By Theresa Giannetti
I certainly do. I was thrilled watching Sunday night’s Emmy Awards as HBO’s film, Temple Grandin, won seven of its 15 nods, in the TV Movie or Miniseries category, including Best Movie, Best Actress (Claire Danes), Best Supporting Actress (Julia Ormond), Best Supporting Actor (David Strathairn), and Best Director (Mick Jackson). But while this made-for-TV movie came away a huge winner, I wondered: how many people actually know who Temple Grandin is and what she does? I became curious about her work after she was mentioned in Steak by Mark Schatzker, a book about, well, steak, and the author’s travels to find the best of the best. Intrigued by Schatzker’s references, I started looking into Grandin’s storied career.
Temple (above left, with Claire Danes) was born in 1947, a time before the words Autistic Spectrum featured prominently into the vocabularies of new parents. As a misunderstood, high-functioning autistic teenager, Grandin was sent to a special boarding school for kids with “emotional problems” (in her book Animals in Translation, she writes, “Back then they called everything ‘emotional problems.’”) At the school, the children worked with and cared for horses. Grandin thinks visually, not verbally, unlike people who are neurotypical (the autistic community’s preferred term for the less correct “normal”). Grandin began to realize that her autism was a doorway into the minds of animals. She went on to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science.
Since then, Temple Grandin has not only become a famous advocate for autism, but also a renowned animal welfare reformer, often using the former to help the latter. Her unique insights into the way animals behave, think, and feel have allowed her to make sweeping reforms in the meatpacking industry, including the design of new, less-stressful equipment and the development of a simpler, more-thorough checklist for auditing meatpacking plants (her list contains five items that are comprehensive compared to the former 100-item list. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive). Because of her visual mind and her hyper-attention to detail, she is able to walk into any plant and, usually in minutes, discover why the pigs have bruised knees or the cows won’t go into the open-air yard. Mark Schatzker was able to talk to her and wrote about her work finding tiny details no other human could see and changing them. It’s truly fascinating and reforming stuff.
If you’re interested in learning more, Grandin has written (with other authors) seven books: four about autism, one autobiography, and two about animals. Her book Animals in Translation, is a delightful combination of animal psychology, human psychology, autism, and personal experience. And no, it won’t make you want to become a vegetarian: Grandin has been quoted as saying “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” That’s what her work is really about.
Temple Grandin’s Books:
The Way I See It: A Personal Look At Autism and Asperger’s
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (with Catherine Johnson)
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (with Catherine Johnson)
Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism
The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives is Autism (with Sean Barron)
Emergence: Labeled Autistic (with Margaret M. Scariano)
Humane Lifestock Handling:Understanding Lifestock Behavior and Building Facilities for Healthier Animals