A Conversation with Temple Grandin

Animal scientist Temple Grandin says autism helps her see things as animals do. Grandin talks about her work designing humane slaughter systems for animals, and her unique way of looking at the world.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow this is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. For the rest of the hour, a look inside the often mysterious world of autism through the eyes of someone who has made a career out of overcoming the roadblocks the illness put in her way.

Temple Grandin doesn't see the world like most of us do. She does, she would say, see the world more like most animals: a place of fear without emotion where your thoughts come to you in pictures rather than in words.

Temple Grandin is autistic. Her writings about her struggles with autism, her fear, her anxiety, the overwhelming sensation of smell and sound, provide an intriguing glimpse into the world of autistic people.

Because of her autism Dr. Grandin says she can understand how animals see the world in a way that most humans cannot. She has written about her experiences with autism and her observations of animals in many books.

You may remember her Thinking in Pictures. Well, her latest book is Animals In Translation. She now joins us.

Let me formally introduce her. Temple Grandin is an Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior is co-authored with Katherine Johnson. She joins us from studies of KPBS in San Diego.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Grandin.

Dr. TEMPLE GRANDIN (Colorado State University):

It's good to be here.

FLATOW: How has your book been received?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, there's been a lot of interest in it. I was really happy to say that we're making some of the bestseller lists.

But let's get into talking about how autism is similar animal behavior. The thing is I don't think in a language and animals don't think in a language. It's sensory based thinking, thinking in pictures, thinking in smells, thinking in touches. It's putting these sensory based memories into categories. That's the basis of how an animal would think. One thing I want to say is, animals do have emotion. But fear tends to be one of the most primal emotions.

FLATOW: So you don't read animals minds, don't want our listeners to confuse that?

Dr. GRANDIN: No. And I always get asked all the time about animal communicators and I really don't want to get into a discussing whether ESP exists or not. Let's just stick with, you know, the other more concrete things.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Dr. GRANDIN: Because that's how I think.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. GRANDIN: I think in most cases, a lot of these animal communicators are very good animal behavior people. And a lot of them are visual thinkers and their picking up very subtle body cues from the animal.

You know, it's crouching down a little bit, it's moving around little bit differently. They're just very good at reading animal behavior. And I think in most cases that can explain some of their successes.

FLATOW: And why do you think your autism allows you to understand how animals think?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well to understand animal thinking you've got to get away from a language. See my mind works like Google for images. You put in a key word; it brings up pictures. See language for me narrates the pictures in my mind. When I work on designing livestock equipment I can test run that equipment in my head like 3-D virtual reality. In fact, when I was in college I used to think that everybody was able to do that. And language just sort of, you know, gives an opinion. Like, oh, that's a good idea or oh, I just figured out how to design that.

Language is not actually used in the actual designing process that is all done in pictures.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. When did you first discover that you could do this? That you could understand how animals think?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, the thing is, I thought everybody thought in pictures. When I was in high school and college, I thought everybody could think in pictures. And my first inkling to my thinking was even different was when I was in college and I read an article about you know, some scientist said that the caveman could not have designed tools until they had language.

And then when I did Thinking in Pictures I started interviewing people in detail about how they thought. And that really gave me insight into how my thinking was different. And that some people think much more in words. And then I'm thinking, well, that has to be how an animal would think. There's no other way an animal could possibly think.

FLATOW: And so you've been able to design a device that animals will readily use as where other people have failed? Because you can think …

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, back…

FLATOW: …how they think?

Dr. GRANDIN: The first thing I thought about is how they see. I mean, I'd read in my physiology books that, when I was in college, that cattle had 360-degree vision. And I was out in the feed yards in Arizona back in the 1970s. And, you know, some of the cows would just walk up the shoots to get their vaccinations. Other cattle would refuse to go through the shoots.

So I got down in the shoots to take pictures of what the cattle were seeing. And people thought that was just kind of crazy. And I found that they were afraid of shadows. They were afraid of a reflection off the bumper of a truck. They were afraid of seeing people up ahead. And if you remove these visual-based details, then the cattle would walk right up the shoot. In the beginning when I first started doing that, I mean people just couldn't even see why I was doing it.

