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MARCH 2006

Women Shaping History:
Dr. Temple Grandin:
Veterinarian, Advocate for Autism

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Temple Grandin was not your typical student. Growing up as an autistic child in New England in the fifties, at a time when little research had been done into this fast growing developmental disability affecting social interaction and communication, she encountered powerful learning barriers and painful social stigmas. Yet by adulthood, Grandin went on to get a Ph.D. in Animal Science and to design livestock handling facilities that are used worldwide. She is currently an Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, has written several books (including a New York Times best seller, Animals in Translation) and hundreds of scholarly articles on both livestock handling and autism, and travels extensively as a lecturer and guest professor.

Education Update tracked Grandin down in between a five day guest lecture on animal behavior at Cornell University and a speaking engagement in Kansas. Recalling her childhood at a time when autism was referred to as an “emotional disturbance,” Grandin described herself as “a goof around student who just didn’t care about studying…I was very motivated to do a lot of things, like making sets for the school play, but it just wasn’t studying.” Like many children on the autism spectrum, Grandin had uneven academic skills. “I did fine in English, history, and bio, but I had problems with math and foreign language,” she recalls. “I didn’t know as a little kid that everyone didn’t think in pictures…I see everything visually,” she adds. And of course there was the teasing, so hurtful by adolescence that Grandin was kicked out of the public high school she was attending for engaging in a fight with a girl who called her a “retard.” During those years, the bright light for Grandin was a kind and caring science teacher named Bill Carlock, who “gave me a reason to study…We did interesting science projects in his lab. We learned about optical illusions, electronics…we made a light show…He was an incredible mentor to me.”

Following her expulsion from public high school, Grandin enrolled in a small boarding school for gifted, “emotionally disturbed” children. She was accepted into Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire “through the back door” as she did not have the requisite strengths in all areas of academic study. (Grandin worries that state and national testing initiatives are making it harder for students like her to get to college: “We’re screening a lot of very talented people out,” she regrets.)

Even in the working world, Grandin had to overcome prejudice and sexual harassment. “I was once kicked out of a feed yard because they said cowboys’ wives wouldn’t like me,” she recounts humorously. Yet she persevered, obtaining her masters and doctoral degrees part-time while gaining valuable work experience in livestock management and design. Today, almost half of the cattle in North America are handled in a center track restrainer system that Grandin designed for meat plants. She’s designed curved chute and race systems for cattle that are used globally and her publications on the flight zone and other dynamics of grazing animal behavior are used as fundamental guides to animal handling. (Grandin attributes part of her design acumen to her grandfather, a Ph.D. in engineering from M.I.T. who was one of the inventors of the auto pilot mechanism in aircrafts.)

Although she is a heavily demanded speaker and writer in the autism field, Grandin intentionally allocates two-thirds of her professional time to livestock issues, calling it her “real job.” Of the dozens of awards that dot her resume, she’s particularly proud of the 1995 Industry Advancement Award from the American Meat Institute (“it’s recognition from my own industry”), and there are numerous awards for her humane treatment of animals.

With the remaining one-third of her professional time, Grandin is a tireless advocate for families and children who live with autism, using a discussion format that “gives people very specialized information mixed in with my personal experiences.” In addition to covering the scientific and research aspects of autism, Grandin advises people on the autism spectrum to get into clubs that foster shared interests, like robotics or chess clubs in their schools. (“Socialization alone doesn’t really interest me,” says Grandin.) She also discusses the use of medications candidly (“if I didn’t take anti-depressant medication, I wouldn’t be functioning,” she confides.) Finally, she lays out career options for different kinds of thinkers, including the visual thinkers who think in pictures like her, the music/math thinkers who think in patterns, and the “word specialists” who are most like Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of “The Rainman.”

While Grandin admits that, despite setbacks, she has found success by using her mind to solve problems and create inventions, like Holden Caulfield, she worries about those with autism who may not be as lucky as she. “I’m concerned about young people lost in big high schools who don’t have a Mr. Carlock,” she muses.#



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