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Biography: Dr. Temple Grandin, autism advocate and animal rights champion

Posted by mandyf on May 23, 2012

Temple Grandin is one of the most extraordinary people you may ever hear of. While she has been referred to as an extraordinary autistic person, which she is, Temple Grandin is so much more than any words can describe. She has led a life in which she overcame obstacles doctors didn’t even understand when she was a child, and rose to become one of the most celebrated people on the planet. If that sounds like praise for the sake of giving praise, you don’t know Temple Grandin.

Temple Grandin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 29, 1947 to Richard and Eustacia Cutler. When she was two, Grandin was diagnosed autistic. At age 4, the diagnosis was confirmed, and Grandin’s mother was told Temple would likely never speak. She was placed in a school which was more like a facility for children that had various forms of what was under the umbrella of brain damage. With the help of speech therapy, Grandin eventually learned to speak and went on to primary school where her academic results were mixed. As little was known bout autism and how autistic people process information at the time, Grandin was able to do quite well in things like mathematics or tasks that required visualization, but language based subjects like English or history were quite a challenge.

Grandin eventually moved on to attend the Hampshire County School in New Hampshire. Before attending Franklin Pierce College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Grandin spent a summer on her aunt’s cattle farm  that changed her life. Grandin became enamored with the cattle and observed their every move and manner of behavior. It was when she saw the cattle in a holding pen where they were clamped tightly so they could be inoculated that Grandin noticed the pressure exerted by the pen calmed them down. While experiencing a moment of sensory overload, Grandin got in that clamp and found that she too calmed down.

When  Grandin began studies at Franklin Pierce College, she found the pressures of new routines and surroundings to be a bit too much at times – as they can be for anyone. Due to her sensitivity to sensory overload though, Grandin needed some way to release the tension and calm down. She began working on what she called her “squeeze box” made of scrap wood and materials which mimicked the actions of the cattle pen at the farm. While it was perfectly logical to Grandin to do this, it really creeped out Grandin’s roommate who requested Grandin, it was believed by the school psychologist, had some sort of sexual fetish because he could not understand the purpose of the squeeze box. The box was taken from her and destroyed, but Grandin performed a study on student volunteers that proved that in some cases the box had a therapeutic calming effect and was allowed to construct and keep a new squeeze box.

After graduating Franklin Pierce College, Grandin went to Arizona State where she began working on her master’s degree in animal science. During this point in her life, Grandin also began writing articles for the Arizona Farmer  Ranchman weekly which were primarily based on the behavior of cattle. Grandin began noting the inhumane treatment of cattle as they were prepared for slaughter, and also started taking notice of how the process could be improved.

Because of Grandin’s autism, she was able to visualize the process not only in far more detail than anyone else had, she was able to see it from the cattle’s perspective and understand why certain things went wrong in the process. While everyone made fun of her and her observations, Grandin paid little mind. Even when they vandalized her vehicle, tried purposely to force her out of the field of study, and were generally being ugly humans to her based as much on her sex as her autism as it was considered “a man’s job”, Grandin pressed on.

Her articles in the Ranchman got the attention of  a man that wanted to have Grandin design a new flow system for preparing cattle for the slaughterhouse. Her design was not embraced initially, in fact it was torn down before it got an honest chance. Once it was reconstructed however, it bore out exactly what Grandin had theorized. The cattle were less agitated, there were fewer cattle lost in the dip process, and it took fewer men to work the cattle, again, because they were so much calmer than before.
This moved Grandin into the field of animal welfare. It is believed that thanks to Grandin’s autism, she has a unique perspective on understanding how animals feel when trapped and being prepared for slaughter. This led to Grandin designing cruelty-free slaughterhouses which have been duplicated around the world. PETA recognized Grandin’s work by awarding her the “Proggy” award in the visionary category.  Grandin is also recognized as a leading advocate for autistic, and when she does speak at autism events, the room is usually SRO.

Grandin went on to get her master’s degree in animal science from Arizona, and eventually a doctorate from UI-Champaign in animal science in 1989. In 2010, Duke University bestowed an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters upon her as well. Currently Grandin lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she is a professor at Colorado State University. She lists her outside interest as autism rights, horse riding, biochemistry, and sci-fi movies. Grandin has neither married nor had any children and has stated she never desired either as emotional relationships are not a part of her. Her life story was made into an HBO movie, in which she was portrayed by Claire Danes,  that took 7 of the 15 awards it was nominated for.

“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.”  – Temple Grandin


One Response to “Biography: Dr. Temple Grandin, autism advocate and animal rights champion”

  1. Libby Keane said

    What a coincidence. The local TV station just did a profile of this woman. Amazing.

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