FLATOW: Yeah, you write in your book about how you've noticed that animals do not like to stand with their legs crossed or feet together. And that some of the pens were forcing them to do that and you designed that out of it.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, that's getting into the restrainer systems that I designed in the 1990s. I designed a system holding a cattle in the meat plant, where they straddle a conveyor. And if you get things set up right they just walk in really quietly.

And you've got to get the lighting right. They're afraid of the dark. If the lights were going, blasting in their eyes like the sun or there's a reflection on a shinny piece of metal moving, they're going to be afraid of that. And you get rid of those things their afraid of then their going to walk right in.

You know, the things that scare a prey/species animal like cattle are a whole lot of little visual details that people just don't tend to notice. And one of the big problems they used to have is the people just wanted to get out there and yell and scream and push and shove and you know more and more prods. Rather than remove the things that the cattle were afraid of.

FLATOW: You also talk about animals having special talents. Like special talents autistic people may have.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well some autistic people have savant skills. All autistic people do not have savant skills. Autism is a very variable disorder varying all the way from Einstein, emollient scientist, just a little bit of the trait, many scientist and engineers, down to somebody that's going to remain nonverbal.

There is a small segment of people with autism that have savant skills, where they can memorize entire maps of whole entire city. They can do calendar calculations. And this is similar to some of the skills that animals have.

Take bird migration for example. You know a Canada goose only has to be shown the route once and then he remembers the way. And this is sensory based memory. Because if you take a carrier pigeon and you take it somewhere and let it go and then it comes back home again. It remembers the things it sees and smells along the way.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. GRANDIN: But if you put him in a smell-proof, vision-proof box, he's not going to find his way back home.

FLATOW: Right. What about the special powers we think animals have. For example sensory powers, they can predict or when an earthquake is coming. We hear stories during the Tsunami that the animals knew enough to get out of the way in advance.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, I think their hearing, you know, low frequency sounds you know as the tidal wave was coming in. I mean their just, animals have very sensitive hearing. And they're hearing those sounds and they're trying to move away from them basically.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Mike Inifik(ph) in New York, hi, welcome.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, hi Ira, hi Dr. Grandin, very nice to get a chance to talk to you. First time I was aware of your existence is when you were on Terry Gross's program. And I was thinking holy mackerel, this persons mind works a lot the way mine does. And I read an article about Asperger's syndrome came out of the New York Times. And a friend of mine showed it to me and said this describes me all over.

So I got a bit curious about it and I read the Curious Incidents of the Dog in The Night Time, which is a semi autobiographical account. And I became interested in it and I found a fascinating web site. And I'm wondering if you're aware of it, it's by some one named Andrew Lahman L-A-H-M-A-N and maybe two N's and it's called Origins of Autism. It's either originsofautism.com, or dot org.

And in this he presents the hypothesis that autism is in fact an adaptation, not a disorder. That it can go wrong, but when it goes right it enables people to be more predisposed to have certain kinds of occupations. It's a predisposition not a predetermination. Any person can get any king of occupation. But that autistic people tend to be particularly predisposed to do better at certain occupations that include science, inventing, music, dancing, the visual arts and things like this.

While people who aren't autistic tend to do better at more practical jobs, not that each can't do the other's jobs. But they do better with the job their body and brain is more adapted to. And he argued that this adaptation evolved at the time that the Bonobos separated from the chimp. He argues that the Bonobo separated from the regular chimp and then the Bonobo predicated into the Bonobos of today.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: I would…

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Dr. GRANDIN: You know, I think that autistic brains tend to be specialized brains. Autistic people tend to be less social. It takes a ton of processor space in the brain to have all the social circuits. I mean after all, the first stone spear was not designed by the totally social people.

Let me just tell you about some research. Some of Simon Baron Cohan's research in England showed that there's two and a half times as many engineers in the family history of the people with autism.

I feel very strongly that if you got rid of all of the autistic genetics you're not going to have any scientists. There'd be no computer people. You'd lose a lot of artists and musicians. There'd be a horrible price to pay.

