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An Interview with Temple Grandin

Prior to consenting to a meeting, Temple Grandin asked me to call her to get a better sense of my voice. As is common among those with autism, Grandin found the vocal inflections easier to interpret than the emotion often lost in an email.

Grandin’s voice is one-of-a-kind: strong and authoritative, with a smooth, pleasant accent that brings to mind her upbringing in the city of Boston. She didn’t start talking until she was four years old. Now, in her seventies, she earns her living by giving lectures and teaching classes. When we talked, she didn’t even bother with a polite introduction

– rather, she immediately commented on my voicemail message, which she found off-putting and confusing. After that, she went on to describe the surprisingly comfortable process of going through airport security, which had just taken place prior to our conversation.

Grandin, born with hypersensitivity to the haptic, found that her autism enabled her to have an intensely focused attention and a rigorously analytical mind. As a teenager, she created a “squeeze machine” in order to desensitize herself to pressure. This device has since become a popular tool among autistic people and has been used by Grandin to calm cattle. This invention has been the starting point of her career in making the treatment of livestock more humane and efficient.

Grandin, who prefers speaking over writing, has nonetheless built her career upon her writing. Since 1980, she has penned ten books and various scholarly articles on the topic of autistic thinking, animal behavior, and the links between the two.

Her most recent work, Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor, details the evolution of inventions, from kites to stereo systems, and how they have impacted human culture. The book is meant to be accessible to all ages, but Grandin hopes this will particularly encourage kids with “different minds” to explore their inventive capabilities and be inspired as she was.

I had the opportunity to converse with Grandin at Colorado State University, where she is a professor of animal science. Her answers were concise, and after each one there was a distinct pause. In the middle of our discussion, she inquired about the direction of my inquiry and I responded by saying I was simply trying to comprehend the conversation.

— Ross Simonini

Ross Simonini has composed a piece of writing that is uniquely his own. He has taken the time to craft a piece of work that displays his own style and creativity. He has crafted a piece of writing which is singular and stands apart from other works in its field.

  1. “HE’S TWENTY-TWO YEARS OLD AND CANNOT BE PERSUADED TO LEAVE THE BASEMENT.”

What is your interpretation of invention?

In Calling All Minds, TEMPLE GRANDIN had to familiarize herself with the patent office’s definition for invention, which stated that it must be something totally new and not obvious. She noticed that some patents these days don’t meet these criteria, but that was the original goal of invention.

What led you to inventing?

When I was a kid, I was completely immersed in books about famous inventors. They were so ingenious in the ways that they thought of creating objects. For example, the needle of a sewing machine had to be secured, so they moved its eye next to the point. That was something I was captivated by. I spent hours as a seven to eight year old making things such as bird kites, parachutes, and helicopters. My grandpa was an inventor and co-inventor of the autopilot for airplanes. He and another scientist had to tinker and tinker to get it to function. The concept he came up with entailed using three stationary coils to detect differences in the magnetic force and then inform the pilot which direction the plane was going in. Even though a lot of aviation professionals thought the proposal was ridiculous, it ended up working.

What modern innovators do you believe will change the way our society functions?

TG: The individual who originated the World Wide Web basically stated “www dot domain name dot com.” Similarly, the person who came up with email had a concept of using your name at a server that is situated somewhere. These ideas may seem straightforward, but it can be difficult to conceive them. My worry is about the advancement of social media. Ten years ago I was invited to give a speech at one of our cattle meetings, and I commented that one of the issues with social media is that it amplifies the voices of the extreme right and extreme left. People with the same opinions just speaking to individuals with like perspectives.

Whenever I’m invited to speak, I will cover topics related to the cattle industry, the meat industry, autism, and the concept of “different kinds of minds”, particularly when I’m at tech firms. This is because there, I often find engineers exhibiting traits that may be indicative of mild autism, but remain undiagnosed.

Is it beneficial to diagnose them? Should this be done?

TG has had grad students, some of whom he believes were likely on the autism spectrum, and one of them has been successful in their career. With those older than them, a diagnosis can be beneficial in giving them a better understanding of their relationships. He recommends a book called Different… Not Less: Inspiring Stories of Achievement and Successful Employment from Adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD which details the stories of fourteen older people with mild autism who were diagnosed in their later years due to the difficulties they faced in their marriages and connections.

