The American inventor, author, and educator Temple Grandin (born 1947) has gained international attention for her breakthrough innovations in meat processing and in the study of autism, a condition she has and for which she has become a noted spokesperson. What is remarkable about Grandin's intellectual history is the degree to which her insights in each of these disparate fields have been informed by her knowledge of the other: her experiences as an autistic child led her to devise new ways of treating stock animals, and the behavior of these animals expanded her understanding of autism.
The oldest of four children born to realtor Richard Grandin and writer and actress Eustacia Purves Grandin, Temple Grandin was born on August 29, 1947, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her family heritage encompassed both a farm family and an aeronautical engineer, and she eventually showed talent in both those fields. As a young child, she showed signs of impairment: she spoke late, and she avoided interacting with others. When Grandin was two years old, her mother concluded that something was wrong and sought medical help. At the time the concept of autism was new, and she was not officially diagnosed as autistic until some years later. Instead, her parents were faced with diagnoses of brain damage and infantile schizophrenia. Although Grandin's father acquiesced to doctors’ recommendations that Grandin be institutionalized, her mother had other ideas.
Eustacia Grandin employed a combination of stimulation and tough love in raising her daughter. Grandin attended a variety of schools, including, at first, a nursery school emphasizing speech therapy, and by age four she had started speaking. When one school did not fit the child's needs, another was chosen. Grandin's mother and a hired nanny patiently instructed Grandin in basic social functioning, discouraging her from watching television and insisting that she develop proper table manners and shake hands with houseguests. The shake-hands rule is one Grandin still adheres to; she surprises interviewers who anticipate an autistic person's usual dislike of being touched by greeting them with a firm handshake. “You have to stretch [mentally] to overcome autism,” Grandin told Gillian Rich of Investor's Business Daily. “My mother knew how to stretch me when I was a young child. She knew how to get me partly outside my comfort zone.”
Grandin attended several private schools, one of which, Cherry Hill Girls School, expelled her after she threw a book at another girl. Fortunately, at the Mountain Country School, she flourished. School staff took notice when Grandin scored a near-genius level of 137 on an IQ test, and they encouraged her curiosity. When the girl acted out with physical aggression, teachers took away her horseback-riding privileges, a consequence that worked like a charm. Cherry Hill science teacher William Carlock noticed Grandin's interest in animals and taught her to do research on the subject in a library.
Grandin majored in psychology at Franklin Pierce College (now University) in Rindge, New Hampshire, graduating in 1970. Then she moved west, earning a master's degree in animal science at Arizona State University in 1975 while working as livestock editor of the magazine Arizona Farmer Ranchman. After publishing several research papers, she returned to school to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Illinois–Champaign, earning her Ph.D. in animal science in 1989. Three years earlier, in 1986, her autobiography Emergence: Labeled Autistic was published. Although this work gained little attention at the time, such was not the case when it was reissued ten years later, after she had gained a measure of celebrity.
Like some but not all autistic people, Grandin tends to think in pictures, to visualize the scenes described by verbal utterances. This aided her in one of her several careers: designing livestock handling facilities. Her most noteworthy invention was a so-called conveyor restrainer system, a curved livestock chute that took advantage of cattle's natural tendency to walk in circles and thus reduced their anxiety level as they proceeded down a ramp to slaughter. This system also yielded a higher-quality meat product because the release of stress hormones in the moments prior to the animal's death tends to make its meat tough. Even with a strong emotional affinity for farm animals, Grandin has had no problem working on the design of slaughterhouses, reasoning that animals should be treated as humanely as possible and that death in nature is often crueler than that exacted by human-executed methods. Her systems were issued and marketed by Grandin Livestock Handling Systems, which she founded in 1975.
Grandin's career in slaughterhouse design was not always well received in a field that remains largely male dominated and is sparsely populated by residents of the northeastern United States. At one point, Grandin emerged from a building to find her car covered with bloody bull testicles. Being autistic worked in her favor, however; she failed to notice insults and passive-aggressive behavior aimed her way, and over time her ideas caught on. Furthermore, as Grandin was quoted as saying by Amy Raphael of the London Times, “My determination is just kind of innate.” By 2010, more than half the beef cattle killed in North America passed through a system of Grandin's design. Such systems included various smaller devices she has invented in addition to the conveyor restrainer system.
Grandin has written guidelines on animal handling for the American Meat Association and has devised checklists designed to promote humane procedures. She has served as a consultant for large corporate operations such as those of Burger King and McDonald's, the latter which uses a Grandin-designed system to monitor the welfare of animals killed at its suppliers’ slaughterhouses. Grandin's work has been praised by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an organization that honored her with its Proggy award. Other honors in the field of animal handling include a Meritorious Service award from the Livestock Conservation Institute in 1986, the 1995 Harry Roswell Award from the Scientists’ Center for Animal Welfare, the Brownlee Award from Canada's Animal Welfare Foundation, also 1995, and the 2001 Joseph Wood Krutch Medal from the Humane Society of the United States.
In addition to describing many of her innovations in academic articles, Grandin has published several books. In addition to Emergence, she wrote Thinking in Pictures, and Other Reports from My Life with Autism (1995) and The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's Future Horizons (2008). Unlike Emergence and most of her other book-length writings, both these books were written by Grandin alone. Other books of note include Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2005), Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (2009), Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism (2011), and The Autistic Brain: Thinking across the Spectrum (2013). Since 1990, Grandin has taught animal sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Central to Grandin's thinking in several of her writings is that the brains of animals and those of people with autism display certain similarities. Animals, she argued in Animals in Translation, process sensual stimuli directly instead of converting them to abstract entities such as thought and language. She points to evidence that problems in the human brain's frontal lobes may contribute to autism; frontal lobes in animal brains are largely undeveloped. In Animals Make Us Human, Grandin asserted that animals, like humans, experience anger, fear, panic, curiosity, and play.
For the general public, Grandin is perhaps best known as an advocate for people with autism. Arguably the world's most accomplished autistic person, she has served as an example for young people with autism and their families. She receives dozens of e-mails and letters on a daily basis, and she responds directly to requests for help. She has stressed issues relating to the autism continuum, pointing out to Raphael that “there is no dividing line between geeks and nerds and mild Asperger's [syndrome, a form of autism]. It's a true continuum. It's like asking when does blue become depression?” Touching on the concern of many modern parents, she observed to Tom Leonard of the London Daily Telegraph that video games are like “crack cocaine” for some autistic people.
Grandin, Temple, with Margaret M. Scariano, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, Arena Press, 1986, reprinted, Warner Press, 1996.
Grandin, Temple, The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's, Future Horizons, 2008.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), February 5, 2010, p. L1.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 27, 2010, p. 28.
Economist, October 10, 2015, p. 28.
Investor's Business Daily, December 30, 2015, p. A3.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), November 10, 1996, p. E1.
Times (London, England), March 19, 2011, p. 1.
Temple Grandin website, http://www.grandin.com/ (August 30, 2016), “Biography: Temple Grandin: Ph.D.”❑