Dr Temple Grandin has a legendary ability to read the animal mind and understand animal behaviour when no one else can. But this is no feat of telepathy; her explanation is simple. She's convinced she experiences the world much as an animal does and that it's all down to her autistic brain.
Since the 1940s, when Temple was born, our understanding of autism has come a long way. For years during the fifties and sixties many psychologists and doctors believed that the condition was an emotional disorder, the product of a disturbed childhood.
Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim became famous for his theory that children with autism exhibited the symptoms of the condition because their mothers had unconsciously rejected them as babies and young children. Children, he argued, could be cured with psychotherapy.
It wasn't until psychologists such as Bernard Rimland started to put forward evidence for a biological cause of autism that the old ideas lost their public appeal.
Today, neurologists like Professor Nancy Minshew are using brain scanning techniques to investigate the brains of people with autism. As yet it is impossible to diagnose autism based on a brain scan of an individual, but the results do indicate that the brain is different in someone with autism and that this is the real cause of the condition.
When Temple was a baby, research into autism was in its infancy and the doctors didn't even have a name for her condition. Many children like her spent their whole lives in an institution. Temple was lucky, but despite intensive tutoring and care it took her many years to learn basic skills. To this day, socialising continues to be a struggle for her.
For her and many others with autism the condition makes it very difficult to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. To Temple the world is an unpredictable and frightening place.
Temple believes she experiences life like a prey animal in the wild. Her emotions are much simpler than most people's and she feels constantly anxious – always alert and looking for danger. It's this struggle with overwhelming anxiety that led her to discover just how much she has in common with animals and, in particular, cows.
During a summer spent on her aunt's ranch, when she was 16, she began to notice that nervous cattle seemed to calm down when they entered a piece of equipment called a squeeze chute.
Designed to hold the cattle still, whilst they received veterinary treatment, the wooden contraption clamped the cows along either side of the body. As the sides squeezed their flanks, Temple noticed several of the cows become visibly relaxed and calm.
Eager to find a way to conquer her own anxiety she asked her aunt to operate the chute on her. The result was a revelation. Temple felt much calmer and the effect lasted for several hours afterwards.
Inspired by her experiences on the ranch, she built her own human squeeze machine at home. She still has one installed in her bedroom.
There is a scientific explanation for what seems like her quirky behaviour. Psychologists have discovered evidence to suggest that the effects of deep pressure on the body are very real and can be beneficial and calming for many people with autism.
Twenty years ago Temple did something no one with autism had ever done before. She wrote an autobiography. It was her account of what it was like to grow up with autism.
Since then she has written several other books. For parents and scientists working in the field of autism her words are a revelation, giving them an invaluable understanding and insight into the autistic mind.
For Temple, though, her greatest achievements are in the field of animal welfare.
The slaughterhouse seems an unlikely place to look for an animal lover like Temple but it's here that she has carved a unique career. Until Temple stormed on to the scene, in the 1970s, animal welfare was an unheard of phrase in the meat industry. The animals were destined for slaughter and no one cared what happened to them along the way.
But Temple has changed all that. Using her unique ability to observe the world through an animal's eye she has fundamentally redesigned the equipment and buildings where they are held and slaughtered. Today her advice is sought from around the world and half the cattle in the US go to their deaths in humane equipment designed by her.
Labelled 'retarded' at three years old, Temple didn't learn to speak until she was five. But at nearly 60 she's an associate professor of animal science, a best-selling author and the most famous autistic woman on the planet.
Back to top
Back to the Horizon homepage