Tell Me More: Autism and Understanding Animals

It’s all about visual and bottom-up thinking, animal behaviorist Temple Grandin says in a Tufts podcast

Temple Grandin speaking at Tufts

Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

Time magazine named Temple Grandin one of the world’s 100 most influential people for her work to improve the quality of life of beef cattle and for her powerful advocacy for neuro-diverse individuals.

In this episode of Tell Me More, Grandin shares how growing up with autism helped her understand the different ways animals experience the world, why she believes we need to fix how we socialize with dogs, and some of the most important lessons she’s learned over her pioneering career.


Recommended links:

Temple Grandin website / Facebook / Twitter


HOST:Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

Time magazine named Temple Grandin one of the world’s 100 most influential people for her work to improve the quality of life of beef cattle and for her powerful advocacy for neuro-diverse individuals. But did you know that Grandin didn’t even realize she liked working with animals until she encountered dairy cows for the first time, as a fourteen-year old?

That is just part of what Grandin, now a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, shared in her recent conversation with Megan Mueller, the Elizabeth Arnold Stevens Junior Professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

In this episode, Grandin shares how growing up with autism helped her understand the different ways animals experience the world, why she believes we need to fix how we socialize with dogs, and some of the most important lessons she’s learned over her pioneering career. Let’s listen in.

MEGAN MUELLER: Dr. Grandin, as a woman with autism, you’re also spokesperson for neuro-diverse individuals. Can you tell us a little bit more about when you first knew you wanted to work with animals and how you knew you wanted to work with animals?

TEMPLE GRANDIN: This gets to the really important thing, that students have to be exposed to things in order to get interested. I’m an Easterner originally. I was not exposed to livestock until I went to a boarding school when I was fourteen. We had a twelve-cow dairy. Then, when I was fifteen, I went to my aunt’s ranch in Arizona, got exposed to the beef industry.  And when you get exposed to things, you’re going to find out what you like. You also might find out what you hate. So, I’m going to tell all students: do internships. Try on different careers. Try on stuff. Find out what you like. Find out what you don’t like.

MUELLER: That’s great—that’s great advice. How would you describe your relationship with animals now?

GRANDIN: Well, when I first started working with animals, I started looking at what cattle were seeing when they went through chutes. And at the time, I didn’t know that I was a visual thinker, that other people tended not to see these things. But it was obvious to me and I found if you take the distractions out of a facility—whether it’s a vaccinating facility or a meat plant—they go through the facility more easily.

Animals are sensory-based thinkers; they’re not word thinkers. It’s all about what they see, what they hear, the tone of the voice. They can tell whether it’s happy or whether it’s angry by the tone of the voice. It’s a sensory-based world; it’s not a word-based world. Get away from verbal language, then you’ll start to understand animals.

And in my book, Animals in Translation, I talk about the “black-hat” horse who was abused by somebody wearing a black hat. He became terrified of black hats. White cowboy hats were fine. Black hats were bad. You see it’s specific, because it’s a picture.

MUELLER: In 2017, you were inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Can you tell us about your experience as a woman in the field of science and what it means to you to be a woman working in science?

GRANDIN: In the early 1970s when I started, there were no women working out in the fields, in the feed yard pens with the cattle. Being a woman in a man’s world was much more difficult than being a person with autism. I had to be three times better than the guys. And one of the big things that motivated me when I did those dipping vat projects that were shown in the HBO movie was because I wanted to prove I was not stupid, that I really could do it. I had to work really, really hard.

MUELLER: Tell us a little bit more about how your experience with autism shaped your career aspirations and the projects you decided to work on.

GRANDIN: Well, one of the things when I first started—I started looking at visually what cattle were looking at. And I didn’t know when I first started that other people didn’t think visually, the way I did. It was an interesting journey for me figuring out how my thinking was different. I first discussed that in my book Thinking in Pictures. I also discuss it in another book, The Autistic Brain. But then realizing that there’s different ways that people think.

There’s photo-realistic visual thinking, object visualizers like me. Then there’s the mathematical pattern thinker—doesn’t think in pictures but in patterns; then a word thinker who’s very, very verbal. And word thinkers get involved in a lot of educational policy, way too much top-down. My method of thinking is bottom-up. I make specific examples of different things to make concepts.

And the different kinds of minds can complement each other. Let’s look at something simple like the iPhone. Steve Jobs was an artist. That’s why your phone’s easy to use. Then the mathematicians and the engineers—they had to make that phone work. That’s the two different kinds of minds working together.

MUELLER: Your experiences learning about these different types of thinking and your own development of speech and communication—you talk a lot about how you didn’t start speaking until you were almost four—how has that influenced your work with other people and with animals and understanding how people communicate differently and what we can do to support people who have communication differences?

