Thursday, April 05, 2012

Thinking in Pictures: Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery

Almost from the start, Temple's mother knew that her first child was different.

She didn't laugh. She didn't smile when tickled. She didn't hug her mother or father or hold out her arms to be picked up. Temple didn't speak at all.

Temple drew on the walls with pencils and crayons. She would twirl for hours on end. By retreating into her own world, she could screen out the confusion around her.

When she was three, Temple was diagnosed with autism.

When Temple Grandin was born in 1947, little was known about autism. Her father pronounced her "retarded" and suggested that she be institutionalized. But her mother refused and persisted in trying to find a way to communicate with what she intuitively knew was a highly intelligent mind beneath her daughter's strange behavior. Gradually, with patience and tutoring, Temple learned to understand speech and to speak herself and was able to attend a small, private elementary school, where she enjoyed arts and crafts and made friends who enjoyed playing outside, building things, and being with animals.

But the turmoil of adolescence seemed to set her back into a confusing world of panic attacks that made it hard for her to function anywhere. Then one summer she went to visit with at the ranch of a relative, where the outside work with cattle and horses seemed to quiet some of her anxiety. There her empathy with animals helped her make a discovery that changed her life and was later to change animal husbandry all over America. It began with the ranch's cattle chute.

Temple quickly observed that the squeeze chute had another effect on the cattle. "Going into the chute the cattle were nervous and twitchy," she explains. She knew just how they felt--she felt nervous and twitchy all the time! But this was the amazing part: moments after the chute was closed, "those nervous cattle calmed right down," she says. "It was almost like magic."

Immediately, Temple thought, "If such a device can calm nervous cattle, could it help me, too?"

It was a novel, if not bizarre, concept, but Temple soon built a "squeeze machine" and tried it out for herself. Amazingly, in it she experienced a feeling of peace and happiness, and realizing that she could change her state of mind at will, she felt a new sense of control. Back at school she couldn't quit talking about her discovery, and luckily, a science teacher directed her investigations into the study of psychology. Suddenly she found purpose in all of her studies, eventually graduating second in her high school class. Combining her interest in psychology and animals eventually led her to a Ph.D and a career in animal science.

In her first job she visited a slaughter house and saw the fear and pain of the cattle and recognized their sensations and emotions as like those she had once known. She saw things that other people couldn't see, simple things that made the animals wild and difficult to handle and that resulted in slaughter techniques that were far from humane. She understood that she thought in images rather than words, and that that was indeed what cattle did as well. Anything different--a dangling chain or rope, flapping fabric, bands of shadow across the floor, slippery footing, the sounds of terrified animals being killed--created extreme panic in the animals. Temple saw that humane treatment of food animals was possible simply through changes based on industrial designs that calm cattle rather than horrify them, a design which processors soon found were both kinder and more profitable.

Unless we find alternatives [to food animals] that everyone wants to use, Temple reasoned, "We're going to have feedlots and slaughterhouses. "So the question is, what should a humane feedlot and slaughterhouse be like?"

Out of that insight, Grandin built a career in animal science which has changed common practice, and her advocacy for improved conditions in industrial farming and slaughter procedures brought her wide recognition. Named by Time magazine as one of 100 "most influential Americans," the subject of an HBO film, Temple Grandin starring Claire Danes, Temple Grandin has reached the top of her profession as professor and industrial designer. But more than that, as a fluent and articulate speaker and writer, in telling her own story, she has served human science as a window into the nature of autism itself. Her books, Thinking in Pictures (Expanded, Tie-in Edition): My Life with Autism (Vintage) and The Way I See It, Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's explain her insight, not reached until she was actually over 40, that her thinking, solely in photographic images, was not the way that most humans process ideas. "I've got the nervous system of a prey animal," she says, half in jest, but in this single insight much is revealed, and for that we all are the better for what she, like a visitor from another planet of the mind, has to share with us.

Nature writer Sy Montgomery does an admirable job of mixing biographical details from Temple Grandin's life with chapters on the nature of autism and what it reveals about the development of the human mind. Her Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2012)is an fascinating and highly readable biography for middle and young adult readers, with ample backmatter for further research into the intriguing subjects of both animal advocacy and human psychology. Reviewers agree: Horn Book says, "Montgomery's book not only tells the powerful story of one amazing woman's life journey, but also has potential to help readers understand autistic people and animals."

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  • Thanks for sharing! I hadn't heard of her until the movie that came out a few years ago (really great!) and I'm excited to check out this book soon!

    By Blogger Jade, at 6:53 PM  

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