It's like a little bit of the autistic trait can give some advantages. You get too much of the autistic trait then you get a very severe handicap where the person's going to remain non-verbal. It's a continuum from a severe handicap all the way up to something where it's a personality variant. There's no black and white dividing line between a mild Aspergers, which is the mild autism, and computer engineer, for example.

FLATOW: Mm hmm, mm hmm. What do you want people to know or understand most about autistic people? What do you think is most misunderstood about them?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, it's a lot of things that are misunderstood. One of the things I want to mention is if you see a child with autistic-like behaviors at age two and three, the worst thing you can do is just let them sit and watch TV all day. That's just the worst thing you can do. You need to have a teacher working with that child, working on teaching language, working on social interaction, working on getting them interested in different things, and keeping their brain connected to the world.

Autism is a neurological disorder. It's not caused by bad parenting. It's caused by, you know, abnormal development in the brain. The emotional circuits in the brain are abnormal. And there also are differences in the white matter, which is the brain's computer cables that hook up the different brain departments. This is the research of Dr. Eric Corshane(ph) out in San Diego. In fact, in my new edition of Thinking in Pictures, I review this research.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Temple, you credit much of your success to a high school science teacher. Tell us about that, please.

Dr. GRANDIN: Yes. Yes, Mr. Carlock(ph). I was a goof-around student who just wasn't interested in school, just didn't want to study, totally bored with school. High school was a disaster. I got kicked out of a large girls' school because I threw a book at a girl after she teased me. And I was sent away to a special boarding school for emotionally disturbed children.

You've got to remember, this is the ‘60s. And so they now know that autism's not an emotional disturbance. But they didn't know that in the ‘60s. And I was still a goof-around student. Now, they had horseback riding. That was one of my favorite things to do. We had model rocket club. We had electronics club. These were all activities where I could get away from teasing and get in with other students where I had shared interests, you know.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: People with autism aren't interested in social chit-chat. And Mr. Carlock, I mean, took my interests and used that as a way to motivate me to study science. And I mean Mr. Carlock was an extremely important mentor in helping me to develop. And when you look at, let's look at the people with the milder forms of autism that are successful. They have their area of strength, you know, built-up on. I have a career that involves using my visual thinking skill for designing. And then mentor teachers, another really, really important thing because the autistic brain tends to be a specialist brain, good at one thing, bad at something else.

I'm a visual thinker, really bad at algebra. There's others that are a pattern thinker. These are the music and math minds. They think in patterns instead of pictures. Then there's another type that's not a visual thinker at all, and they're the ones that memorize all of the sports statistics, all of the weather statistics. It's kind of a language-logic mind.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Dr. Temple Grandin, author now out in paperback, Animals in Translation on Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

Hey, is that what you mean when you say about normal people not being detail-oriented like the way you are and animals are?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, the thing is, my thinking is sensory-detailed oriented. You can also have details of words, and there's some details of words that I don't, I'm not very good at. But I'm talking about sensory detail, visual detail, detail of some little small sound. I mean, think of all the smell detail that the dog gets. I mean, he checks out the local fire hydrant and he knows who's been there, when they were there, how long ago they were there, and are they friend or foe. That's a lot of information on the fire hydrant just from different smells.

FLATOW: Yes. They have to be detail-oriented because that's how they survive.

Dr. GRANDIN: And it's also how they think. And animals actually, you know, can solve problems under new conditions. And how do you have a think in pictures? Well, you have to sort the pictures into categories. You know, for example, a dog knows that, you know, there's good people and there's bad people. And I talked to a lady the other day where her dog was afraid of people with white beards because she had adopted him from an animal shelter and somebody with a white beard had abused him. And this dog was now afraid of everybody that had a white beard. That was the bad category.

FLATOW: Mm hmm, mm hmm. I think a lot of people are surprised when they hear you speak and read your writings about your knowledge about how animals think, your sensitivity to their feelings, to learn that you're not a vegetarian.

Dr. GRANDIN: No, I played around with vegetarianism back in the ‘70s. One thing, my physiology just got to have animal protein. I get hypoglycemic, I get all light-headed unless I eat animal protein.

