Author’s note. The HBO movie starring Claire Danes as Dr. Temple Grandin debuts next month and we had a wonderful opportunity to sit down with her again in Los Angeles. It was a memorable visit from a truly amazing person. Having a co-worker who has two brothers who are autistic, you realize just how amazing her journey has been. Below are the notes from the San Francisco gathering with Dr. Grandin that took place in the fall of 2009.
The world is a different place when seen through the eyes of Dr. Temple Grandin. What makes Temple Grandin special is that as a high functioning autistic, her neurological condition has enhanced her study of animal behavior; she currently is one of the best in her field globally. As an Associate Professor at Colorado State University, roughly 50% of the beef that shows up on your plate came through improvements that she has made to the process of livestock management. Dr. Grandin is also one of the most compelling advocates for Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome because she has made career of overcoming obstacles that have been placed in her path.
Dr Grandin has written several New York Times best-sellers, including, “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals” (with Catherine Johnson); “Thinking in Pictures, My Life with Autism” (with Oliver Sacks); “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior” (with Catherine Johnson); and “The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s.”
The Luncheon Society has always been a place where scientific conversation have found a home, whether it was Dr. Brian Greene talking about String Theory and Theoretical Physics; or celebrating the 5th Anniversary of the landing of both Rovers on Mars with Mission Principal Investigator Steve Squyres and NASA Project Manager John Callas; or discussing the future of human sight with Nobel Laureate and Neurobiologist Dr. Donald Glaser.
A few weeks ago I got the call from Naomi Epel, an old friend and literary consultant, who told me that Dr. Grandin would be in San Francisco and open to a Luncheon Society gathering. I leapt at it immediately. Several years ago I was driving south to San Jose for a meeting and found myself fully entranced by an NPR interview with Dr. Grandin. It was so engrossing that I pulled my car over to the side of the freeway and listened to the rest of the segment.
In his book, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” Dr. Oliver Sacks profiled seven case studies of people who dealt with a series of neurological disorders. They included a surgeon with Tourette Syndrome whose symptoms would disappear the moment he began to operate on a patient, a 50 year old Oklahoman who completely readjusted his life after regaining his sight, and Dr. Temple Grandin, whose quote become the title of Dr. Sacks book. For Dr. Grandin, being an “Anthropologist on Mars” is how she feels when placed into social situations. Her ability to interact with around her are the sum product of years of training, teaching, and coaching.
HBO is currently filming a bio-pic on her life, titled “Temple Grandin – Thinking In Pictures,” which will air later this year. During lunch, she assured that the movie would show her life in its full authenticity. Clare Danes will portray Dr. Grandin and Julia Ormond, David Strathairn and Catherine O’Hara will have co-starring roles.
How she thinks. Dr. Grandin is a visual thinker and her mind works like “Google for Images.” When she enters in a key word, a rush of different images comes to fore. To prove her point, she gave us a little mental test. She asked us to clear our minds for a moment and then imagined how a church steeple might appear. For all of us, a vague picture of a church steeple emerged; her mind exploded with distinct pictures of steeples that she has seen over the years, images which can easily overwhelm those who are not used to the symptomology of autism.
Autism or Asperger’s? Dr Grandin noted that according to the American Psychiatric Association DMS4 manual, in order to be considered autistic, a person needs to exhibit “delayed speech,” which is not the case with Asperger’s. Using those defined terms, she sees herself as a high functioning autistic. Dr. Grandin noted that there is movement within the psychological community to bucket Asperger’s into a larger Autism spectrum, but only time will tell where the consensus travels.
Asperger’s Syndrome. We began talking about those who live with Asperger’s Syndrome or “Aspie’s” as she calls them. Asperger’s, according to Dr. Grandin, has been with us since man walked upright but we have a better understanding of it today. She noted that Albert Einstein’s behavior was textbook Asperger’s; he did not converse with others until he was three years old, he remained socially awkward through most of his life, and led a lifetime of missing social cues that most people could detect and understand. In Einstein’s case, it was placed in the personage of an eccentric and brilliant scientist who was preoccupied in solving the basic questions of Physics.
