Thinking in Pictures: Temple Grandin explains autism and the animal mind to packed house at Michigan Theater
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Long before Temple Grandin's life was the stuff of an Emmy-winning HBO feature film, Chrisstina Hamilton had been trying to bring her to Ann Arbor.
Hamilton, director of the Penny W. Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series, finally got her wish of five years on Thursday night when Grandin's talk kicked off the 2010-2011 lecture season before a standing room only crowd at the Michigan Theater.
The lecture series is funded by University of Michigan School of Art & Design alum Penny Stamps. It's intended as a way to connect students with innovative artists.
Grandin, a professor of animal science, a designer, and an author, focused her lecture on autism, animals, and the sensory-thinking approach both use to understand the world.
Beyond that work, Grandin has gained renown for designing humane slaughter facilities and a grading system to assess them.
"I want you to think about thinking," she said before the lecture. "And to understand animals, autistic people, mathematics — that requires getting away from verbal language."
Someone once asked Grandin, who is autistic and has Asperger's syndrome, what it's like to communicate with "normal" people.
"I feel like an anthropologist on Mars," she replied.
And much of her lecture focused on the failures of language to reach the autistic mind.
"Most kids, when you tell them 'don't cross the street without looking,' understand that to mean streets in general," Grandin said. "If you're going to tell your autistic child not to cross the street, you better tell them in 10 different places. They think in terms of specifics."
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Animals, too. Grandin once encountered a horse that was afraid of people in black hats, having been abused by a black-hat wearing cowboy in the past. People without hats and people with white hats triggered none of the fearful reactions that black hat wearers did.
"Animal fears are very specific. Their memories form in terms of pictures, smells, taste, touch," she said.
A number of parents in the audience asked Grandin to name a turning point in her life - the moment when the proverbial lightbulb clicked on.
She couldn't. Outside of the pre-age 2 "educational intervention" Grandin said is crucial for all autistic children, her progress is mostly the result of high expectations and a mother unwilling to give up on her. Doctors and educators knew a lot less about autism in the 1950s. Grandin didn't start speaking until age 4.
Now she's a professor at Colorado State University, a successful author, and the subject of a self-titled HBO film that recently took home seven Emmy Awards. That wouldn't have been possible without having mentors at a young age, Grandin said.
"You've got to work with these (autistic) kids: mentor them, hire them," Grandin implored the crowd. "Even if the skill you can teach them is a little outdated, it gets the mind working and learning. Kids who are out spraying graffiti need to be working with real artists. They need to start thinking in terms of assignments, and learn how to finish."
That's what Grandin did. She designed her first humane slaughter facility as a teenager, and built a portfolio long before anyone paid her to do so. She credits a childhood trip to her aunt's farm with sparking that interest. That and her mother's insistence that she make the visit.
"I didn't want to go (to the farm) at first," Grandin recalled. "My mom laid out my options like this: either I could either go for two weeks or I could go for the whole summer. But I went, and I loved it. That was the spark."
Grandin spent part of her lecture speaking against the "abstractification" of the language, one of the major barriers autistic people face in mainstream society.
"When we say, for instance, that a student has behavioral issues in school, that could mean he throws spitballs, or it could mean he hit the teacher," she said. "Now, both are problems, but the degree is different, and that difference is lost when you're being so vague. We need to learn to be more specific."
"Normal" people tend to think "top-down," Grandin said - they form their theories first and let in or discard evidence to fit that framework. Autistic people and animals think "bottom-up," or take an experience-and-evidence-based approach to the world. Hence the horse with the fear of black hats.
Educational systems that only cater to top-down thinkers are failing to reach many talented young minds, Grandin said. Under-stimulated, their problems spill over into the job market. Autistic students need school systems that challenge them while playing to their strengths, Grandin said. That's what she had growing up.
"The world needs different kinds of minds working together," she said. "We need to have these unique minds doing productive work, not bagging groceries because no one knows what to do with them."
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.