Most people know Temple Grandin because Claire Danes portrayed her in a 2010 HBO movie. But 67-year-old Grandin has been known for decades to two seemingly very different communities: autism advocates and livestock specialists.
Grandin was diagnosed with autism in 1950 when the disorder was dramatically less understood than it is today (and it is still baffling). Her parents were told to institutionalize her, but thankfully, they bucked the conventional advice. Grandin discovered a unique ability to connect with animals and became a leading livestock specialist, designing facilities “in which half the cattle are handled in the United States,” according to her website. She now serves as an Associate Professor at Colorado State University and has authored several books on autism and animal science.
On Monday, Grandin participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA), and the questions were as diverse as her career.
The most interesting personal information Grandin shared during the AMA was the sexism she faced during the start of her career. In addition to having to prove her worth as a person with autism, Grandin faced the extra challenges of harassment and sexist biases as one of the only female scientists and experts in the livestock industry.
“When I started in the early 1970’s, the only women in the beef industry were working as secretaries in the office. I was the first woman in Arizona to handle cattle in the feedlot,” she said. “The scene in the HBO movie where the bull testicles were left on my windshield actually happened.”
In fact, she says the sexism she faced was far more of an obstacle than her autism in the workplace. “Being a woman in a man’s world was a much bigger issue than being autistic,” she said. “I had to be twice as good as a man. It frustrated me that men could mess up a design project and still have a job. “
Decades later, Grandin is well-established as one of the leading cattle experts, and more than a few of the Reddit responders wanted to talk shop with Grandin about the livestock industry. While not the most stimulating for those less passionate about cattle, Grandin made it interesting. As a livestock specialist—and someone who has served as a consultant for Burger King and McDonald’s—she has no shortage of strong opinions on animal cruelty and defending the U.S. cattle industry.
“I often encounter the idea that animal handling in the context of slaughter is automatically inhumane. This is one of the pieces of misinformation that I would like to clear up,” Grandin said. “Much of my career has been dedicated to implementing measurable standards for humane animal handling at the slaughterhouse. All U.S. federally inspected slaughterhouses are subject to government regulations as well as guidelines for humane handling that I helped author.”
Grandin’s passion and understanding of animals actually led to one of her most famous inventions for people with autism: the hugging machine, a deep-pressure therapeutic device to sooth people with hypersensitivity issues. Grandin explained how the device actually brings her two roles as autism advocate and animal-science expert together.
“When I entered puberty, I began experiencing panic attacks and severe anxiety,” she said, which can be common for cases of autism. “I had observed cattle retrained in a squeeze chute, and I noticed that some of the cattle seemed to relax with the firm pressure. I tried using the cattle squeeze chute on myself, and then I designed a squeeze machine for personal use.”
Many parents of children on the spectrum reached out to Grandin during the AMA, seeing her as one of the few adults and experts who can articulate insights to neurotypical people the unique experience of having autism. One parent asked Grandin for her most important advice for raising a child with autism. Grandin responded with an emphasis on early intervention.
“If you have a 2 or 3 year old who is not talking, you must start an early intervention program. The worst thing you can do with an autistic 3 year old is to do nothing,” she said.
A mother asked her for advice for raising her son, who “is brilliant yet struggles.” Grandin responded with encouragement to “develop your son’s strength,” while also giving him room to grow.
“You need to stretch kids slightly outside their comfort zones, but never have surprises,” she said. “There is a tendency for some parents to overprotect their child and do all the talking for him. It is important to pause, and give the child an opportunity to talk and express his/her thoughts.”