Spending a Day with Temple Grandin
Fort Collins, CO –
Temple Grandin is famous for her pioneering animal welfare work and for living with autism. On November 3, 2011, she received the first Media and Disability award at the Rose Wagner Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. Sheri Quinn recently spent a day with Grandin on her home turf and offers a rare glimpse of this remarkable person.
"My name is Temple Grandin, I am a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and we are at my house in Fort Collins, Colorado."
I am literally on the edge of my seat, on Temple's brown cowhide couch in her modest two-story condo. The walls are collaged with paintings and photographs of cattle, horses, and western art, shelves are piled high with stuffed animals and knick knacks, all gifts from her family, friends, and fans stacks of papers, books,
and journals are scattered everywhere.
Temple has Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism that keeps her focused and driven. The unique neural circuitry of her brain allows her to think in pictures and she visualizes the world in a highly systematic way.
"My mind works like Google and I have to put key words in and search things. I'm 64 years old and I have a lot of information in my mind that I can Google," said Grandin.
Temple is best known for her innovative designs of livestock handling facilities. The curved chute system is used worldwide. Her writings on grazing animal behavior have helped livestock producers reduce stress in cows and pigs during handling. Temple's philosophy: the world is cruel but we don't have to be, has caught on and even fast-food corporations such as McDonalds, Wendy's and Burger King have begun to implement her humane animal welfare practices at their slaughterhouses.
Photojournalist Rosalie Winard met temple in 1989 at an autism conference she was covering. She was so impressed by temple's talk she knew at that moment she had to meet her. Since then, Rosalie has been photographing temple on a regular basis and they have become close friends.
"People don't realize how Temple is interested in research too. The livestock industry is just one piece. Temple's passion in life is to make a difference. She's made a conscious choice not to marry, not to be involved in a personal way, not to say that she does not have friends who absolutely adore her," said Winard.
Kurt Vogel, assistant professor of livestock behavior and welfare at the University of Wisconsin in river falls, was one of temple's graduate students. He grew up on a farm and similar to temple, he likes to get his hands dirty. As an undergrad, Vogel worked on one of temple's inventions: a cattle track restrainer designed to keep cattle calm as they line-up for slaughter. Temple heard about his project and was so impressed she sent him her business card.
"And that absolutely blew my mind. That was the point where the door opened to the rest of my career," said Vogel.
As we drove to lunch, it was clear she was unaffected by all the fame and media attention. It's all just background noise to her, and even though I was a part of that noise she was kind and made me feel welcomed. Her autistic mind operates on a level most of us cannot understand but she has taught many how to appreciate autism and embrace its potential benefits.
"I think a brain can be made to be more cognitive, more social, or more thinking. So if you build a brain to be more social then you have less circuits for things like inventing computers and doing all kinds of other interesting things. If you got rid of all the genetics that causes autism we would be a bunch of social yakity yaks and we are not going to get anything done," said Grandin.
When she was in high school autism had a negative label and temple turned to horses for comfort. Her prized possession was an English saddle and bridle that she polished every day. She was different from the other kids and riding horses became her escape. She grew up in an upper middle class family in Boston, who despite doctor's recommendations, nurtured her quirks and pushed her out into mainstream society armed with a sense of purpose.
"I was brought up by Roy Rogers' rules for living. Every kid knew that in the 50s, be kind, be polite, help the weak, and today we have all these survivor shows where you are throwing the weak one off the show and I am concerned about that because it's me, me, me, me, me, rather than helping others," said Grandin.
Temple has found ways to live and thrive with her condition. She has taken what some would call mental handicaps and turned them into a super skill set for experiencing the world. But she is concerned with how modern medicine understands and treats those with conditions like hers.
"All the advertising, putting kids on powerful drugs that they should not be on. Now I want to add there is a place for careful use of medication, I take anti-depressants and they saved me because my fear center is 3 times bigger than normal. But it's appalling the amount of powerful drugs given out like candy," said Grandin.
There is also a very innocent and playful side to temple that became more evident throughout the day as we got to know each other better. It was her birthday, and Rosalie and I treated her to lunch at one of her favorite Mexican spots in Fort Collins, we found out her preferred escape from her work and celebrity-style obligations is watching movies.
"Most of my movie watching is on airplanes and occasionally I'll go to the theater I know this is stupid but I want to see Cowboys and Aliens," said Grandin.
My tour with Temple Grandin ended with a big friendly hug outside of the movie theater as she thanked me for the interview. Feeling the luck of being touched by a truly remarkable person, I skipped to my car with an ear-to-ear grin.