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Autism helps me understand animals: an interview with Temple Grandin

by Nuala Calvi

4th July 2005

Temple Grandin pictured hugging a horseTemple Grandin's Autism may have got her kicked out of school, but it has also made her an internationally-renowned expert in animal welfare - thanks, she believes, to her extraordinary ability to understand how animals think.
It might sound like the premise for a Horse Whisperer-esque Hollywood movie, but Temple Grandin has managed to turn her "gift" for understanding animals into a successful career, becoming a professor in animal science at Colorado State University, an advisor to burger chains like McDonald's and Wendy's, and an internationally published author on the subject of animal welfare.

Her new book Animals in Translation, risks the wrath of disabled people everywhere by claiming there are big similarities between animals and Autistic people. Temple believes people with Autism share the same kind of savant skills which allow migrating birds to remember routes spanning halfway across the globe and squirrels to recollect where they have hidden hundreds of nuts - or Rainman to memorise all the names and addresses in the phonebook. And she believes that, like animals, people with Autism think without words.

"To understand animal thinking, you've got to get away from language," she explains. "Animals think in visual, smell or auditory memories. When I think, I do it by associating different pictures in my memory. I think without language, and I think in details - which is where animals and Autistic people are similar."

Temple also believes the hypersensitivity which many people with Autism or Asperger's experience is shared by animals. The conviction helped shape her first piece of research, into the behaviour of cattle. She was able to spot details - such as a coat left hanging over a railing, a yellow ladder against a grew wall, or a reflection on a puddle - which could throw the animals into a panic.

"Animals notice little sensory-based things in their environment that normal people don't notice," she says. "A collie might be able to tolerate a vacuum cleaner being used on a rug, but when you use it on a hard floor it starts barking, because it hurts its ears. Those sensory sensitivity problems are similar to Autism. I remember at school, the bell was unbearable for me - it really hurt my ears. And often people find florescent lights drive them crazy because of the flicker. Similar things can happen to animals - maybe a dog bites because it has sensory overload."
Cows gather around Temple
Temple's book offers advice on how to train your pet, based on her theory that if you learn to spot an animal's emotions, you can understand the motivation behind its bad behaviour.

"Animals definitely have emotions but, just like mine, they are simpler. They either feel scared, aggressive, happy or sad. Fear is the main emotion in Autism and in animals. When I got into puberty I had enormous problems with anxiety attacks - it was like being in a constant state of stage fright all the time. I finally discovered anti-depressant drugs, which solved the problem. The important thing with animals is not to mistake fear for aggression and punish an animal because it is scared. The back of the book gives you a guide, if you have a behavioural problem with your animal, to what its motivation is. Is the animal biting because it's fearful, or because it's aggressive? They are two very different things, and if you punish fear-based behaviour you will make it worse."

Now a friendly, confident woman in her fifties, Temple had an unhappy time at school and struggled to control her own emotions. "I was constantly teased, and in the end I was kicked out for throwing a book at a girl," she says. "I had to learn to control my aggression, so I switched from anger to crying, because then I wouldn't get into trouble. I was still miserable, but after I had horseriding taken away from me for fist-fighting, I was determined not to let it happen again!"

After being expelled from her mainstream school, Temple was sent to a special school. She says it was the encouragement given by her science teacher which helped channel her energy and intellect into an area in which she could excel. As a result, she feels strongly that Autistic young people should be given mentors to help them develop their often extraordinary talents in areas such as computing or mathematics.

"People on the autistic spectrum have uneven skills; they will be very good at one thing. We need to be finding out what an Autistic child's going to be good at and develop that specialised talent into an employable skill, or a really good hobby that they can share. There are many famous scientists who have high-functioning Asperger's or Autism. Einstein had no speech until age five and would be diagnosed as Autistic today. When I was three I was completely Autistic with no speech."

Like many people on the Autistic spectrum, Temple makes friends in order to share her special interests - animal welfare and the livestock industry - and she says one of the main ways she differs from the animals she studies is that she is not a social creature.

But sharing many other traits with animals is something which, far from being demeaning, Temple regards as an honour. "I happen to like animals very much, so I don't think it's demeaning. Animals don't get into wars the way we do. When you look at really nasty behaviour, the animals with the most complex brains have done some of the worst things. Teenage dolphins go about raping female dolphins, and chimpanzees have wars. The more complex a brain is the more possibilities there are for wiring mistakes."

Still, the question remains: does Temple spend more time hanging out with animals than with people?

"I sometimes feel really in tune with cattle," she admits. "I can sit out with them in a field and just let them lick me. People say: 'Aren't you afraid they'll step on you?' and I say: 'Well, you just have to understand them...'"

Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, is published by Bloomsbury and costs £16.99
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