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Squeeze Me

Animal Scientist Temple Grandin has autism.
December 1, 2003, 12:00am

Photo by: Rosalie Winard | Sent from: Fort Collins, CO

Animal Scientist Temple Grandin has autism. If your only knowledge of autism comes from Rain Man, then you need to get some facts straight. Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant. Not all autistic people can memorize the phonebook overnight. (There are plenty of autistic savants around in the real world, though. Some of them have this thing called “calendar memory” where you can say, “Hey, Rain Man, what day of the week was… oh, let’s say… July 10, 1975?” And then the autistic savant person thinks for about one second before he says, “Thursday. What are you, stupid?”) But this isn’t the kind of autism that Temple Grandin has. She has high-level functioning autism, which means that she is a fully capable, rather intelligent, and quite personable woman who sometimes has to deal with things in her brain being a little weird. In her book Thinking in Pictures she details a lot of it, and the most interesting part of her illness is right there in the title. She is a visual thinker. You think only in images—specific images. There is no generic signifier for a thing like “cheeseburger” in your brain. Maybe we should let Temple explain. Temple: I am more or less a human Google image search. When I’m asked to think of a specific object that isn’t right in front of me, it’s like a domino effect of associative thinking. You know how Google can get off the subject? My brain does the same thing. I’ll show you. Name an object that wouldn’t be here in my office. Like don’t say “desk.” VICE: OK…traffic light. OK, traffic light. I just saw the traffic light at the intersection of Drake and Shields, the one that’s got the radar camera on it so you have to be extra careful. Now I’m seeing a speeding ticket I once got. I can see the face of the police officer who gave it to me. It comes up like a video. Now I see myself using a police radar to measure how fast cattle come out of the squeeze chute. Cattle with skinny leg bones come out faster. Now I just clearly saw a picture of Twiggy, that model from the 60s. Do most of your visual associations lead to cattle sooner or later? You spend a lot of time working with them. Think of it in terms of “What do I have on my hard drive?” I have quite a few jpegs of cattle in there, so they often come up. Early on, you saw a link between cattle restraints and autism. It all started out going to visit my aunt’s ranch. I got very interested in the squeeze chute, which is a device used to restrain cattle for vaccinations. The livestock were calmed when they were gently squeezed. I saw how people with autism could benefit from a similar thing. Getting touched, to us, can be complete sensory overload. Even a scratchy sweater can feel like thorns. I devised a squeeze machine in the early 70s when I got to be sixteen, when puberty was going on. I developed terrible anxiety. It was like a constant state of stage fright. Getting into this contraption I’d made with mattresses and plywood was very helpful. Most people with autism find deep pressure all over the body very relaxing. It helps to desensitize you to human touch.

Photo by: Rosalie Winard
Sent from: Fort Collins, CO

You are especially interested in developing humane ways to handle livestock in slaughterhouses.

I worked mostly on facility design in the 80s, and nowadays I go around looking at plants to make sure they are using the plants correctly. I developed the American Meat Institute Guidelines, which quantify all the gauges of effectiveness in slaughter plants. I feel very strongly that we’ve got to treat the cattle right. We’ve got to give them a good life, and when they go on in to be slaughtered, they shouldn’t even know what happened. That’s what I’m working for.