And I did a lot of thinking about this and I've designed a lot of equipment for meat plants. The cattle would have never been foreign, you know, if we hadn't raised them. And I feel very strongly, we've got to give animals a good life. I've worked really hard improving slaughter plants and animal handling and transport. And people have said to me, why don't you work on improving conditions on pig farms? And basically, to be effective on making real change out there on the ground, you can only work on so many things. You know, you get too distributed, you're not effective. And, you know, I've got my one area I work in and I want to educate people about autism and I also want to improve, you know, animal handling and transport and make a real change out in the field on the ground.

FLATOW: Do you have a project you're working on someplace in the country?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, right now I've been just non-stop travel with speaking engagements.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. GRANDIN: At the age of 58 years old, you kind of get to the point in your career where I want to pass my knowledge on. And I've got two big projects coming up. I'm going to be visiting two different universities for a week. I'm going to Cornell University in February as a visiting professor and give talks on animal handling. And I'm kind of at the point where I want to like, you know, pass my knowledge on.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you talk to the vets at the vet school there?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yes. In fact, I've got a meeting lined up with North Carolina State University at their veterinary school. And I'll be talking to the veterinary students at Cornell.

FLATOW: Do you think it's necessary for them to learn about animals before they become vets?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, there's a lot, you know, there's a lot of things to animal behavior that vets need to learn about. I mean, just the other day they thought my, I have an assistant named Mark, and we thought that his dog might have a bladder infection. And the vet wanted to take poor Red Dog and throw her on her back and stretch her out on the exam table, no sedatives or anything, stick a needle into her belly for a urine sample.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: And I said that's too traumatic a thing to do to Red Dog. She's a very, very high-strung dog, and she's likely to be traumatized by that. We're not going to do that. We need a urine sample. We'll get her to pee in a cup.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's good, that could…

DR. GRANDIN: We're not going to traumatize her putting her on her back.

FLATOW: All right. Stay with us, Dr. Grandin, and everybody wanting to speak with Dr. Grandin, with Temple Grandin. We're going to take a short break and come right back. Don't go away.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about autism with my guest, Dr. Temple Grandin, Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Her latest book out in paperback, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones.

Let's go to Joel in Sacramento. Hi, Joel.

JOEL (caller): Hello there. It's a privilege to talk to you both. My question is based on the fact that my mother works with autistic students in junior high school and has a difficult challenge because she works in teaching them English, reading, and sometimes math. And the problem that she's observed, and perhaps, Doctor, you may have a comment on this based on your personal experience or study, is the students will often display just outward, to her it seems to be out of nowhere, just this terrible fear. They get terrified and she cannot get through to them to the point where often they have to be taken out of the class. And would you, perhaps, have one or two simple suggestions that my mother could use in calming a student down and directing them to the lesson? Or maybe we're looking at this all wrong.

Dr. GRANDIN: Okay. Let's talk about the fear problem. Fear was my main emotion until I started taking anti-depressant medication. And I was one of the people where, as I got older, the fear got worse and worse. So I can really relate to an animal getting, you know, scared and traumatized. Some of these fears these students have are sensory based. You know, when I was a little kid and the school bell went off, it hurt my ears like a dentist drill. You know, maybe the kid sees a cell phone and the ring on that cell phone hurts that kid's ears.

So, if he just sees that cell phone he's going to panic because it's a dangerous thing that might go off. Things like microphones are dangerous things because you never know when they might feedback and squeal. There's a lot of different things that can set off this fear reaction. And I would probably need to talk to your wife a whole lot more to figure out just which situations they're getting the fear reaction in. But a lot of this is sensory.

And an adult or a child that has a tantrum and just goes ballistic every time you take him in a big supermarket, that is usually due to sensory overload. They may not be able to tolerate smells in the detergent aisle, the fluorescent lights flicker and make the supermarket look like a discothèque, or it may be just noise overload and they feel like they're inside the speaker at the rock and roll concert. But these sensory problems are very variable from really mild to just overwhelmingly bad.

FLATOW: All right. Good luck, Joel.

JOEL: Thank you. We'll take that and see if we can figure out what it is that is really upsetting them and perhaps remove that from them.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Dr. GRANDIN: Yes. We need to…

JOEL: I'll relay that to my mother. Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck.

Dr. GRANDIN: I'm sorry. It's your mother. Okay. I'm sorry.

