By studying both animal behavior and her own, Temple Grandin has become a leader in livestock handling and an advocate for people with autism and other learning disabilities.
The well-known author and the topic of an HBO movie that garnered seven Emmys, Grandin was the keynote speaker at the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemens Association Banquet last weekend at the Sky Ute Casino Resort Events Center in Ignacio.
Using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but weve got to do it right, is the philosophy Grandin teaches at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, her student Megan Semler said. Weve got to give those animals a decent life, and weve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.
From silence to advocate
Grandin was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome when she was 3½ and still not speaking. Doctors recommended that she be institutionalized for the rest of her life. Her parents, particularly her mother, Eustacia, decided to try aggressive teaching instead, an approach Grandin strongly supports.
Autism is a continuum of traits that ranges from completely nonverbal to Albert Einstein, she said. He didnt speak until he was 3. The worst thing you can do is do nothing. I recommend at least 20 hours a week of intervention.
Grandin and her accomplishments in the livestock industry first came to the broader worlds notice in 1995, in Oliver Sacks book An Anthropologist from Mars. She was able to tell parents and medical professionals what goes on in the mind of a person with autism.
I realized there were different kinds of minds when I asked people to think about steeples, she said, showing a photo of a generic steeple. Most see something like this, a generalized steeple, but I see only specific steeples, showing several different, distinctive steeples.
Because of the wide range of behaviors in autism, from rocking in a corner to social awkwardness, she warned against basing treatment on a specific diagnosis.
Dont get hung up on diagnostic categories and behavioral profiles, she said. Its not like tuberculosis, where you either have it or you dont.
After suffering for years from serious colitis, a digestive disorder, Grandin was prescribed an antidepressant to deal with the cause severe anxiety.
The fear center in my brain is three times larger than normal, she said. Antidepressants really helped with fear, and so did exercise. Doctors often make the mistake of giving too high a dose, which leads to agitation and insomnia sometimes. It should be half the regular starter dose.
Applying autism to animals
To understand animals, autism, art and mathematics requires getting away from verbal language, said Grandin, who has both masters and doctoral degrees in animal science. In humans, language covers up sensory-based thinking.
Grandin, who always liked animals, became especially fond of cows while spending summers at her aunts ranch.
They have expressive eyes, herd behaviors and predictable habits, she said. An animals world is sensory-based sights, sounds, taste and touch. They see the world in a whole lot of detail.
As a visual thinker, shes sometimes found it difficult to convince verbal thinkers how to see the world through a cows or horses eyes.
Its hard to get people away from using force, Grandin said. Normal people ignore details, animals notice details. They were once going to tear this feedlot down because the cattle wouldnt go in. It turned out they were bothered by the flag waving out in front.
Grandin had some specific advice to see from an animals eye view, from changing flooring to making footing more stable to paying attention to the time of day and the shadows the animals are seeing. She has compiled a checklist of what to look for in one of her books.
Semler used a lot of Grandins ideas in designing a new livestock-handling system at her parents ranch south of Bayfield.
I loved her class, she said. You could say we have a Grandin-approved facility now. I think about the potential that could have been lost if shed been institutionalized. The industry would be so much worse.
Grandin wants ranchers to start using YouTube and other social media to get their message out because too many people dont know how their food is produced.
Kids in California dont know the difference between broiling and laying chickens, she said. They think eggs grow in the ground just like potatoes.
I like to figure it out
When I was younger, I was called stupid, Grandin said. I now understand its different ways of thinking. We need to be working together.
Grandin has identified four broad categories of thinking styles verbal, auditory, visual and pattern. A strong visual thinker, she sees events in the world as problems.
I like to figure it out, she said.
She has spent a lot of time analyzing plane crashes, determining the most frequent cause is a malfunction in the tail. Grandin is now reading all she can about the explosions and problems at the nuclear reactors in post-earthquake Japan.
They need people who think like me there, she said.
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