In the last week, two of my grandfathers contacted me, revealing that they had come to the realization they were on the autism spectrum after their grandchildren were diagnosed. One of my granddads had worked since he was 11, when he got a paper route. Therefore, I advise parents to find new activities for their children to take part in, such as walking dogs, working at the local community center or volunteering at a church. I urge them to have their children do something outside the family on a regular basis, and to treat it like a job.

BLVR: Is it feasible that every individual could be on the autism spectrum?

TG: It’s difficult to pinpoint where the line between “socially awkward” and an autism diagnosis lies, as the autism spectrum is a continuum. For example, Einstein would be labeled as autistic today, as he didn’t start speaking until age three. If they were kids in this day and age, many renowned musicians and scientists would most likely be categorized as being on the autism spectrum. Having been to Silicon Valley, it’s clear that a good portion of the programmers there demonstrate characteristics that could be classified as being on the autism spectrum, such as having limited social skills.

BLVR: What other kinds of minds, aside from those of autistic individuals, do you think it is important to recognize?

TG: I’m referring to the individual who is exceptionally skilled in mechanics. Given the chance, they could be a wiz with computer programming. The issue is, how can they learn that if they are not exposed to it? I have noticed that video gaming isn’t teaching them programming. The gamers of the past learned programming due to the fact that the games were simpler. But I have mothers coming up to me saying, “My son is twenty-two and he won’t leave the basement and he doesn’t have a promising job in video-game programming.”

The media industry is one of the biggest in the world, according to BLVR.

TG: The World Health Organization has recently provided a statement regarding video-game syndrome, which is comparable to drinking wine or alcohol. It is acceptable for some people to have an occasional glass of wine or beer, but for others, it can become an addiction.

Does playing a game interest you?

TG: I’m not sure I want to do it because I’m scared I’ll become dependent on it.

BLVR: What are your thoughts on wine?

TG: I’m not a fan of gulping it down. Instead, I prefer to take small sips to savor the taste.

  1. “I AM NOT ONE TO FORMULATE WORDS IN MY HEAD.”

BLVR: How frequently do you contemplate concepts for new inventions?

TG: It’s hard to say. I don’t think in words; all of my thoughts are visual. When you said “idea,” I pictured the furniture store “IKEA.” That’s probably not a good association, but it does sound similar. That’s why I don’t think in words.

The link between the concept of “idea” and the name “IKEA” is strong.

When I discuss topics concerning autism and different ways of thinking, I often feature famous businesspeople that are either dyslexic or have ADHD in my slideshows. IKEA’s head was one of these examples I included, and I believe that is why I mentioned that particular company.

Stephen Hawking said that, instead of focusing on the limitations of disability, it is important to find something that the individual excels in. As a young child, my artistic abilities were highly encouraged and I was inspired to draw a variety of different things. It is beneficial to take what the child is passionate about and use it to explore a variety of other topics. For example, if a child loves cars, then the science of how a car works and the history of its creation can be used to gain knowledge in other areas.

BLVR: Are you still engaged in creating artwork?

I’m able to both speak and write fluently now.

BLVR: Despite your predilection for the visual, you have really thrown yourself into the written word.

TG: I have always been devoted to words and at the start of my career in the 1970s, being a woman working in a male-dominated industry was not easy. I was driven to prove that I could do it, and that I was not dim-witted. I felt I had to work twice as hard as the men. It can be demoralizing at times; I have been employed by a multitude of major meat companies and been inside the boardrooms of many big corporations, and yet I have still seen some men do foolish things that cost a great deal of money, yet they are still kept on.

BLVR: A woman wouldn’t be the same–

TG: It would be unacceptable for a female to do something like that. I had to work hard to perfect my skills.

BLVR: Do you think it has become more accessible for women to break into the industry?

TG remarked that it is much easier now than before. He pointed out that the beef industry has seen an influx of female workers, where he was one of the first in Arizona when he first began. Now, there are many women involved.

Do you think women bring a distinct perspective to this field?

TG: Those who come to me to learn about animal welfare and those who contact me via email are usually female.

