with lame animals, stressed animals," she says. "We have to fix them; that's the future. They're going wild because they see a man on foot approaching, not because they know they're going to the slaughterhouse."

Since you envision how to calm cattle in the slaughterhouse, do you think about their afterlife?
Well, it makes you think about your mortality. And hopefully you do find some value in your life. We owe them a decent life.

How important is it to get kids on the spectrum into the workforce?
Extremely important, especially on the higher end, too. At 13, my mom got me a sewing job; at 15, I was working in horse stalls. It's such a wide spectrum. What bothers me is, I'm finding too many socially awkward, geeky kids not learning work skills.

How much has that spectrum changed?
We're seeing much milder cases, but they keep changing the diagnostic criteria. Early on, they had to have speech delay at age 3. Now, they took out Asperger's, that's considered a social communication disorder. ... The diagnostic criteria keeps changing: older parents, exposure to various chemicals in the environments.

Having lived in a world without social media and the Internet, and now living in one where kids are often being overstimulated by it, do you think that's an issue?
There's one area where we need more research, and that's sensory problems. ... At one end, we've got the Silicon Valley nerd, and at the other end, we've got those who can't talk, who have to live in supervised housing. Develop their area of strength. They need to learn work skills, one-on-one is essential. Good at math? Work at that. Good at art? Work at that. Good at music? Work at that.

Temple Grandin will be at First Presbyterian on Friday, May 10, at 7:30pm. The event is sold out, but simulcast tickets are still available at dma.org.


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