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“I am different, not less.” These simple yet extremely influential words were spoken by Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the most accomplished and well known adults with autism in the world. Dr. Grandin was raised in an era where there was much less research and awareness being raised about autism than we currently have access to. Therefore, throughout her life, she faced many challenges and hardships that were difficult for many to understand; however, Dr. Grandin and those around her learned over time that her differences did not set her back, they instead served to her advantage in many ways, especially in her work for the agriculture and food industries, which she greatly improved with her vast knowledge and strong sense of passion. Dr. Gradin improved these industries by changing the way that cattle are cared for through understanding their behavior, changing livestock practices, and designing equipment that proved to be more humane and comfortable for animals.
As a young girl in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Temple Grandin was quite different from the other children her own age. She did not begin to speak verbally until the age of four, and around this time is when she was formally diagnosed with autism. Autism affects each person in a different way, and although Temple’s autism caused a lack in her verbal and auditory skills, it allowed her to think in pictures. In her book, Thinking in Pictures, Grandin states, “When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.” Through her unique and advanced way of thinking, Grandin was able to connect with animals and picture life through their eyes, which enabled her to understand their behavior. One way she relates to animals in behavior is that people with autism and animals both think associatively. This means that animals act based on past experiences, as does Temple. This discovery led to an understanding as to why animals will react to certain situations differently based on the circumstances. Another way that Temple was able to relate with the behavior with animals is that fear is the main emotion of autistic people and prey animals. She stated, “Things that scare horses and cattle also scare children with autism. Any little thing that looks out of place, such as a piece of paper blowing in the wind, may cause fear. Objects that make sudden movements are the most fear-provoking.” This understanding led to her success in the creation of equipment and facilities that proved to be calming and comforting for the animals involved, avoiding the feeling of fear. It was also very useful for Grandin herself when she realized that the calming effect of the “squeeze machines” used to relax cattle in times of stress also worked in the same way for her, giving her comfort and a sense of relief, without having to engage in human contact, which can be quite upsetting for people with autism.
During the start of her career, Temple focused on studying and working to improve common livestock practices in the cattle industry. One of her most well known projects is her improvements made to the beef cattle dipping vat. While observing a cattle dipping system in Arizona for a college assignment, Grandin saw first-hand that the systems being used in the livestock industry for this practice were not suited for the cattle involved, as many slipped into the dip, which frightened many, and some cattle even drowned. Grandin, determined to solve this issue and benefit the animals, designed an efficient beef cattle dipping vat system. In an interview with Successful Farming, she stated, “Well, basically, if you look at the aerial view of the dipping vat system, and it’s shown accurately in the movie, there’s a big, wide curved lane that comes up to the round crowd pen, the double “S” shape. That was my innovation.” Her creative and effective design has changed the dipping system that is now used in the livestock industry, and has proved to be beneficial for all involved in livestock production.
Throughout the span of her career, Temple Grandin worked very passionately to design equipment and facilities that proved to be both effective and humane for animal production. More specifically, Dr. Grandin has worked to emphasize the importance of animal welfare in American slaughterhouses by inventing the curved loading chutes and the center-track restrainer system. When cattle are placed in a straight line within confined walls, they tend to ram into one another, which causes them stress and anxiety as well as a feeling of discomfort. According to Ryan Bell with National Geographic, “Grandin realized that curved chutes shield them from viewing what’s ahead, keeping them calm. The arched shape also plays to cattle instinct, which is to walk in a circle back to where they came.” The center-track restraining system works to hold the animal steady and allow the handler to stun the animal properly during the final moment of slaughter. This system was very important to Grandin because she wanted all animals to be treated with respect during the end of their life. According to the HBO film, Temple Grandin, Grandin once said, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” This quote displays Temple Grandin’s strong passion for implementing animal welfare into all of her designs of equipment and facilities used for the cattle slaughtering process. Through her determined attitude and strong sense of passion, Dr. Temple Grandin has continued to defy expectations for those with autism. She has inspired many, including myself, through her impactful work that not only made a difference in the agriculture and food industries, but also inspired many people with autism to go above and beyond to reach their dreams. Temple Grandin is an amazing example of someone who persevered in times of difficulty and doubt and used her differences to her advantage in making a change that she knew was possible. Once more, she has proved throughout her life that she, along with others diagnosed with autism, are “different, not less”.
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