III. THE ELDERLY LADY FROM PASADENA

An elderly woman from the city of Pasadena was the subject of a popular song released in the 1960s. It was a catchy tune, and it quickly spread across the United States. The lyrics of the song portrayed the little old lady as a feisty character who enjoyed taking her car out for a spin.

What is the connection between the internet and being a visual thinker for you?

My visual memory can be searched with keywords and it will bring up specific files. Although I don’t remember each and every hotel room I have ever visited, I do have vivid memories of the really terrible and strange ones. If I am given relevant keywords, I can start to retrieve images.

I’m really good at using the internet to look for stuff. A lot of people don’t think to be creative with the words they type in. When I’m speaking with my students, I remind them to remember that there are five different words related to cattle: cows, bulls, calves, heifers, and steers. If they don’t use all of these words in different searches, they might miss out on some relevant documents. So I use a lot of my time to search the web, especially for scientific information.

When I discovered that an AI program operates in a manner that is analogous to my own way of thinking, I was amazed. As a bottom-up thinker, I build my theories and categorize my information by gathering data. It was a shock to learn that two years ago, the same is true of AI.

Is it your practice to commence the writing procedure by focusing on the particular details?

TG remarked that his technical writing was far from abstract. He would describe how to move cattle, and then make diagrams illustrating what he had written. Moreover, he even named the ranch or the feedlot he was writing about. When asked what had helped him to make a difference in the cattle industry, he pointed out that he had done lots and lots of writing while designing a project, and then he would write about it.

Do you do a lot of reading? Is it mostly related to technology?

Currently, I’m looking through some scientific studies and the disparities between their approaches. Everyone else focuses on the data analysis program they employed. That’s not my area of expertise. I’ve let another journal article reviewer address that, but I’m observing the methods. What precisely did they do to carry out the experiment? When I was assessing the journal articles, I noticed they didn’t specify the breed of pig they used. That could have a huge effect on the results. I’m looking into the small details of the methods, and it’s quite evident that slight alterations in the methods can lead to dramatic changes in the outcomes of various research projects.

An article in either Science or Nature highlighted the difficulty of replicating biomedical experiments, citing a particular example of cancer experiments that yielded different results depending on whether cells were shaken or simply stirred. This serves as a reminder of how important it is to pay attention to the details of the method.

BLVR: Are you a fan of reading novels?

TG: Novels are enjoyable to me. Mysteries don’t really work for me, since the plots are often convoluted. I’m not a fan of trying to figure out sequences. I prefer books that take me to distant and intriguing places, where I can visualize a movie in my mind. This could be a science fiction story about an alternate world or a tale of future technology. Then I can really see it.

Novels can be composed in a poetic style–

The other day, I was reading a book and I thought to myself, “Wow, they really went overboard with the ornate language!”

I was curious as to how you would react to a writing style that was crafted in such a way.

TG: I’m really curious about the various ways that people contemplate, and it is necessary to have distinct minds working in sync. For instance, a creative thinker can come up with an idea, and then engineers need to figure out how to make it a reality. The iPhone is a perfect example of this.

BLVR: Mention of science fiction came up, which often serves as a stimulating platform for invention. It can provide an opportunity to introduce concepts that may not be accepted as scientific principles.

TG remarked that it was remarkable that Arthur C. Clarke had the idea of a communications satellite before one was launched. Moreover, they referred to the scene in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey of a tablet computer on a counter and found out that the filmmakers used a 16 mm movie camera underneath the desk to create the image. This in turn predicted the tablet computer.

BLVR: Could you share some of the more renowned titles that you prefer?

When I was a child, The [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz was a favorite of mine. As I have grown older, I have watched the movie based on the book adaptation countless times, and I can still recall the images that come with it.

BLVR: It is often suggested that in order to gain a deeper comprehension of animals we should focus less on words and more on visuals.

TG: All the things an animal does are based on what it can perceive with its senses, such as visuals, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations. This has made me think of Oliver Sacks’s work on an individual who took a medication and acquired an improved sense of smell. He mentioned that it was possible to imagine what it would be like to be in a world where smells are the primary focus, much like a dog.

BLVR: You have mentioned often the connection between sound and animals. How do you think about sound when you are engineering slaughterhouses?