FLATOW: Dr. Grandin, what was it that you did that you were able to overcome? You mentioned some medication you were using? What point did you say I'm going to overcome these fears and these obstacles?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, the thing is, autism is all different, you know, variables. And you start out with a certain amount of, you know, the point where the differences in the brain are going to just be a personality variant and, like, for very mild Asperger's.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: But you get into more severe kinds of autism where there's obvious speech delay, obvious abnormal behavior in a two and three-year-old child, you know, the initial neurology is different from case to case. But all children with autism are going to do better if they get really good educational intervention. And there's a lot of controversy as to which programs you use. I have found that the most important thing is a good teacher. Some teachers just know how to work with a child and get progress and others don't. And you need lots of hours with a good teacher in these really young kids.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's talk for a bit about something you designed, and was very interesting to read about, called a squeeze machine.

Dr. GRANDIN: Okay.

FLATOW: Tell us about your squeeze machine.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, when I, when puberty hit, that's when the anxiety attacks and the panic attacks started. I was a type of person with autism where once there was puberty, non-stop panic attacks. I mean, imagine how you felt when you did your first really big, important, you know, interview, how nervous you were. Now, imagine if that's the way you felt all the time, all the time. Now, there's other people with Asperger's and autism that don't get nervous. This is where, you know, autism can be very variable.

And I was watching cattle go through a squeeze chute for their vaccinations. It's a device they put the cattle in to hold them still. And I noticed that some of the cattle just kind of relaxed. So I went and tried out the squeeze chute. And the pressure calmed me down. Many individuals with autism find that deep pressure applied over large areas of the body has a very, very calming effect on the nervous system. So then I built a squeezing machine that I could get into that worked with an air cylinder and an air compressor where I could work a little control handle and I could squeeze myself. And I used that to calm down.

Now, as I got into my 20s, my anxiety got worse and worse and worse. And in early 30s I went on antidepressant medication. I would not be here today if I hadn't gone on that medication. But, you know, exercise is another thing that's also very calming but, you know, this is common, the pressure seeking…

FLATOW: Do you still have your squeezebox?

Dr. GRANDIN: I still have my squeezebox, yes I do.

FLATOW: Yeah, okay, 1-800-989-8255 is our number. While we get people on the phone I want to also ask you about meeting and studying B.F. Skinner. We all, I mean I'm a contemporary of yours, probably about the same age. I remember in college in the ‘60s, all I studied was B.F. Skinner and his white rats in the boxes, running mazes and things. You write a lot about that and also about meeting him.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, I want to start out that I was lucky in the ‘60s to also be taking a class in Classical Ethology by a professor named Tom Evans, where I learned that operant conditioning does not explain all animal behavior. He explained how fixed action patterns and hardwired instinctual behavior works. And I remember going on a visit to Dr. Skinner and I felt like I was visiting, you know, the grand temple of psychology. And I went up to his office and, you know, he seemed, I'm like, oh, you mean he's actually an ordinary person? And we got to talking and of course back then I wore a dress you know ‘cause, you know, ladies had to be, like, dressed up, and I had a very conservative dress on, and B.F. Skinner touched my legs.

And I said, you may look at them, but you may not touch them and that ended that. And that is as he was showing me around the rat lab, I said, Dr. Skinner if we can just learn about the brain then we really would know some things. And Dr. Skinner says to me, we don't need to know anything about the brain, we have operant conditioning. And I just never really could accept that. You know, especially after taking Tom Evans' class at the same time.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And later on, you write, he just changed his mind totally on this.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, yes, Dr. Rady(ph) knew him after he had his stroke and he admitted that maybe he needed to get inside the black box and inside the brain. That yes, the brain did make a difference. But he had to have a stroke in order to realize that.

FLATOW: Patricia in Santa Rosa, California, hi, welcome to Science Friday.

PATRICIA (Caller): Hello, Dr. Grandin it is such an honor to be able to speak with you. I had read your book years ago, when I was working at a pre-school and I was really intrigued with your squeeze machine that you had developed. And I was so grateful to have read that because currently, I'm working with a boy who has high functioning autism or Asperger Disorder. And when I first started working with him I saw that he really needed some deep pressure, he kept hitting his head and he would crash his body into things, and have developed certain ways to have him use language to say how much pressure he needs, since we aren't able to make the squeeze machine. But, that has made a world of difference in working with him.