Dr. Grandin noted with irony that many personality traits so often found within Asperger’s helped Silicon Valley succeed. When she visits the Peninsula, Dr. Grandin says that she can easily pick them out of a crowd. She noted we all know people in The Valley who are both highly functioning and intelligent but often find themselves in socially awkward situations with a lack of empathy for their peers. These are people not interested in social chit-chat. Based on the smiles that appeared on the faces of many around the room, a wealth of names came to mind but we kept them to ourselves.
Her childhood. In Dr. Grandin’s case, it became clear at two years of age that she was not like the other children. Her parents opted not to warehouse her in some institution but instead made sure she received the intensive one-on-one training she needed. This was critical because 60 years ago, the natural impulse was to institutionalize, ask questions later, and simply hope for the best.
Dr. Grandin talked about the importance of daily ritual and the positive impact it has on people who are autistic or deal with Asperger’s. In an NPR interview, Dr. Grandin said, “I had very good early education starting at two-and-a-half, and I was allowed to only have an hour a day after lunch where I could space-out and revert back to autism. And when I was in my bedroom, I’d spin this little brass thingamajig round and round and round that was on the bed frame.”
However, she said, “the rest of the time I had always kept tuned in – speech therapy, hours of turn-taking games. I was expected to sit at the table and have table manners and ask them, pass the potatoes, when they needed to be passed. You know, everybody worked with me to keep my brain connected to the world.”
Even with her parent’s support, it was difficult for her to interrelate in high school life, which places a high premium on social activity; those years were simply hell for her. Grandin mentioned that people who did not understand her neurological condition called her names and generally avoided her.
In her case, her high school science teacher Mr. Carlock (whose title she elevated into Dr. Carlock for the HBO Movie) saved her and got her thinking about Grad School to study science. Before she could enter Grad School, Grandin would have to excel at both high school and college first. Until that point, she was getting into trouble with her classmates as well as her teachers. During our lunch, she became rather emotional when reflecting upon the importance of Dr. Carlock in her life.
Expanding Skillsets/The Right Education. Dr. Grandin feels that early diagnosis is the key to catching these young people before they fall through the cracks. She said that the typical “Aspie” or highly functioning autistic youth might be obsessed with cars but might not know how to complete an algebraic equation. The goal is to develop areas of strength because children will get into trouble if they are not challenged academically.
Dr. Grandin strongly believes that teenage jobs for highly functioning Autistic or Asperger’s will set the table for success in the adult world. These jobs taught learned behavior that her generation took for granted during the 1950’s, something which is lacking today. She sees an interesting trend among Aspies in their 50’s and older—they are employed while it is much harder for those who are below 50 to sustain their careers and hold jobs for the long term. We see too many brilliant “Aspies” fail and then populate around us; bright people in menial jobs.
There are certain industries, like high tech and the entertainment arenas, which have lower barriers for entry and Aspies can thrive. Looking back at those early days of the high tech industry, many of the larger players came from non-traditional areas. Some had a difficult time fitting in at traditional employers. Their unique approach to solving problems offered solutions that eluded the rest of us and they built an industry.
Dr. Grandin also spent some time talking about Irlen Colored glasses, which might alleviative the symptoms where words that appear to “wiggle” while on printed page. She has mentioned that if it helped 1 out of 40, people would be foolish not to try.
What made the gathering at Fior D’Italia in San Francisco meaningful was there were a few who have children or relatives who are experiencing Asperger’s or autism spoke about their challenges. Becky Faust, a Marin County poet who has a son with Asperger’s, discussed how “teenage work” can be can game changer for young people like her 18 year old. Faust and Grandin have had a number of telephone discussions on the subject. Dr Grandin also felt that fear was a big issue for her and that the burdens of anxiety are harder on visual thinkers like herself. She noted that Prozac at the starter dose can have life-changing effects.
