Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor of animal sciences, autism activist, and best-selling author of a dozen books, was greeted warmly a couple days before Thanksgiving at “A conversation with Temple Grandin” cosponsored by the New York State Writers Institute and the University at Albany’s Disability Resource Center and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Temple Grandin was introduced by Mark Koplik, Assistant Directory of the Writers Institute, and the conversation began with a large helping of gratitude and emotion.
Prof. Grandin’s bestselling books include Thinking in Pictures (1996), Animals in Translation (2005), Animals Make Us Human (2009), and The Autistic Brain (2013). She has written concisely about the three distinct ways to categorize the way that humans think, which has been documented by much research: some think in pictures (“visual thinkers”) like herself; others think in patterns (“music-math thinkers”); and then there are those who think in word details (“verbal-logic thinkers”).
On Temple Grandin’s Official Autism Website, the “Autism Facts” are concisely noted. Autism spectrum disorder (AS) has been identified in 1 in 59 U.S. children and is 4.5 times more common in boys (1 in 42) than in girls (1 in 189). In her appearance in Albany, Prof. Grandin reinforced her principal message that students should be inspired to persevere regardless of any label placed on them.
Temple Grandin’s opening remarks were generous, insightful and full of practical advice. Her focus encourages the “building up the strengths” of a person on the autism spectrum. And this approach is mirrored on her website, which succinctly and conveniently summarizes the inspiring message she delivered in person during her conversation with Mark Koplik.
Born in 1947, Temple Grandin did not talk until she was three and a half years old, and her family resisted the advice of medical professionals at that time that she be institutionalized. Noting the “Problem With Labels,” Grandin’s website spotlights the revised (in 2013) diagnostic criteria for autism which greatly broadened the spectrum: “It now ranges from brilliant scientists, artists, and musicians to an individual who cannot dress himself or herself.” To “have high, but reasonable expectations” is her practical advice.
Using her ability to think in pictures enabled Temple Grandin to become the well-known advocate for the humane treatment of livestock for slaughter and the author of dozens of scientific papers on animal behavior. It is a stunning fact to note that today half the cattle in the United States are “handled in facilities she has designed” the wording used on Grandin’s website.
As users of this website know, our “Mission Statement” cites Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and the profoundly cruel systems which produce meat as a product. It is undeniable that Temple Grandin’s work as a consultant to the livestock industry has resulted in humane treatment of cattle as they are stunned to death, especially when compared with prior slaughterhouse procedures. Nonetheless, it is still troubling to this local and organic food advocate that the industrial agriculture system in Foer’s words with “antibiotic overuse raises 450 billion land animals each year.”
As Mark Koplik’s conversation with Temple Grandin concluded and the Q and A began, with many audience members getting in line to pose questions, I admit to hoping that someone would ask if by improving the process of slaughtering animals, there just might be some negative consequence of making the eating of meat more acceptable. I also admit of an interest to learn whether Temple Grandin herself consumes meat or perhaps has tried to reduce her meat consumption. Nonetheless, despite my questions, there is no doubt that helping ease cattle out of life (without needless pain and suffering) is a notable improvement.
Though a generous amount of time was offered up for Q and A, no one posed a question last week that resolved my curiosity. Nonetheless, there was one particularly provocative Q and A.
A young woman described a colleague in her office, who she thought was on the autism spectrum. Describing her colleague who “says it like it is” as extremely honest and direct, she suggested that he is like a whistle blower who shines light on poor behavior within their agency. She asked Temple Grandin whether he could be protected for his outspokenness. Temple Grandin (who persevered in life and struggled against the challenges of autism which in the past isolated individuals like her from a purposeful life) responded that in order to work in the cattle industry (as she did, beginning in the 1970s), she could not be a whistle blower. Her understandable response, “If you want to stay in the cattle industry, you can’t participate in stuff.”
But with regard to the questioner’s concern for her fellow employee, there’s no doubt that significant progress has been achieved in the past decades to protect people from discrimination and arbitrary treatment by employers. For example, in New York State, the New York State Division of Human Rights will investigate a complaint and determine whether there is probable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred. If the young woman’s colleague is disciplined for calling out improper behavior and “telling it like it is” rooted in his autism, there is very likely a legal path forward to address the matter. In addition, the Protection and Advocacy (P & A) System and Client Assistance Program (CAP), a nationwide network of legally based disability rights agencies, is mandated by federal law to protect and advocate for individuals with disabilities. P & A agencies have the authority to investigate abuse and neglect of people with disabilities, provide legal representation to people with disabilities and engage in other advocacy to advance the rights of individuals with disabilities.
In contrast, the superb HBO Films biopic Temple Grandin details an extraordinary incident of bullying and harassment faced down by this inspiring woman. To demonstrate that she did not belong on a Scottsdale, Arizona feedlot for a 52,000 herd of cows, when Temple Grandin returns to her pick-up truck, it is covered with hundreds of bloody bull testicles. This bullying and harassment to the nth degree nonetheless did not stop her from finding a way forward to work in this overwhelmingly male industry.
Today with organizations like Autism Speaks founded in 2005 (the largest autism research organization in the United States), seeing autism as a “difference” has become much more mainstream, with the goal of helping people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find paths in life that may lead to a more independent and meaningful adult life. The vision and purpose of this organization, like the extraordinary and purposeful life of Temple Grandin, is also inspiring:
“Deeply ingrained in the Autism Speaks mission is a commitment to creating a more equitable and accessible world for those we serve. By enhancing our solutions, embracing culture and elevating diversity inside and outside of our organization, we can guide individuals and families to more relevant resources that can help them overcome obstacles they may encounter and reach their full potential. This work will address biases and disparities that create obstacles, champion equity-focused innovations and further advance the lives of people on the spectrum.”
(Frank W. Barrie, 12/1/21)