Temple Grandin, a world-renowned animal behavior expert and one of the nation’s most widely-recognized professionals with autism, caught her first big career break designing humane livestock corralling systems more than 40 years ago because she didn’t give up on a narrow window of opportunity.
Having already worked around cattle, Grandin had a familiarity with handling them, but didn’t know all of the engineering behind livestock enclosures – specifically concrete reinforcement – a component of the new job she would need to learn in order to design a system for managing them in a less stressful environment. It was a roadblock, but she made it a point to learn and quickly closed the gap. “That door was only open for one second,” Grandin said. “I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And that was a major turning point in my career. The doors are everywhere, but people don’t see them.”
Grandin reflected on that “turning point” during her visit to Hobart and William Smith Colleges during which she also shared her perspective on living life with autism, overcoming obstacles and how her extensive career has focused on animal welfare during a special on-campus presentation, “My Life with Autism and the Humane Treatment of Animals.” A recording of her Sept. 17 talk at HWS will air on WEOS-FM 89.5/90.3 on Friday, Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.
With opening remarks by President Mark D. Gearan and an introduction by author, speaker and autism advocate Jesse Saperstein ’04, Grandin explored a range of points, including her views on types of learning styles and ways of thinking, the importance of offering young people the opportunity to build skills for the workplace, as well as how autism influenced her work with animals, particularly livestock.
“What I think that many of us find truly most impressive and inspiring is that she has committed her career and her life to a powerful idea – an important idea – that she could take what she has learned negotiating autism to change the health and well-being of animals,” Gearan said. “We talk a lot here at Hobart and William Smith that we work to prepare students to lead a life of consequence, and during the four years that our students are here to reflect upon what is a life of consequence. And certainly Dr. Temple Grandin is leading a remarkable life of consequence.”
An ardent advocate for the humane treatment of animals, Grandin was acknowledged in the Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world, in the “Heroes” category. She is a noted speaker and author of many books, including “Animals in Translation, “Animals Make Us Human,” and “The Autistic Brain,” all of which were New York Times best sellers. In 2010, HWS premiered a highly acclaimed biopic, “Temple Grandin,” starring Claire Danes. The film won numerous honors, including a Golden Globe for Danes’ work and several Emmys.
Introducing Grandin, Saperstein, who is affected by a high-functioning form of autism, reflected on the significance of her life’s work, sharing how her influence created a foundation for him and many others to “beat the odds” and pursue their dreams with passion and great determination. “I have this theory about why people on the autism spectrum are known to accomplish great things,” Saperstein said. “We continue pushing for our goals long after the so-called ‘normal people’ would have decided to let go, move on or give up.”
During her remarks, Grandin discussed her perspective on three different ways of thinking: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers and verbal thinkers. She also shared the way in which she is able to comprehend things – and how she was able to get through college and establish a longstanding, remarkable career by leveraging the way her mind works. “I’m a photo-realistic visual thinker,” she said. “I think totally in pictures. Give me a keyword. I see pictures.”
Currently a professor of animal science at Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Grandin designs livestock systems around the world that more closely match the natural instincts of livestock, reducing stress and unintended injuries. Her writings and the livestock handling facilities she has designed have helped reshape the ways livestock are treated and have helped reduce stress on animals during handling. She has developed an objective scoring system to assess the handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants, which is used by many large corporations to improve animal welfare.
“The thing about being a visual thinker is that I notice details,” Grandin said. “With my students in ‘Animal Behavior,’ I want to teach them to see details. My thinking is sensory based not word based. You want to understand animals, you have to get away from verbal language. It’s all about what they see, smell, hear – it’s a world of sensory detail. It’s also not linear.”
Grandin’s talk was free and open to the public, drawing a standing-room-only crowd to the Vandevort Room of the Scandling Campus Center and additional on-campus viewing spaces. Grandin also met with audience members and signed copies of her books.
In addition to her visit to HWS, Grandin made a stop at nearby Lawnhurst Farms in Stanley, N.Y., where she took a property tour and talked to members of the local agriculture industry. On Friday, she also served as the keynote speaker for the Autism Services of the Finger Lakes Annual Autism Conference hosted by Happiness House in Canandaigua, N.Y.
Earlier in the week, HWS Assistant Professor of Education Diana Baker and Associate Professor of Education Mary Kelly joined a panel discussion about Grandin, her visit and autism on WXXI’s “Connections with Evan Dawson” radio program. Baker and Kelly were among a group from HWS and Cornell Cooperative Extension that helped to facilitate the visit.
Sponsored by the HWS Provost’s Office – Global Initiative on Disability (GID), the HWS Education Department and the Finger Lakes Institute (FLI). The GID is a resource for education about disability, providing research, international service trips, speaker series and more to advocate for the inclusion and protection of the rights of individuals with disabilities.
The FLI is dedicated to the promotion of environmental research and education about the Finger Lakes and surrounding environments. In collaboration with regional environmental partners and local and state government offices, the FLI fosters environmentally-sound development practices throughout the region and disseminates knowledge to the public.
Grandin earned her B.A. at Franklin Pierce College, her M.S. in animal science at Arizona State University and her Ph.D. in animal science from University of Illinois. She has been featured on television shows, including, “20/20,” “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes” and others, and in print, in the New York Times, People Magazine, Forbes and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Double Helix Medal, awarded to individuals who have positively impacted human health by raising awareness and funds for biomedical research. Grandin has received honorary degrees from Carnegie Mellon University, McGill University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Read more about Grandin and her work on her website.