She Educated Us about Autism

Photo from Steve Jurvetson at Rain Man’s Rainbow

Photo from Steve Jurvetson at Rain Man’s Rainbow

Autism seems to be all around us today, or maybe we are just discussing it more openly. If the second is the case, then we have Temple Grandin to thank for bringing autism into the public eye, not as an illness or a defect, but as another way of being.

Mary Temple Grandin was born on August 29, 1947, part of the baby boom generation born after WWII. Her parents were wealthy, white Bostonians. Her mother, Anna Eustacia Purves, was Harvard educated but also an actress and a singer. Her father, Richard McCurdy Grandin, was a real estate agent as well as heir to the Grandin wheat fortune. Temple, called by her middle name because one of the servants was named Mary, grew up with all the privileges one could imagine for a little girl who was also the oldest sibling in her family.

However, she didn’t quite act like most little girls, or boys for that matter, because of “brain damage” she supposedly sustained at the age of two, although evidence is scant about what illness or injury occurred, if any. Every difference in how she behaved, what she was interested in, and how well she did with specific subjects, was cast in the light of this “injury.” Grandin’s mother later used an autism checklist by Bernard Rimland to help her diagnose her daughter on the spectrum. Grandin’s diagnosis was not confirmed professionally until she was in her 40s.

While Grandin’s family had wealth and status, it was still common to simply institutionalize anyone who didn’t fit into the mold of what someone their age, sex, gender, race, or class should be. Grandin’s father favored that easy solution. To avoid it, Grandin’s mother took her to numerous specialists. Finally, upon the advice of a neurologist, they embarked upon a program of speech therapy and educational games from the age of two through high school. Speech therapy enabled her to speak by the age of three and a half, but it could not undo the fact that she thought of the world in visual terms. A much later and award-nominated HBO documentary about her life is a great way to understand how she sees the world.

Even with all the specialists and her teachers getting behind her program, school was difficult for Grandin. Other students routinely teased her. Like many autistic people, she would become hyper-focused on one thing at a time, but she also had repetitive speech. Later in life, she shared her experiences in education to help parents and teachers better aid students with similar behaviors. She was even kicked out of one school at the age of 14 for retaliating by throwing a book at a tormentor. The next year, her parents divorced, but Grandin stayed with her mother.

Because of her mother’s own personal wealth, Grandin found a place at a private boarding school for students with behavioral problems called Mountain Country School in New Hampshire. There she met her mentor William Carlock, a scientist and former NASA employee who helped encourage her to pursue her interests. After a summer at an aunt’s farm, Grandin developed an interest in animals and saw a connection between their lives and human lives. One of her most widely known inventions, the Squeeze Machine, also called the Hug Box or PACES (Pressure Apparatus Controlled Environment Sensory), which allows someone to be held without the overwhelming social interactions between humans, was modeled on equipment she saw used on the farm.

Grandin went on to do well in higher education. She earned a BS in psychology in 1970 from Franklin Pierce College. She turned her attention back to the animals that had inspired her PACES device and earned an MS in Animal Science from Arizona State University in 1975. Later she returned to school and earned a PhD in the same field at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 1989. She has also been awarded several honorary degrees from universities around the world, including McGill University in Canada, Emory University in the USA, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

While teaching at Colorado State University, Grandin also published several books and dozens of peer-reviewed articles about animal behavior, proper treatment of livestock, and autism. Even though interacting with other people can be challenging for her, Grandin took opportunities to speak out about her autism after meeting Ruth Sullivan at an ASA (Autism Society of America) meeting in the 1980s. Grandin has appeared on numerous television shows, in magazines and newspapers, and at conferences around the world. She became one of the first public figures to speak honestly about her autism and is considered one of the leaders of the Autism Rights Movement as well as a leader for humane treatment of animals.

For her public work and her scholarship, Grandin has been recognized by several organizations. In 2004, even though she supports using animals as food, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gave her a “Proggy” award for her work. In 2010, Time 100 named her one of the “Heroes” of the world. The next year she received the Double Helix Medal from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In 2015, she was given a Meritorious Achievement Award from the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Grandin has also been inducted into several prestigious organizations. In 2009, she was named a Fellow in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. In 2012 she became a member of the Texas Trail of Fame. She was named an Honorary Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication in 2015. In 2016 she joined the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the following year she was named to the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Grandin continues to study, publish, and speak out about animal rights and autism. She even consults with big players in the food industry to try to get them to treat animals more humanely and to be more honest with their consumers.