GRANDIN: Well, I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk. And there’s other individuals that can’t talk, but some of them can learn to just type on the phone on a text messaging system and communicate that way. The thing that’s been interesting me now—about the different kinds of thinking—is how when you recognize that different people think differently, you can then put them together in teams where they can complement each other.

So, the first step that you have to do is realize they think differently. I think of a student I had. She was good at everything I was terrible with: organizing the experiment, running the SAS statistics program. Where I was good was figuring out a new way to sort the data because I could see the cattle.

I remember her coming to me one day and she said, “Oh, Dr. Grandin, I don’t think I’m going to have a paper and I don’t even know how to work the SAS program,” but I sat down beside her and I said, “Sort it this way.” And bam! A paper came out. That’s an example of different minds working together because I see the cattle. I see students get lost in the numbers. Then I go back, “Let’s just think of different ways we can sort this data.” That’s also bottom-up thinking. That’s exactly how artificial intelligence goes through masses of data to maybe find, well, this type of person will respond really well to this cancer treatment, and another type of person doesn’t.

MUELLER: Right, and then thinking about how humans and animals interact with each other, how have your experiences with autism helped inform your understanding of human-animal interaction?

GRANDIN: Well, first thing people need to understand is an animal, they mainly pick up on the tone of voice. Yes, they can learn words, but if you go up to a dog and say “Good dog” and said it nasty like that, the dog’s going to be cringing because he’s going to be tuning in to the tone of voice. They’re very, very sensitive to that.

And the other thing with animals that I’m very concerned about is over-selecting for different traits. You can over-select for behavior trait, performance trait, or production or appearance trait. A bulldog’s a good example of bad becoming normal, where they just over-selected for a massive head to the point where it can’t breathe and it can’t birth naturally and it has difficulty walking. That’s bad becoming normal.

That can happen slowly over a period of time. And you see, I see it. And if you just blindly follow the standard you don’t realize that if you go back and look at the 1938 bulldog, there’s a picture online. It’s called Bulldog’s Dilemma. You can look it up on Google Images and you’ll see a bulldog that’s actually got some snout. It’s got some legs. It was a functional dog. How did you get from that to what we have now? It happened slowly, and people don’t realize it.

MUELLER: What advice can you share with other individuals with autism who hope to make lasting impacts in their fields?

GRANDIN: Well, the first thing we’ve got to do—kids with autism—is they’ve got to be taught social skills like in a foreign country. So, if I just talk about the fully verbal segment of the autistic spectrum—none of it’s instinctual. They’ve got to be taught. And I’m seeing a lot of granddads that come up to me, and grandmoms that come up to me, and they’re figuring out they are on the autism spectrum when the kids get diagnosed. But granddaddy had a good job because he had a paper route at age eleven. Kids in my generation were taught to shake hands, taught how to wait and take turns at games, learn how to manage money early, learn how to shop.

I’m seeing too many kids today where they’re not being stretched. So, you might have a sixteen year old who’s never gone into an office supply store and just bought some paper; they’re not learning basic skills. I worked with a lot of skilled tradespeople that were dyslexic, ADHD, probably autistic—and these kids are playing video games in the basement now with a diagnosis instead of doing skilled trades.

We have a gigantic shortage of high-end skilled trades like welders who can read blueprints, mechanics of all different types, and electricians, especially the high-end ones, who can fix equipment in factories—huge shortage. I’m not saying that these skilled trades are for everybody, but there’s a certain segment where there are. I worked with them: brilliant people building big complicated stuff, and that welding class in high school saved them.

MUELLER: Right, so it sounds like it’s really important to have a career and it’s a good fit for how your particular mind works.

GRANDIN: I think it’s a mistake that some high schools have gotten so much into academics that they’ve taken out what I’m going to call the career classes. Art, sewing, music, woodworking, theater. Theater’s a good example of a field that’s not going to get replaced by computers. Well, how are you going to find out you like theater if you don’t get to try it on? I remember reading about the guy that’s Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was a troubled kid and he did the school play and that’s how he found out he liked theater. How would he know if he hadn’t tried it?

MUELLER: Right, right. So, going back to trying out different things and seeing what fits the best.

Actress Claire Danes portrayed you in a 2010 HBO movie that was named after you and centered on your life and work. With regard to awareness of animal welfare issues or awareness of people living and working with autism, did you feel like the film brought about any changes?

GRANDIN: Well, I think a lot of kids have been watching that film and I hope it’s inspired a lot of kids. I’ve had them write to me, saying it’s inspired them. They showed my visual thinking accurately. They show all my projects accurately. And the main characters were accurate.

