About our guest
Dr. Temple Grandin is well known to many for her trailblazing work as a spokesperson for people with autism and her lifelong work in the field of animal behaviour. Dr. Grandin has been with Colorado State University (CSU) for over 25 years and has led an incredibly productive and diverse professional life.
Her life’s work has been to understand her own autistic mind, and to share that knowledge with the world, helping autistics and people who identify as neurodiverse. Her understanding of the human mind has played a critical role in her work with animal behaviour, and she is one of the most respected experts in both autism and animal behaviour in the world.
“Understanding My Autistic Mind.”
The Early Years
Dr. Temple Grandin didn’t speak until she was four years old. Even when she was able to communicate verbally the external world was complicated.
“…from a sensory standpoint loud noises hurt my ears. Sudden loud noises, like a dentist drill, hitting a nerve. When the grownups talk fast, I thought grown-ups actually had a special grown-up language because it just sounded like gibberish. So my speech teacher would slow down and she’d hold up a cup or some other thing. And she’d say, “Cup.” Get me to say it. And then she’d say, “Cup.” And she’d go back and forth between saying it very slowly and enunciating it because when people slow down, then I can hear.”
Later in life, sensory problems became one of Dr. Grandin’s top research priorities. In fact, it may very well be her #1 research priority, were it not for one common mistake that has been made in the sensory processing research.
“It would be my number one research priority, but one of the problems we’ve got on studying this, is that one person may have visual sensitivity, another one touch sensitivities, another one, auditory sensitivities. And when you study these, you got to separate them out. You can’t just mix them all together.”
The diversity of sensory processing in human groups will become a fundamental element of our conversation.
How do these differences manifest in the real world and what are some possible solutions?
“I was mixing up lifeboat and light bulb for example. Especially when I just had to listen with one ear. Most of the time I have to figure those words out, to context. I had a student who had very severe visual scrambling. Her visual system would pixelate.”
Another example might be visual problems that lead to difficulty reading traditionally printed material. The fascinating thing about Dr. Temple’s ability to “think in pictures,” is that the solution is obvious and can literally change the course of someone’s life.
“I’ve seen that in some cases, save our college career…All that’s known is, in the back of the brain, you have to assemble a graphics file. The eye works like a camera, but the brain seems to split it up into colour, shape, motion texture. And those circuits have to work together. And when strokes break these circuits, you get strange things like losing colour vision, or not having smooth motion vision…
…I was at a meeting where a lady had a head injury and I had a book with some pastel pages in it. She happened to look at light yellow and she goes, “I can see the print. This is just saving me.” And it’s such a simple thing to try. And some people might say, “Well, that’s not evidence-based.” Well, if something’s really safe and cheap like coloured paper, I’m going to just go ahead and try it because sometimes it just might work….this can really help them out.”
What are the types of thinking?
For Dr. Temple Grandin, it’s all about object visualization.
“I’m what’s called an object visualizer. All my thoughts are pictures.”
“Then you have the visual spatial. This is your more mathematical thinker…”
“Then you’ve got people that are strictly a word thing. Everything they think about is in words.”
What became clear was that the modern world needs all types of thinkers. For object visualizers, they might excel at finding practical, hands on solutions like making adjustments to the color of paper.
The beauty of our differences become clear in contexts like engineering.
“Then you have the visual spatial. This is your more mathematical thinker and in designing things, you have the industrial designer side, that’s the visual thinker like me. Then you have the more mathematical engineering side, programming side of things.”
If we become fixated on standardizing education and training, what are the effects?
“Well, it’s going to have a negative effect on losing skills too.”
“There’s two parts of engineering, there’s the object visualizer like me that design really clever things. Then you have your degree engineers. Now I’ve worked on construction projects, every major meat company, including in Canada on great, big, gigantic new plants being built. There’s a very, very interesting division of labor. The mathematical engineers do the boilers and the refrigeration, but all the very intricate, clever equipment that goes inside, we’re having to import it now from Europe because we’re not making it anymore. And that goes back to taking skilled trades out, 25 years ago.”
