March 2, 2011
Autistic animal science expert speaks on ‘what makes us human’
Temple Grandin was dressed like a cowboy when she first knocked on Foster Burton’s office door at Arizona State University in the early 1970s to talk about an unusual transdisciplinary master’s thesis topic. Burton, a professor who taught construction classes, just got off a phone call with an assistant dean who asked if he would take on a “very bright” graduate student from the agriculture division.
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“I was trying to think of a way to get out of this assignment when she knocked on my door and asked to come in," Burton recalled. "After 15 minutes I recognized that Temple was smarter than I was and I agreed to chair her thesis committee.
“Temple wanted to study the behavior of different breeds of cattle and their injuries (on feed lots). She had new ideas and different approaches. I did very little – just ran interference sometimes and made sure stick-in-the-muds didn’t get in her way. Temple took care of the rest.”
According to Burton, now an ASU emeritus professor, “Temple is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. She was a focused person – very bright, very direct.”
Grandin received a master’s degree in animal science from ASU in 1975 for a thesis titled “Survey of behavioral and physical events which occur in hydraulic restraining chutes for cattle.” The 72-page thesis, which includes a number of diagrams, sits on a shelf in the library at the Polytechnic campus, where the agribusiness program now is located.
Michael Nielsen, another member of the thesis committee, accompanied Grandin to local feed yards during her study.
“Temple recruited me from the industrial design program for my input about the design aspects of her thesis,” he said. “I spent time with her as an adviser and as an associate. Temple made a major impression upon me. I have not had a student that exhibited more insight, enthusiasm and tenacity in their studies. She was, and remains, a thoughtful and diligent person and a remarkable individual.
“It was years later that I learned of her autism, and quite frankly, I found it difficult to believe," added Nielsen, now an ASU emeritus professor.
Rounding out her thesis committee was the late Robert D. Rasmussen, who was a professor of animal science, and Stanley R. Parkinson, who taught psychology and is an ASU emeritus professor.
Discovering cows ‘on campus’
“I was originally a psychology major at ASU,” said Grandin, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire. But it was at ASU that Grandin, who rode horses as a child, discovered the field of animal science.
“My thesis was a survey of animal behavior," she said. "I kept track of how many cattle fell down, how many refused to enter the chute."
“I knew veterinary science existed at colleges – dogs and cats,” said Grandin, but didn’t know there also were university programs to study cows. Grandin went on to earn a doctoral degree in animal science from the University of Illinois. She now teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design as a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she oversees several graduate students.
Livestock facilities that Grandin has designed dot locations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. In North America, according to Grandin’s website, almost half of the cattle are handled in a center track restrainer system that she designed for meat plants. When not designing, Grandin consults with the livestock industry on livestock handling and animal welfare, in addition to facility design.
Named by Time magazine in 2010 as one of the 100 most influential people, Grandin has written more than 400 articles that appeared in scientific and livestock periodicals. She is the author of “Thinking in Pictures,” “Livestock Handling and Transport,” “Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals,” and “Humane Livestock Handling.” Her books “Animals in Translation” and “Animals Make Us Human” were on the New York Times bestseller list.
Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism when she was 2 years old, is the subject of an Emmy-award-winning film starring Claire Danes. Recognized as an autism advocate, Grandin spends much of her time traveling and speaking on the topic, and she often is asked by parents of autistic children for advice.
Her answers hinge on the age of the child and the degree of autism. For 2- and 3-year-olds who are nonverbal, Grandin said: “The worst thing you could do is nothing. Keep them engaged with the world.”
For children who are a little older, Grandin said: “Build up the kid’s area of strength, whether it’s art skills or math skills. When you have a kid who is nonverbal, don’t get too hung up on labels, autism, Asperger’s. Work on building up the kid’s area of strength. If the kid is a good artist, let’s figure out how to use those skills.”
“I am appalled at the education system taking out all the hands-on classes – welding, auto shop, art, sewing," Grandin said. "Those are the things a kid can really excel at. If I hadn’t had those classes when I was in elementary and high school, it would have been horrible. Those classes saved me.
“Autism is a very, very big spectrum that goes from nonverbal with a lot of handicaps to the genius in Silicon Valley. It’s a true continuum."
“We know that Temple believes deeply in the wonders of science, especially its importance in awakening and focusing her intellect toward her pioneering life’s work,” said ASU Regents’ Professor Sally Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“Science was the arena in which Temple’s form of autism became an advantage, rather than a disability,” Kitch said. “We see her genius as a metaphor for understanding the varieties of mind human beings can have, as opening the conversation about other types of human minds, and expanding our idea of what it means to be human.”
Grandin presented the institute’s 2011 Distinguished Lecture March 1, in Galvin Playhouse on ASU’s Tempe campus. The title of her talk was “What Makes us Human? Visual Thinking and Different Kinds of Minds.”
There was a live webcast of the lecture: http://live.asu.edu.">http://live.asu.edu">http://live.asu.edu.