Temple Grandin is perhaps the world’s most famous scholar living with autism. With more than 50 years of livestock work – specializing in the design of more humane livestock facilities – she has improved the treatment of cattle internationally. She is also a prominent activist, author and speaker on the topic of autism. Her insights into her personal experience – she struggled to speak as a child – have gone a long way towards improving our understanding of the condition. your new book, Visual Thinking: The hidden gifts of people who think in images, patterns, and abstractions, argues that in a world dominated by verbal thinkers, those with visual brains are overlooked and underappreciated – to the detriment of all of us. Grandin, 75, is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
What are the different ways of thinking, how do you understand them?
I have gradually come to realize, and it has been confirmed in the scholarly literature, that there are two types of visual thinkers: “object visualizers” like me, who think in pictures (concrete, detailed images), and a second group, who, unlike I, are “spatial visualizers”. Rather mathematically inclined, they think in terms of patterns and abstractions. They differ from verbal thinkers, who perceive and process information primarily through language. Both types of visual thinkers tend to think bottom-up, details first. Verbal thinkers tend to think in a top-down, linear, and sequential manner. Most people are mixtures of different mindsets. What happens with fully verbal autistics is that you get extremes of one type or another. Being an extreme object visualizer is probably because I’m autistic.
your memories, thinking in pictureswas first published more than 25 years ago and since then you have written books about autism and dissenting. What’s new here?
The biggest thing is that I look at the problem of losing qualifications, which is gigantic in the US. We are losing key engineering skills at a time when we need to rebuild our physical infrastructure and manufacture more high-tech products here. I focus on the education system and how it weeds out our visual thinkers – particularly the object visualizers who are successful at building, crafting, and automating things. At the feed yard I visited this morning they are having trouble finding people to fix the feed mill equipment and specialized feed wagons: that fits the book perfectly.
What would you most like to see if schools did something differently?
Return the practical lessons. They fell away from the 1990s with more academic tests. These include shop (with instruction in trades such as metal, wood or car mechanics), cooking, sewing, music, art and theater (which require set design and lighting). I’m a big believer in exposition: kids need to try different things and find out what they’re good at.
How have attitudes to autism changed? in your life?
Many other services are available. Young children can be diagnosed early, there is better early intervention and better parental support; It’s good. But I also worry too many kids, even fully verbal kids, are so overprotected by their parents who get locked into the autism label that they don’t teach them basic life skills like shopping or laundry that I was taught.
The diagnostic criteria for autism were revised in 2013 so it is now on a spectrum and known as autism spectrum Disorder (ASD). Was that a good thing?
The spectrum is so wide that it doesn’t make much sense. Are we really going to put people with severe autism who can’t dress themselves in the same category as people with mild autism who work in Silicon Valley? It has also exacerbated this problem of not learning life skills – because even mildly geeky children are labeled as “on the spectrum”. Where this label can be useful is in relationships – it can help with misunderstandings.
Given your affinity for animals, how can you design better slaughterhouses for them?
You have to give animals a decent life in which they can have positive emotions. One thing that makes me angry is seeing cattle coming into the slaughterhouse lame. I’ve seen some issues with this recently for a variety of reasons, including animals being bred to heavier weights. They must be able to walk – this is a basic behavior they should have! And I’ve had trouble with some people in the industry for saying that.
Where does your connection to animals come from?
I think it’s because, like me, they don’t think in words. Instead, they think through their senses. Animals used to be denied emotions, which always struck me as ridiculous. In my early scientific work I was not allowed to use the word “fear”. The reviewers made me call it “behavioural excitement.” That’s slowly changing, but I think part of it has to do with verbal thinkers, who might find it hard to imagine an animal being able to think and have feelings if it’s not using words.
They note in the book that many historical figures that we consider geniuses were also neurodivergent. Is it a requirement for genius?
I haven’t researched all of them, but it may be a factor. Einstein, for example, could not speak until about the age of three or four. He would end up in an autism program today. I’m also talking about scholars having extreme ability in certain narrow areas. For example, they can perform amazing mathematical calculations in their heads. A significantly higher proportion of people with autism exhibit savant characteristics compared to the general population.
A biopic about her early life was released by HBO in 2010 (She played Claire Danes). Do you still use the hug machine you invented as a student to make yourself feel like you’re being hugged without being touched? And eat more than jelly [jelly] and yogurt nowadays?
The hug machine broke about 11 years ago. I never fixed it because by that point I had been hugging real people (the machine helped me desensitize myself). The idea came to me from a cattle crushing stand: I was having terrible panic attacks and anxiety and the deep pressure was calming me down.
The jelly and yogurt were because I realized in my late 20’s that I was having horrible bouts of colitis. Everything else just went right through me. Then I took low dose antidepressants for my panic attacks (which I have had ever since) and the colitis went away. My abnormal fear response — a brain scan revealed that my fear center, my amygdala, was three times larger than normal — was the cause.
Visual Thinking: The hidden gifts of people who think in images, patterns, and abstractions published by Rider & Co (£14.99). In support of Guardian and observer Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply