“One of the things about people with autism is that they tend to get fixated on their favorite things,” Grandin said. “Well, I got all fixated on cattle chutes, and that’s how I got into the cattle business.”
Grandin revolutionized how people handle livestock by designing efficient and humane cattle chutes. By thinking in images rather than words, Grandin’s sensitivity to other details — light, motion, color, sound — helped her picture the world as a cow sees it. At least half of America’s cattle are handled through humane slaughter systems designed by Grandin.
“I think it’s a lot better to get fixated on a cattle chute … or something that you can turn into a career, rather than getting fixated on autism,” she said.
Grandin makes it clear — she is a professor and designer first. Autism comes second.
Nearly 800 people from around the Big Horn Basin and greater region gathered in Powell Monday night as Grandin spoke about her life, her career and her autism.
“If you know something about autism, you probably know something about Dr. Temple Grandin,” said Eric Silk, assistant professor of psychology at Northwest College, as he introduced Grandin.
Born in 1947, Grandin didn’t utter a word until she was nearly 4 years old. She was eventually diagnosed with autism, but “wasn’t allowed to become a recluse,” she said.
“I couldn’t just sit in my room. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV all day,” Grandin said. Rather, her mother allowed only one hour of TV.
Grandin’s mother arranged for her to work on a ranch where Grandin cleaned horse stalls and learned a strong work ethic in her teens.
“I’m seeing too many people who are really smart getting addicted to video games, and they’re not learning work skills, and this is just terrible,” Grandin said.
Grandin said she would have been “Miss Video Game Addict” if the technology had existed in the 1950s. Still, her mother limited similar activities.
“In the ‘50s, my video game was spinning a brass plate round and round and round on a bed post. I was allowed to do that for an hour a day,” Grandin said.
Grandin’s mother and mentors encouraged her artistic abilities.
If she threw a tantrum or acted out, they never took away art. Instead, “a tantrum equalled no TV for one night.”
“Never take away math or something that a kid could use for a career,” Grandin said.
Grandin said students must be exposed to interesting jobs they can aspire to.
“We’ve got to show kids that there’s more to life than video games. Oil rigs have got joy sticks, too,” Grandin said. “You want to get the kids fixated on something like becoming an oil field engineer. You want to take that motivation of that fixation and use it.”
Grandin added that every job contains a certain amount of drudgery, but “We’ve got to be stretching these kids.”
After Grandin showed signs of severe autism as a young child, doctors recommended that she be institutionalized.
Grandin persevered, becoming perhaps the most successful and famous person with autism in the world.
Grandin earned a doctorate in animal science and continues her research as a professor at Colorado State University, where she teaches about livestock handling and facility design. She has written 10 books, deeply impacting agricultural audiences as well as those interested in autism.
She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the “Heroes” category in 2010. That same year, an award-winning HBO movie titled “Temple Grandin” focused on her life.
Numerous media outlets around the world have featured Grandin, and she has been honored multiple times by the livestock industry, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
“Her career has been absolutely remarkable. Her work and activism have literally changed the world,” said Silk on Monday. “She’s a true inspiration and a legend in both the worlds of animal behavior and autism ... We are so lucky to have Dr. Grandin here.”
Grandin almost didn’t make it to Powell. On Sunday night, her flight out of Denver was canceled due to weather. Grandin went back to her home in Fort Collins, Colo., and stayed in close contact with folks at the Northwest College Center for Training and Development, who sponsored Grandin’s visit.
Still stuck in Colorado at 10 a.m. Monday morning, Grandin gave her scheduled presentation on animal welfare via Skype to 290 people in Powell.
Then a chartered flight brought Grandin to Wyoming later in the day so she could give her 7 p.m. presentation.
Throughout the ordeal, Grandin “was great,” said Ronda Peer, NWC dean of extended campus and workforce.
“She was tireless through all of it,” Peer said, noting that Grandin stayed until 9 p.m. signing books, then awoke before dawn Tuesday to catch a flight back to Denver so she could travel to Dallas, Texas for another presentation.
“We did go to extraordinary means to get her here,” Peer said. “But I think it was well worth it.”