5 Questions: Temple Grandin discusses autism, animal communication

Temple Grandin, an autism-rights activist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, will discuss autism and animal behavior in a Nov. 19 talk at Stanford.

- By Ruthann Richter

Temple Grandin will speak about animals and autism on Nov. 19 at Stanford.
Rosalie Winard

Temple Grandin, PhD, is one of the most well-known and accomplished adults with autism. As a child, she did not speak until she was 3 1/2, communicating her frustration by screaming, peeping and humming. Born in 1947, she  was diagnosed with autism in 1950, at which point her parents were told she should be institutionalized.

Grandin ultimately went on to earn a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois in 1989. She is currently a designer of livestock-handling facilities, consulting for major U.S. companies, and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She has been widely featured in the media, including a 2010 TED talk titled, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.”

Grandin will speak at free public event at noon Nov. 19 in Stanford’s Clark Center auditorium. Her talk is titled, “Animals Make Us Human,” and it is sponsored by the School of Medicine’s Department of Comparative Medicine. (Seating is limited and is on a first-come, first-served basis.) Recently, she answered some questions about the condition and her work with animals from writer Ruthann Richter and Sherril Green, DVM, PhD, professor of comparative medicine.

Q. How does autism help you connect in a unique way to animals?

Grandin: Autism helped me understand animals because I think in pictures. Since animals do not have language, their memories have to be sensory-based instead of word-based. In my early animal behavior work, I noticed that cattle often balked and refused to walk over shadows or pass a coat hung on a fence. In the 1970s, it was a new idea to look at things that cattle were seeing.

There is scientific evidence that animals think in pictures, and that this learning is very specific. When an animal is trained to tolerate one type of activity, it does not easily transfer to another similar activity. For example, habituating a horse to tolerate the sudden opening of an umbrella does not transfer to a flapping tarp. Animals often get specific fear memories that are associated with aversive events. A horse that had alcohol thrown in its eyes during a veterinary procedure became afraid of black cowboy hats. A white cowboy hat was safe and a black hat was scary. He was looking at a black cowboy hat when the alcohol was thrown.

Q. Children with autism frequently experience challenges with language. What role might that play in their communication with animals?

Grandin: Verbal language is not required for communication with animals. Many nonverbal children with autism really understand animals. Parents have told me that their nonverbal child has an almost telepathic ability to communicate with their dog. I explain that it is not telepathy. Instead, the child is observing subtle body posture changes that many people do not notice. The child is observing detailed changes in the dog’s behavior.

Q. What have we learned from people with autism that can make us better stewards and guardians of our animals?

Grandin: Animal cognition has similarities to autism cognition. Animals are very aware of small, sensory details in the environment. People on the autism spectrum excel at work involving details. SAP, a large computer company, is hiring people on the mild end of the autism spectrum to debug and correct computer programs.

Concepts are formed from specific examples. To train a dog to always obey the “sit” command, it must be taught in many different locations. If all the dog’s training is done in the living room, the dog may only obey the commands in the living room. To teach a child with autism about road safety, he needs to be taught in many different locations. These similarities between animals and autism apply only to cognition. They do not apply to the emotions. Animals are highly social and emotional creatures.

Q. What animal was your first pet? As a child, did your pet provide support to you in a way humans could not?

Grandin: Our family had a golden retriever and a Siamese cat. My first pet when I was in elementary school was a white mouse named Crusader. He was given to me by the boy who lived next door. He gave me both Crusader and his cage. I was very protective of Crusader and was worried that our cat might eat him. I fastened the sliding cage door with a large safety pin. I had visualized Simon, our Siamese cat, sliding the door open. Securing the door with a safety pin made it impossible for our cat to open it.

Q. Working in animal welfare requires the ability to view the world from the animal’s point of view. Can you talk about how your experience of empathy with animals may be different from that of your colleagues?

Grandin: I enjoyed playing with Crusader and letting him climb up a string. For some children with autism, animals provide tremendous emotional support. As a young child, I was happiest when I worked with a classmate on a project. In fourth grade, I had a fun time with a friend when the assignment was to make caveman tools with all natural materials.

I have a sensory-based empathy with animals and can really relate to animal welfare issues when it comes to housing. One form of restrictive animal housing that must be changed is sow gestation stalls. It would be like living in an airline seat and never being allowed to walk in the aisle. I can feel the muscle cramps I would get if I could not move around.

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