Halfway through the dinner, I noticed how ambient noise can impact a visual thinker like Dr. Grandin. When the waiter cleared the tables after the first and second course, the clinking of dishes and silverware rose from a bother to a distraction and she paced the conversation with greater care. When the waiter left, you could tell that she relaxed and fell back into the cadences displayed throughout the conversation.
Is there more Autism today? In the case of Asperger’s, Dr Grandin feels that generations of people who were labeled as socially awkward, eccentric, or non communicative would probably today be diagnosed as “Aspies.” She feels that Regressive Autism is on the upswing. This is where a child appears to develop normally until 15-30 months until speech social skills, and cognition fade into shadows. The reasons are still unknown and while many suggest a genetic disposition, there might be some environmental triggers, like the increased plasticization of our society.
Reform in the Livestock Industry. Dr. Grandin has played a critical role in the livestock industry, specifically improving the feedlot and slaughterhouse process. For some it may seem counterintuitive to improve the cow’s disposition when the end is near but Dr. Grandin’s work has shown that cattle are calmer when the feedlot is without electric prods, shiny objects, high pitched noises, which become distractions to sensory thinkers like cattle.
What disturbs cattle, Grandin said, was not the experience of another cow getting killed, but the sight of a disembodied head of a cow on the ground. In one situation, a cow had gotten caught up to its neck in mud and she recounted that the experience sent tremors through the entire herd.
In 1999, both McDonalds and Wendy’s endorsed Dr. Grandin’s approach to livestock management. Today, feedlot and slaughterhouse personnel can use a series of measurable metrics to judge their performance. Better still, video measuring through the internet has allowed for even more accurate measurements.
Like in all animal training, it is not about the animal, but about the people who work there. Dr. Grandin helps to educate the feedlot manager, ranch hand, but more often than not, the cattle industry executive, who often far removed from the process. One industry executive asked Dr. Grandin if pigs had emotions and she stood flabbergasted. Most animals have the basic emotional ranges: fear, rage, separation anxiety and seeking, because they are located within the sub-cortical brain systems.
While her specialty has historically been with the cattle industry, she has expanded her discipline to other varieties, such as chickens and pigs.
One person asked if cattle understood the concept of death. Grandin replied that while animals who are bred for eating have emotions, only those who live long lives intuitively understand the nature of death. She gave elephants as an example. Seated across the table was author Susan McCarthy, who co wrote the best-seller, “When Elephants Weep,” and she appeared to agree. On that point, I would tend to agree with both Grandin and McCarthy. I think that an understanding of death comes through the experience of a long life and considering that most cattle are slaughtered at 30 months of age, she is probably correct. I certainly did not understand the basic questions of life and death at the tender age of 2 ½.
In the end, Dr. Grandin said that her job is to reform the beef industry, not kill it. The equipment is half of the problem and the people are the other half. With the right tools and the right training, the process can be effective for all.
Finally, you might ask what Dr. Grandin had for lunch. She had the steak, to which she commented, “I’ve got to support my industry.”
HBO miniseries trailer for Temple Grandin http://www.hbo.com/movies/temple-grandin/index.html#/movies/temple-grandin/video/trailer.html/eNrjcmbOYM5nLtQsy0xJzXfMS8ypLMlMds7PK0mtKFHPz0mBCQUkpqf6JeamcjIyskknlpbkF+QkVtqWFJWmsjGyMQIAWCcXOA==
Dr. Temple Grandin on Fresh Air with Terry Gross September 2009. (it’s a must-listen piece)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112418986
Dr. Temple Grandin on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (2006) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5165123
Dr. Temple Grandin on ABC Primetime Live (2005) Can Autism help understand Animal Behavior? http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Technology/story?id=570376&page=1