Alternative Thinking: Animal behaviorist and autism activist talks the advantages of thinking differently

Ariel Bond/Daily
Temple Grandin speaks at the Michigan Theatre as the first speaker in the Penny W. Stamps lecture series on Thursday, September 9, 2010. Buy this photo

BY STEPHANIE BERLIANT
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 9, 2010

Fresh from hearing her name called five times at this year’s Emmy Awards, Temple Grandin addressed a packed audience at the Michigan Theater last night.

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and top innovator in the field of animal behavior, spoke as the first in the Penny Stamps Series of lectures sponsored by the School of Art & Design. In the lecture called “Autism, Animals and Art” Grandin focused on how different types of thinking can be used to advance society.

Though impressive by their own merit, Grandin’s accomplishments are magnified by the fact that she was diagnosed in childhood with a severe form of autism, a neurological disorder that impairs social and communication abilities. Grandin couldn’t talk until she was four years old and doctors advised her mother to institutionalize her, but her mother instead chose to seek intensive treatment for Grandin.

As a result, Grandin became one of a small minority of children with autism born in the 1940s to greatly improve in communication and today she is considered high-functioning.

Grandin is known for putting her unique viewpoints into everything she does and offering continuous examples of the way she sees things differently from most people. Last night’s event was no exception.

In her distinct Kansas accent, Grandin described the doubts people had about her methods at the start of her career in the 1970s.

After watching cattle become easily upset when walking down shoots to be slaughtered, Grandin walked through a cattle shoot herself, and realized that there were sensory distractions in the shoots like too much or too little light.

“People said, ‘Why would you look at things the cattle’s looking at?’” Grandin said. “But getting in their position was what figured it out.”

To a crowd of about 1,700, Grandin described how people with autism and animals think the same way — one of the reasons she was drawn to the field of animal behavior. People with autism use “bottom-up” processing, she said, in which they see the details first and piece together larger meanings from there.

Grandin related this bottom-up processing to autistic people's lack of understanding of generalized situations. For example, telling a child not to run in the street outside his or her home may not translate to a school or park. A child with autism might need to be told in each situation until he or she understands that running in streets, in general, is not acceptable, she explained.

Throughout the lecture, Grandin emphasized focusing on interesting things people with intellectual disabilities can do well. She urged parents of children with autism to push them, whether putting young children in at least 25 hours a week of intensive therapy or encouraging older children to develop their talents — like when Grandin’s mother encouraged her to go to singing camp, which Grandin protested at the time.

“She told me, ‘You do have a choice: you go for two weeks or the whole summer,’” Grandin said. “We must push these kids or they won’t develop.”

Grandin’s life was the inspiration for an HBO film released in 2010, which won five Emmys in August. She described the movie as “pretty accurate,” noting the producers took care to correctly represent her life in two hours.

After the event, Art & Design senior Chris Momont said the lecture allowed him to see a window into a different type of mind.

“Getting people together who think in different ways, who use pictures versus words, is how we’re going to move forward,” Momont said.

Art & Design junior Dana Pierfelice said she didn’t know what to expect from the lecture, but she ended up finding it very engaging.

“Her humor made everyone so comfortable,” she said.