Thursday, January 06, 2011

Unforgettable Part 4: Temple Grandin

Autism is defined as a disorder of neural development, characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior. It's an area that I've been interested in for a while and although research is being done, awareness and education is slowly evolving. Having said this there is still much unknown about what causes it.

Temple Grandin is a Doctor of animal science, professor, author, consultant to the livestock industry and has contributed hugely to raising awareness on how the autistic mind works. Grandin was born in Boston in 1947 and didn't talk until she was three and a half years old; communicating instead by screaming and humming. Originally incorrectly diagnosed as being a child with brain damage, her parents were advised by doctors to institutionalize her.

Her mother vehemently opposed this and instead placed her in a school facility which was equipped to educate children with varying degrees of brain damage. This, coupled with speech therapy and a nanny that worked and interacted with her for hours, helped lead to Temple speaking.

Throughout her childhood and teenage years she suffered from crippling anxiety attacks. Temple went on to attend the Hampshire County School, which was a school for gifted children in New Hampshire and then Franklin Pierce College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The summer prior to attending Franklin Pierce College was spent on her aunt’s cattle farm in Arizona and was a life changing experience.

Squeeze Machine

She became fascinated with the cattle and began to observe their behavior. It was here that Grandin first observed how some cattle were panicked prior to being inoculated and how many of them were calmed by being restricted and held in a crush. She made a connection between the cattle's reaction, her own anxiety and sensitivity to stimulation and decided to test it on herself. Within a few minutes of using the crush she felt calmer and more relaxed. She then went on to build a squeeze machine which allowed the user to control the intensity of deep level touch. It was through repeated visits to her aunts farm that she began to think that there were similarities in the way an animal thinks and in the way some individuals with autism think.

She then went on to attain masters and doctoral degrees in animal science from Arizona State University and University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign. During this time Grandin also began writing articles which were primarily based on the cattle behavior for the Arizona Farmer Ranchman weekly. She noted how inhumanely cattle were treated prior to slaughter and began taking notice of how the process could be improved.

She became immersed in the world of livestock handling and meat processing and strongly believes that animals should not be mistreated or subjected to a lower quality of life. Despite her methods working successfully, she was treated with suspicion, had her vehicle vandalized and dealt with sexist comments as the field she worked in was seen as a 'mans job'.

"I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect."

Using behavioral principles rather than excessive force, her restraint and movement systems are now used in widely throughout the world. Her systems keep animals calm and prevent them from injuring themselves or people and the centre track restraint system she invented is used to handle over half of all cattle in North America.

In an interview with Greenmuse she states "People say animals don’t have emotions and that is just stupid because basic emotional systems are the same. The difference between a human being and an animal is the complexity of emotion. Humans are filtering things through a computer perched on top of the emotional centre that is ten times bigger than what most animals have. So emotions are going to be expressed in a more complex manner. Animals are not going to write a Shakespearean sonnet, for example, but I do think they have some very complex things with tone of voice."

documentary “The woman who thinks like a cow”

She has written a number of books, travels the world and regularly gives presentations on the sensory and cognitive experience of being autistic and is a vocal advocate for neurodiversity.

"You know, I think that autistic brains tend to be specialized brains. Autistic people tend to be less social. It takes a ton of processor space in the brain to have all the social circuits. I mean after all, the first stone spear was not designed by the totally social people. Let me just tell you about some research. Some of Simon Baron Cohan's research in England showed that there's two and a half times as many engineers in the family history of the people with autism.

I feel very strongly that if you got rid of all of the autistic genetics you're not going to have any scientists. There'd be no computer people. You'd lose a lot of artists and musicians. There'd be a horrible price to pay. It's like a little bit of the autistic trait can give some advantages. You get too much of the autistic trait then you get a very severe handicap where the person's going to remain non-verbal. It's a continuum from a severe handicap all the way up to something where it's a personality variant. There's no black and white dividing line between a mild Aspergers, which is the mild autism, and computer engineer, for example." NPR

Temple Grandin discusses the value of early intervention in autism, sensory sensitivities, social interactions and medication. (Begins at 5.17)

For more information on Dr Grandin and for some of her published papers:
A selection of her books

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