PULLMAN, Wash. – It’s hard to imagine that the woman who addressed an overflow crowd at Washington State University Monday night hardly uttered a word until her fourth birthday.
Or that she was labeled brain damaged and classmates nicknamed her “Retard.” Or that she fought back with fists in high school and got kicked out.
Today, Temple Grandin is a renowned animal scientist who has autism. In 2010, Time magazine named her “one of the world’s most influential people.” She is an author and the subject of a recent award-winning HBO film that opens: “I’m Temple Grandin and I’m not like other people.”
Partly this means that, because of her autism, Grandin can understand how animals see the world in a way that most humans cannot. Which is why WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine hosted her presentation at the CUB ballroom and apparently why more than 1,000 people came to hear her speak.
“Autism made school and social life hard, but it made animals easy,” she told an audience so large that roughly 150 people were asked to sit in nearby rooms to watch Grandin on live videostream.
Grandin, who earned her Ph.D. in animal science at the University of Illinois and teaches part-time at Colorado State University, divides her time between promoting animal welfare and autism awareness.
She struggles to interpret human behavior but understands animals just fine, she explained. Consequently, she said, she knows how to keep cattle calm as they walk through a chute (shadows, dangling chains or objects blowing about on the ground will spook them) and why a horse might refuse to enter a trailer (it previously banged its head when entering one).
Dressed in her typical Western wear of black jeans, an embroidered blouse and a neckerchief, Grandin described how her autistic world gives her insight into the world of animals. It is a place of anxiety with heightened sensations of sounds, sights and smells, she said. It is also where thoughts come in pictures, not words.
“An animal’s world is sensory based, not language based. To understand them, you’ve got to get away from language and enter their sensory world,” she said, speaking fast and waving a hand in the air.
More than half of the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in livestock facilities she designed, according to Grandin. And so, during her presentation, she gave the audience a cow’s-eye view of feed yards, corrals and chutes, explaining how she has been able to figure out what scares cattle and what puts them at ease.
“I walk through (livestock facilities) at the same height as a cow and take pictures,” she said.
By doing this, she discovered that shadows from fence posts, hanging latch chains, slippery surfaces and dark entrances often stress out cattle, causing them to halt and draw back.
“Normal human minds will ignore details like these,” she said. “It’s important to use behavior not force to get animals to do things.”
The way Grandin regards aspects of her autism as gifts rather than handicaps is what drew WSU animal sciences majors Danielle Ducharme and Kyleigh Montgomery to hear her speak. Each freshman clutched a just-purchased book written by Grandin, the ink still fresh from her signature.
“Grandin is a big inspiration to us both,” said Ducharme who, after she graduates, hopes to use animals as a form of therapy for children with special needs. “I like that she’s a source of hope for people with autism and for animals.”
Montgomery, who plans to attend veterinary school, said: “For her to be able to tell the audience how animals think and feel is amazing. She’ll influence me as a vet one day. I know it.”