Seeing in Beautiful, Precise Pictures

Temple Grandin - Fort Collins, Colorado
As heard on NPR’s Morning Edition, August 14, 2006
Temple Grandin
Photo by Nubar Alexanian

As a person living with autism, Temple Grandin explains that she lives by concrete rules, not abstract beliefs. Without the ability to process abstract thought, she thinks in pictures and in sounds.

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Because I have autism, I live by concrete rules instead of abstract beliefs. And because I have autism, I think in pictures and sounds.

Here’s how my brain works: It’s like the search engine Google for images. If you say the word “love” to me, I’ll surf the Internet inside my brain. Then, a series of images pops into my head. What I’ll see is a picture of a mother horse with a foal. Or I think of “Herbie the Love Bug,” scenes from the movie Love Story, or the Beatles song, “Love, love, all you need is love…”

When I was a child, my parents taught me the difference between good and bad behavior by showing me specific examples. My mother told me that you don’t hit other kids because you would not like it if they hit you. That makes sense. But, if my mother told me to be “nice” to someone, it was too vague for me to comprehend. But if she said that being nice meant delivering daffodils to a next door neighbor, that I could understand.

I believe that doing practical things can make the world a better place. When I was in my twenties I thought a lot about the meaning of life. At the time, I was getting started in my career of designing more humane facilities for animals at ranches and slaughterhouses. Many people would think that to even work at a slaughterhouse would be inhumane, but they forget that every human and animal eventually dies. In my mind, I had a picture of a way to make that dying as peaceful as possible.

Back in the 1970s, I went to fifty different feedlots and ranches in Arizona and Texas and helped them work cattle. I cataloged the parts of each facility that worked effectively. I took the best loading ramps, sorting pens, single-file chutes, crowd pens, and other components and assembled them into an ideal new system. I get great satisfaction when a rancher tells me that my corral design helps cattle move through it quietly and easily. When cattle stay calm, it means they are not scared. And that makes me feel I’ve accomplished something important.

Some people might think if I could snap my fingers I’d choose to be “normal.” But, I wouldn’t want to give up my ability to see in beautiful, precise pictures. I believe in them.

Temple Grandin is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She has designed one-third of all livestock handling facilities in the United States with the goal of decreasing the fear and pain animals experience in the slaughter process.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Edited by Ellen Silva.