Interview by Janet Bishop
We uncovered this oral history in the Digital Collections of Colorado at Colorado State University’s Archives and Special Collections. Grandin is a professor at CSU. It was recorded on May 13, 2008.
The Animated Transcript
I read about someone who tested a piece of equipment in their head for many days, to see if it was working. Do you do that?
I think that was Tesla and it was spinning a dynamo, dynamo for the electric power plant and then you could tell whether it was gonna be off balance and not work. And Tesla definitely today would be diagnosed autistic . If you got rid of all of the genes that cause autism, you’d be rid of Carl Sagan, you’d be rid of Mozart. Einstein, today, would be labeled autistic. He had no speech until he was three years old. I mean, half of all the people that work in these big tech companies have at least got a mild version of Asperger’s. If you didn’t have a little bit of those Asperger autistic genes, you wouldn’t even have any computers.
I just loved flying things when I was child. I loved model airplanes that flew. I loved kites. If it flew, I liked it. And then when I got into high school, it was horses. Horses, horses, and more horses.
I was diagnosed with autism as a young child. I had all of the full-blown autism symptoms, no speech, screaming, just everything. I was definitely fully autistic. Now, my brain is visually indexed. I’m basically Totally visual. I mean, everything in my mind works like a search engine set for the image function. And you type in the keyword and I get pictures, and it comes up in an associational sort of way. I want you to give me some key words and don’t give me something common like house or car, because everybody can visualize that.
Well, I saw a field of hay. Now, I’m seeing bales of hay over where Mark’s horses are. And I go, oh that’s grass hay, that’s not alfalfa. And now I’m down at the zoo, and they used to feed alfalfa hay to the antelopes, and Nancy used to complain it was way too rich. OK, you’re wondering how did I get from alfalfa to the Phoenix Zoo. OK, you can see how it’s associational. There is a logical progression there.
I’ve designed handling facilities for all the major meat companies. Half of the cattle in this country, when they go to a meat plant, they’re handled in a center track restrainer system that I designed. My first big breakthrough was when I designed dip vat systems and they worked really, really well. Beef Magazine and all the cattle magazines were there, and one of them called it a work of art and I was just so happy. People you know, being autistic, they thought I was really weird, but my stuff worked.
I started doing my livestock handling class. I also guest lecture on humane slaughter methods, cattle handling, meat quality things, livestock behavior for the veterinary college. My students in my class actually have to draw drawings. One of the interesting things I’ve found is that there are some students that absolutely can’t draw, that have learning problems. I can tell by looking at their drawings, because instead of just drawing nice half-circles, they’ve got it all over the place.
I just had a student this year in my class that her drawings were really horrible. I’m asking the student, so what are you seeing? She said, well, I see just waves, and I asked her if she hated driving at night, haven fluorescent lights. Yes. Does print jiggle on the page? Yes. I suggested she go out and try on some different colored sunglasses and she went out and got some little pink sunglasses and her economics grade went from a B to an A, because now she could see the charts. Cheap sunglasses, simple intervention. Nobody knows why they work. But they do and there’s kids flunking out of school that don’t need to. That’s the thing that’s so disgusting and the only reason I know about this is because of the autism community.
One of the big concerns I have right now is getting people on the spectrum into good careers. Into the things like computer science and stuff like that. As an autistic person, I am what I do more than what I feel. I get a lot of satisfaction in life, you know, I can design something and it works, or I have a student say, you know, your course was really helpful for me. Or somebody likes one of my books, they say, well, it helped them with their autistic child, or it helped them to understand their dog. That makes me really happy that I’m doing something that does something constructive on the ground.
Asperger’s has always been here. And it has another name, geek and nerd. And when you get into the really smart kids, I get worried about them getting held back by that label. Because I know odd maintenance guys that are just brilliant in appliance. Engineers– in fact, there’s 2 and 1/2 as many engineers with a family history of people with Asperger’s. It’s always been here. What I’ve noticed out in Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of kids out there that are Asperger’s. They’re geeks, they’re nerds. And their parents apprentice them into the computer industry. When the kid is maybe 11 years old, he’s taught programming. By the time the kid’s in high school, he’s doing Mom and Dad’s work on the computer. And they’re just apprenticed in. Those are the lucky ones. And they’re all over the tech industry. And then I go out somewhere away from Silicon Valley, and see a guy come up to the book table. He’s got a big ponytail, and ought to be going to computer school, and they want to put him on welfare. I say, no, he needs to be going to computer school.
“I kind of like having my eccentric look. Being eccentric is fine.”
“I get them [shirts] from all kinds of places… certain airports have got some good Western stores, I’ve bought five shirts from the Calgary airport over the years. The horse expo is another good place to go shirt shopping.” More
Temple Grandin meets Errol Morris
“People get excited about the virtual reality things they’re doing with computers. I can’t get excited about that, it’s cartoon garbage compared to what I can do.”
Meeting Oliver Sacks
Temple Grandin first met neurologist Oliver Sacks in 1993 when he came to Colorado to write about her for the New Yorker. The article, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” was later included in his book of the same name, and the two stayed friends until Sacks’ death in 2015. Read his original New Yorker article
“Over the years, I’ve gone to see Oliver when I went to New York to visit my mother. A few weeks ago, I read an editorial he wrote about the Sabbath. He was originally brought up as an Orthodox Jew, but he decided to go another route, and at the end of the article he writes, “What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?” I just burst into tears in front of the computer reading that. I was crying so much I couldn’t even print it out. I sent him this card just before he died:
‘I started crying at the end of the article when you said, What if A and B and C had been different? If that had happened our paths probably would have never crossed. You have made a big difference in my life. Your life has been worthwhile, and you helped many people doing things to enlighten and help others to understand the meaning of life.’”
Temple Grandin isn’t alone in her theory that an unusually high number of people with mild autism or asperger’s work in the tech fields. It’s been the topic of a number of think pieces over the last decade. Read the Wired article that started it all in 2001: “The Geek Syndrome”
When the HBO film based on her life won for “Best TV Movie” at the 2010 Emmys, Temple pulled producer Emily Gerson Saines into an emotional embrace, defying the stereotype that autistics don’t feel or show emotion.
A Beautiful Mind
An advanced MRI technique called High Definition Fiber Tracking has allowed doctors to visualize the connections in Temple Grandin’s brain. The scans show that she has four times the typical number of connections in the visual area of her brain, but far fewer connections than average in the area of the brain that links what we hear with what we say.
A Woman Among Men
“Being a woman in a man’s world was a much bigger issue than being autistic. I had to be twice as good as a man. It frustrated me that men could mess up a design project and still have a job.”
“When I started in the early 1970’s, the only women in the beef industry were working as secretaries in the office. I was the first woman in Arizona to handle cattle in the feedlot…The scene in the HBO movie where the bull testicles were left on my windshield actually happened.”