A Challenging Childhood
A biography of Temple Grandin must begin with her intriguing childhood. Growing up in 1950s Boston at a time when kids played freely outdoors under the supervision of the neighborhood stay-at-home moms, the young Temple was given plenty of opportunities to blossom. She attended a rural New England boarding school and vacationed on an aunt’s farm where she learned to ride a horse. All this was in spite of the fact that she didn’t talk until four years of age and communicated her frustrations by hitting. A psychiatrist recommended that she be institutionalized at an early age. Instead, her mother hired a nanny who required strict adherence to etiquette from her charge.
In her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic Dr. Grandin describes her many sensory sensitivities and communication challenges that led to an autism diagnosis Such a book was revolutionary in 1986 because up until then all knowledge of autism was based on observation. But here was an intelligent, articulate spokeswoman explaining how being tapped on the shoulder felt like an assault. In order to feel better Dr. Grandin squeezed herself between pillows and eventually built a squeeze machine (or hug machine as it is also referred to) modeled on the ones used to calm down cattle.
One of the most important themes running through a short biography of Temple Grandin is that as a person with a social/communication disability, academic and professional success became extremely critical in terms of earning respect, a social network and independence. These themes are also expressed in her books Unwritten Rules of social Relationships and Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome and High-functioning Autism.
Educating the World about Autism
As a child Temple Grandin recognized that she had exceptional abilities to visualize spatial relationships. This eventually enabled her to design more humane environments for animals in the meat packing industry. In fact, in her book Thinking in Pictures she describes how her visual mind works and that there is a connection between her impairment and relating to animals because like her animals interpret their environments visually and share sensitivities to touch and sound.
For example, Dr. Grandin discovered that eliminating confusing shadows and objects that flapped in the wind reduced animal distress. By explaining the similarities between the autistic person’s nervous system and those of other animals, Dr. Grandin was better able to demonstrate the autistic perspective described in her books and lectures.
The book, Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals goes one step further as she details with extraordinary insight how animals think, feel and act. For example, her suggestions such as providing stimulating toys or cognitive challenges in zoos involve simple, easy to implement changes that improve quality of life for the zoo’s animals.
Influence on Understanding Autism
Temple Grandin’s wide influence on autism researchers, educators, therapists, parents and people with autism who hold her up as a role model is demonstrated by her popularity as a speaker and author. She has been interviewed extensively in magazines and on television. Neurologist Oliver Sacks included her story as one of the case studies in An Anthropologist from Mars, highlighting her remarkable accomplishments despite her social challenges. A biography of Temple Grandin as short as this one cannot do justice to this remarkable woman’s legacy in educating the world about the challenges people with autism confront.
“Autism: A comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach"; Heather Miller Kuhaneck & Renee Watling; 2010.
“The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s"; Temple Grandin; 2008.
“Emergence: Labeled Autistic; Temple Grandin;1986.
“Developing Talents: Careers for Individuals with Asperger syndrome and High-functioning autism"; Temple Grandin & Kate Duffy; 2004.
“Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships"; Temple Grandin & Sean Barron; 2005.
“Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals"; Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson; 2010.
“An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales"; Oliver Sacks; 1996.
Picture credit – image released into the public domain under the Creative Commons License