“And I’m concerned that our education system is screening out us visual thinkers that like to build stuff and you need us. You need us a whole lot.”
There are also implications in the technology space.
“And let’s look at something like Zoom. The reason why Zoom took over everything is because the interface is easy to use. You see, that’s the object visualizer. If somebody like me would have designed the interface, then the programmers have to make the programming work. You see, you have to have both. They are both important.”
What are the ramifications of standardized education on the autistic mind?
Let’s look at something as simple as learning math in the early years.
“Well, the problem is the algebra requirements are screening out a lot of these kids. I cannot do algebra. I’ve never passed algebra.”
The problem with standard, logical learning progressions are laid out clearly in Dr. Grandin’s famous TED talk.
Traditionally, a student who failed algebra may not be allowed to continue to the next level of maths. This, according to Temple Grandin, is a huge mistake. The student who failed algebra because of their unique processing capabilities may show an incredible talent in trigonometry, for example.
What does it mean to push yourself as a person living with autism?
“Well, don’t try to go from a crawl to running a marathon overnight.
What my mother did with me, she stretched me just slightly outside my comfort zone and gave me choices. And there’s a tendency to overprotect and a lot of these kids need to be gotten out. I had a choice when I was 15, go to my aunt’s ranch for a week or I could go all summer, not going wasn’t a choice.
I got out there and I loved it. And if I hadn’t gone to my aunt’s ranch, I wouldn’t have been in the cattle industry.”
Key to realizing your full potential, says Dr. Grandin, is the power of mentors. In her early life, it was Mr. Carlock.
“He was my science teacher and he was the one responsible for getting me from being an awful student who had no motivation to study, to study. And he started out giving me a really interesting projects and the HBO movie showed the optical illusion room and all of the projects I did. I loved that part of it. And what he did for me, is he made studying not something just to please the family, but studying became a pathway to a goal. If I wanted to become a scientist, I would have to study. So he did things and he showed me how scientists read scientific journal articles. I didn’t know what a scientific journal article was. And of course there was no internet then. So he took me to the great big library down in Boston and looked at scientific journal articles.”
“Mentors are very important. I had a great teacher in third grade. My speech teacher was excellent. My mother taught me reading and I learned with phonics, not with sight words.”
What can the International Space Station teach us about living with COVID-19?
“I suggest that people might want to look at life on the International Space Station. You’ve now got seven people up there right now, living in a very confined space. And one thing that NASA has learned is, they have to have a schedule and they have their scheduled work, exercise time, they have a midday meal, they’re all expected to get together for the mid day meal. They also have scheduled time off and Scott Kelly who spent a year on the Space Station said that the schedule was really, really essential.”
How does this factor in to Dr. Temple Grandin’s impressive productivity?
“Well, the most important thing is the getting up in the morning, not sleeping in.”
“I’ve got to get up, make myself do it. And then we’re going to sit down and do the really difficult writing and the hard work in the morning. I do a walk in the afternoon. I try to schedule a lot of these conferences in the afternoon.”
“And I’m finding if I don’t do that, then I really don’t feel very good. And you’ve got to find stuff to do.”
At 73 years old, what keeps Dr. Temple Grandin going?
“I want to see people get out and be successful.”
“That’s what I want to see. It makes me really happy now, now at the age of 73 years old, I’m way past retirement age. Somebody writes to me, “Will your book help my kid go to college or my kid got a job because of something you said on a podcast?” I kind of want to help the younger ones to get out there and be successful. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about identity. Autism’s never been my primary identity. When I started out in the cattle industry, back in the early ’70s, being a woman was 10 times the barrier than autism, 10 times the barrier. I had to be much better than the guys. And for me, scientists, designer, animal behaviour, that comes first. Autism is an important part of who I am. I wouldn’t want to change because I like the logical way I think.”
Dr. Temple Grandin encourage us to remember that we are not only our labels.
“And I’m seeing too many people becoming the label. Now, I think that’s great to get out there and do activism, but you’re going to be a better activist, if you can show what people can do. I really like things like these companies that are deliberately hiring people on the spectrum…”