Temple Grandin: Autism and livestock in one sentence?

This month, a Collector’s 3rd edition of The Way I See It by Dr. Temple Grandin is available. It is full of fascinating information about autism by the world’s leading expert on the disability. Oddly, Dr. Grandin is also the author of Humane Livestock Handling – the livestock industry standard. It fascinates me that someone can be an expert on such very divergent fields. If you haven’t already seen it, you should make an effort to watch the HBO 2010 semi-biographical film Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes. It’s a well-made movie about Dr. Temple Grandin, covering autism, cattle and designing cattle handling equipment. Yes, you read that right – all those topics in one movie.

I remember Dr. Grandin from a presentation she gave on cattle handling to farmers in our county in the early 1980s. I recall she had a bit of a strange voice, but wasn’t weird and gawky the way the movie portrayed her as a teenager. She was very professional. I’ve listened to her presentations a number of times and thanks to her, my livestock handling facilities are what she has preached about – easy on the cattle and on the operator.

Dr. Grandin has said that most design projects in the world should have an autistic person on the design team to measure all the flaws. “My kind of mind isn’t going to graduate, and you need me,” Grandin says. “Take the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, grounded because of a fire hazard from its lithium-ion batteries.” Her mental search engine would have pulled up images she had stored of cargo planes burning on the tarmac. Boeing should have had somebody with autism on the design team, she concludes (as reported in the Los Angeles Times).

Extraordinary insight

Dr. Grandin has used her unique mind as a designer of livestock handling facilities and a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Facilities she has designed are located in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. In North America, almost half of the cattle are handled in a centre track restrainer system that she designed for meat plants. Curved chute and race systems she has designed for cattle are used worldwide and her writings on the flight zone and other principles of grazing animal behaviour have helped many people to reduce stress on their animals during handling.

Her insight into the minds of cattle has taught her to value the changes in details to which animals are particularly sensitive, and to use her visualization skills to design thoughtful and humane animal-handling equipment. She was named a fellow of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers in 2009.

The film opens during the summer of 1966 when Temple is 19 years old, about to start college that fall. She spends the summer on her aunt’s farm in Arizona and loves it there. She is extremely mechanically-minded for a teenage girl and designs a swinging farmyard gate. Instead of having to get out of the vehicle and swing open the gate, now folks can drive up to the gate, pull on a short rope and the gate opens; it automatically closes after 47 seconds. She has a broad set of eccentricities that will frequently send her into tantrums. For example, she often refuses any food but yogurt and jello, and she cannot walk through automatic doors. At the end of the summer she wants to stay on the farm and be with the cattle, but her mother makes her go to college. The movie was nominated for 15 Emmys, and received five awards, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Best Actress in a Drama Series.

Whether you read the books or watch the movie, your mind will be opened to many new ideas, and the unique contributions each and every person can make in widely divergent areas of creation.


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