Yeah, there’s some stuff they had to change around, but the important stuff like how I think and the things that I did—there was a scene in there where bull testicles were put on my vehicle. That actually did happen. Everything was in character.

Also, I had to work really hard on the stuff I did. There’s one scene in there that’s very important from a career standpoint, and that’s the scene where I go up and I get the editor’s card. Because I recognized that if I started writing for this magazine, that could really, really help my career. I saw that door.

And then the opportunity came up to design the dipping vat projects. I’ll never forget that day. I said, give me three weeks because this is pre-Internet. I was at about the 60 percent level of knowledge. I knew that cattle handling stuff, but I didn’t know the concrete reinforcement stuff. And so I had to go around everywhere and look at dip vats. I called up some people that were able to get me the drawings for the concrete reinforcement. That’s why I said give me three weeks.

But sometimes people don’t have enough confidence to go through the door. I went through the door, but I also took the time to learn it. Because I see other situations where people have a gigantic ego. They’ll go into a job at the 20 percent level and it’ll fall flat on its butt because they didn’t bother to learn the things they needed to learn or to listen.

MUELLER: Can you give us an example of a situation in which an animal might see or perceive something differently than a human and how humans and animals perceive the world differently?

GRANDIN: First of all, a lot of our animals don’t see red, so they’re dichromat. So they’re going to see red as gray and a lot of blue, yellow and green probably. But it’s a sensory-based world.

Think about when the dog checks out the local tree. He knows who’s been there, how long ago where they there, are they a friend, are they another dog he doesn’t like? It’s like checking out the gossip. There’s a smell complexity. It’s sensory complexity we can just imagine.

And I think our closest human equivalent was an Oliver Sacks piece about a guy who took some kind of drug and he started smelling all kinds of smell detail. Or the wine steward that could identify 2,000 wines by smell. Most people can’t do that.

You’re going to be very tuned into the tone of voice, to body language; animals are very sensitive to that. There’ll be a few words you would know, but most of your world will not be words. They always say cats jump on the people that don’t like them, or there’s a certain confidence in handling cattle. They pick up on whether you’re confident or not. It’s a sensory-based world, not a word-based world. That’s the thing that’s the most different.

It varies with the humans, too. Some people are much more visual. There’s a lot of people working with animals, they’ve got dyslexia, or they got ADHD—might be somewhat autistic. And I think the reason for that is it tends to be the more visual thinker.

Another big concern I have in our educational system is the algebra requirements are screening out visual thinkers. And we need visual thinkers also to prevent messes like Fukushima, which was a gigantic visual-thinking mistake. It’s not a very good idea when you live next to the sea to put your super-important electrically run emergency cooling pump in a non-waterproof basement. If they’d put in watertight doors, it wouldn’t have happened. Well, the mathematicians don’t see it.

And then there’s this latest Lion Air crash with the brand-new airplane. And the engineers forgot to tell the pilots that this new computerized system was there, and it would change how the yoke worked. You see, it’s very basic. And they don’t see it. How could you make that mistake? What I’ve learned about the mathematical mind: mathematicians calculate risk, visual thinkers see risk.

MUELLER: As a final question, can you tell us one more thing about yourself that people might not know? It could be anything.

GRANDIN: Well, that’s a hard question to answer. One of the things that I talk about in my talks is that I’m a bottom-up thinker. When people think in words, it’s very top-down—very, very verbal, tends to overgeneralize—and they overgeneralize whether you’re working on a pet behavior problem or you’re working on a problem with a kid, or just working on some policy about animals. I’m a bottom-up thinker. And bottom-up thinkers—this is actually the same way that artificial intelligence and computers think: you take specific examples and you start putting them into categories.

When I was a young child, I had to figure out that a dog wasn’t a cat. Well, I sorted them by size. Well, that no longer worked when we got a dachshund in the neighborhood. So, I had to carefully study the dachshund and what sensory-based features did the dachshund have that cats don’t have? Barking and meowing, the nose shape, and then the smells. She smelled like a dog; then I could put her in the dog category. You see, you take lots and lots of specific examples of things and sort into categories. That’s how people with autism think.

But it’s also how animals think. If you’re working with service dogs, you’ve got to train it. There’s certain behavior you do with the vest on and then when you take the vest off, you can go play and roll around on your back. But you don’t do that with the vest on. You don’t jump on people with the vest on.

MUELLER: Thank you, Dr. Grandin, for being here with us today. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Grandin, who’s a best-selling author and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Thank you.

GRANDIN: Well, it’s great to be here. Thank you.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller, who also edited this episode. The introduction was written by Genevieve Rajewski. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Office of Marketing at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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