TG stated that he created a scoring system for slaughterhouses, which can detect when an animal is bellowing. This score can be used to identify any severe issues. If, for example, there is an excessive use of electric prods or if they are held too tight with a restraint device, the vocalization score could be up to 20-30% of the cattle. Once this is stopped, the score will drop down to 5%. This is a great way to identify any problems.

BLVR: What kind of noises do the animals experience in the slaughterhouse?

TG states that visual cues can be a hindrance for cattle when pushing them in a direction. Something as simple as a paper towel can make them pause, or the sight of people in front, or a glimmer of metal or a reflective surface of water can make them stop completely. To fix this, he suggested altering the lighting to eliminate the reflection, which resolved the issue and allowed the cattle to progress up the chute.

BLVR suggested that the triggers are associated.

TG: Basically, you’re entering a realm of abstraction. This is the association: when you tell me something, it’s like a search engine query. You’re using Google Images, where you enter keywords and images appear. At times, you might drift away from the original topic. That’s why I use the term associative.

BLVR: Is it true that classical music is an effective method of calming animals?

TG: Every time I think of classical music, the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the Pan Am space shuttle docks with the space station and the waltz “The Blue Danube” is playing springs to my mind. This piece of music has become inseparable from that moment for me.

This is the organization known as BLVR.

TG: My thoughts are all related to each other, and it’s not uncommon for me to make something visual into a musical connection. As an example, I was driving down the road one day and I saw an old, run-down garage. Immediately, I started singing [ sings ], “Go, Granny! Go, Granny! Go, Granny, go! Parked in a rickety old garage is a brand-new shiny red Super Stock Dodge!” [from the song “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” by the Beach Boys] It was as if I was seeing it all in my head, and in that moment the rustic structure was the perfect place for that car.

  1. LAVENDER SHEETS

The fourth item in this list is lavender paper, which is a popular choice for crafting. Instead, consider using lavender sheets to give your project a unique twist. This paper is a great way to add a touch of color and texture to your creation.

Previously, you have expressed that you are especially sensitive to the tone of voice.

One of the few methods I had for determining the attitude of a client was to phone them and listen for any hint of displeasure in their tone of voice. This way, I could tell if they were content with the service I provided.

BLVR has observed that you have endeavored to lessen your sensitivity to certain types of stimuli.

TG commented that he has now grown used to people hugging him, and he uses a device to help him become less sensitive to it. He mentioned that desensitizing therapies exist for this purpose, and that children tend to be more comfortable if they have control over the situation. Using the squeeze machine for example, TG had the power to control the intensity of the pressure. He recommended that if a child is scared of the vacuum cleaner, they should be allowed to turn it on and off so that they have control over it.

This paper, “Environmental Enrichment as an Effective Treatment for Autism,” involves stimulating two senses concurrently, like hearing classical music and smelling aromatherapy. The senses chosen should be one of the more primitive ones, such as touch, smell, or balance, and the stimuli used should be continuously altered. It has been observed that when psychologists are unaware of the treatment, there are improvements. This is an inexpensive therapy to implement, as it requires just two fifteen-minute sessions per day, which is a feasible option for those on a budget.

BLVR: Is it necessary for you to become less sensitive to other senses too?

TG has noticed that visual stimuli are not an issue for them, however, it can be an issue for others. Individuals with visual stimuli issues, such as sharp contrasts of light and dark, stripes and checkerboards, can have difficulty reading. This is indicated by the print on the page jiggling and not being clear. To help with this problem, TG has suggested printing books onto different pastel paper colors, like lavender, light gray, and light blue. This has helped five students avoid failing school. The reason why it works is unknown but it has been effective.

A person I know who is highly esteemed in the cattle business has spent a significant amount of money on their dyslexia. They now use lavender paper in their printer and are very pleased with it. Even though this does not work for everyone, those with dyslexia who get a sense of the print jiggling on the page, and experience difficulty getting on and off escalators and see the flickering of traditional fluorescent lights, may find the pale colored paper to be of great help.

  1. “REALITY OF OBJECTS IN EXISTENCE”

Do you consider all individuals to be either musical, mathematical, or verbal thinkers?

TG commented that when one is labeled with conditions such as autism, dyslexia, or ADHD, there tends to be an unevenness in skills, with a person being adept in one area and yet abysmal in another. He himself was “horrible in algebra,” being an object visualizer, whereas others who think in patterns are more likely to be mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. Additionally, word-thinkers often find their place in radio, as he recalled one radio person telling him, “I went into radio because I hated TV because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the pictures.”

Is there a similarity that you recognize between yourself and those who think in pictures?

I believe it is essential to be able to cooperate with people with different thought processes, as they can be complementary to one another. For instance, I have collaborated with other authors on a few of my books and the reason for that is that my visual thinking style has a tendency to wander due to its associative nature. To keep my thoughts in order, I need someone who is more of a word thinker.

Visual inventions can often be difficult to come up with. Take, for instance, the issue of risk. Engineers usually attempt to compute the dangers of a catastrophic hundred-year storm destroying a city. When I heard why the Fukushima power plant malfunctioned, I was astonished. What they did was a basic visual-thinking blunder. It is not a wise decision to put the vital, electricity-powered emergency cooling pump in a non-waterproof basement if you live near the sea. Had they installed waterproof doors, the accident wouldn’t have occurred. It was clear to me that the basement would fill up with water. Unfortunately, the engineer did not have this foresight.

Do you typically consider the potential hazards connected to any given situation?

TG expressed his worry regarding self-driving cars and recalled the challenges with airbags that occurred in the past. He stated that if he had been the one working on the project, he would have been able to prevent airbags from killing babies and small children. He mentioned that the engineers were simply following the specifications and calculations given to them, neglecting to consider the effect this could have on infants.

Does it make you uneasy that the world is transitioning to a more computerized way of life?

I wrote Calling All Minds to address the fact that kids today don’t get the chance to do any hands-on activities. For instance, the students I teach in my livestock handling class have a hard time drawing a cattle-handling facility with a ruler and compass. It’s a basic skill they should know, like when you’re trying to figure out if a piece of furniture will fit in your apartment. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lack of kids with the skills to do these kinds of jobs, like electricians, plumbers, auto mechanics, welders, and the like. And it’s an issue because these jobs aren’t going away and they won’t be replaced by computers.

BLVR: Is this something that you have noticed in the students you teach?

I am often asked about my role in the cattle industry, and I have to attribute my success to my writing abilities. I was an excellent writer and wrote for various publications and journals. Nevertheless, when it comes to college students, it seems that their writing skills are far from adequate. I have to make many corrections on their papers that should have been taken care of in high school. I blame the educational system for this.

I recall the papers I edited on an airplane, having spent more energy on copyediting than absorbing their content. I was situated in an aisle seat in the back of the plane. I’m pretty sure it was JetBlue for the extra legroom. It is easy for me to visualize the scene. During a class discussion recently, we had to provide the students with additional information on how to work with a scale ruler. Now, I’m able to remember the exact seat I took in the conference room.

BLVR: Describing the association seems to be almost too much for you; as if it’s an out-of-body experience.

TG: Visuals appear and then vanish.

Do you, as someone who thinks visually, find yourself naturally drawn to visual art?

As I made my way into the studio, I noticed a physics sculpture with a quote from Newton. It spoke of how he was able to gain insights and progress due to standing on the shoulders of those that came before him. This quotation is absolutely true.

What people have helped you get to where you are today?

When I was in college, I had a great animal behavior class that sparked my interest in the field. It was during the time when everyone was focused on operant conditioning, B. F. Skinner, and stimulus response. However, my instructor was a reptile specialist who taught me about animals having instinctive, innate, and fixed action patterns of behavior. This was significant to me because everyone else was of the belief that everything was learned, and responded to stimuli. The traditional ethologists, however, don’t agree with this. This course was highly influential to me.

BLVR: Since you spend so much of your days dealing with animals, do you ever have any pets of your own?

TG: My current lifestyle has me on the road a lot, so unfortunately I’m unable to do that.

BLVR: Are you interested in doing so?

I would definitely do that, yes.

BLVR: Would you prefer to own either dogs or cats?

I would guess that the answer would be a canine.

BLVR: It appears that you have a fondness for canines.

TG once had a devoted assistant who owned a blue heeler named Annie. Whenever TG would show up at the assistant’s residence, Annie would joyfully race over to him and he would give her a good belly rub. TG considered Annie to be his best friend and even believed she liked him better than her own owner.

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