Dr. GRANDIN: That's just wonderful and another thing where I'm getting very good reports on is therapeutic riding programs. I'm getting lots and lots of great reports from parents on, you know, how beneficial that's been for some children, too.

PATRICIA: Yes, we tried, we considered doing the riding but he doesn't really like horses.

Dr. GRANDIN: Okay, well the thing is…

PATRICIA: But we have him do swimming and its amazing, he loves to go down as deep as he possibly can and stay down there for a moment and then shoot back up.

Dr. GRANDIN: You know, different things work for different kids because the sensory problems are variable. Like I had auditory sensory problems and touch sensitivity problems, I had no problems with my vision. Other people absolutely cannot stand fluorescent lighting and they're sometimes helped by a thing called the Irlen colored glasses where you try on all kinds of different pale colored glasses until it's easier to read. It stops the problem of the print jiggling on the page.

PATRICIA: How do you spell that?

Dr. GRANDIN: It's Irlen, I-R-L-E-N.

PATRICIA: Okay.

FLATOW: Excellent.

Dr. GRANDIN: You can also go to…

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Dr. GRANDIN: Sorry.

FLATOW: Okay. Thank you for calling.

PATRICIA: Oh, thank you so much.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend and good luck to you.

PATRICIA: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, Dr. Grandin, you say that you almost never think in language that you think in pictures. So, it must be hard for you then to write books like this I would imagine.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, thinking in pictures is totally my writing. And then, of course, all my Scientific Journal articles I wrote. And my writing is much more technical, formal kind of writing and thinking in pictures has that. I wrote Animals in Translation with Catherine Johnson and Catherine Johnson's a super brilliant writer. She has two autistic kids, so she really knows autism. And she was able to write the book, making it like my voice. And, I really owe Catherine a lot. You know, it wouldn't have been a book without Catherine because my writing is much more formal. I've got a lot of stuff on my webpage, Grandin.com, that's all my writing. And I think I'm a good technical writer but I don't know how to write the way Catherine does.

FLATOW: What would you like to do that you haven't been able to do so far in life?

Dr. GRANDIN: Oh boy, that's a hard question. One thing I'd like to just keep on doing is I want to educate people about animal behavior and about autism. I've been doing autism talks for the last 20 years and there still are people out there that do not want to, they can't recognize that these sensory problems are real. That, for some of these kids when that fire alarm goes off, that really hurts the ears, it's a really real thing.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we've been hearing a lot lately about an autism epidemic, what do you think about that?

Dr. GRANDIN: I think the mild Aspergers have always been there. You see, Asperger's diagnosis did not become common in the U.S. until the early ‘90s. And an Aspergers has more or less normal speech development and they've always been here, that hasn't changed. I can think back to when I was in high school, this is 40 years ago, I could name kids in my high school class and college class that, today, would be diagnosed as Aspergers. When I go out in the meat industry, there's 40 and 50-year old undiagnosed Aspergers all over my industry, in good jobs like head of maintenance, drawing drawings, fixing equipment, a plant engineer.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: Now, where I think there may be an increase is in some of these more severe forms of autism, especially this type where the kid seems to appear to be normal and then at 18 months of age or so, he loses language. I call that the regressive type of autism and I think that segment's gone up.

FLATOW: There's been a very vocal minority of people who are sure that autism, the rise in autism, has something to do with the mercury preservatives that used to be in vaccinations, where do you come down on that?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, there's actually been some research where they've managed to create some mice where, when they were given mercury at about the same level as vaccine, they would do some very autistic-like behaviors like biting the ends of their tails. You know, we also need to be watching out for mercury in flu shots given to pregnant moms. And now we get it out of the vaccine, we're going to have mercury in fish from power plant emissions.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: There's also other environmental contaminants that could get in there. I've been reading a lot of things in Science and Nature about endocrine disrupters. These are chemicals that mimic hormones, getting into the water supply and they're already causing some real abnormal things in fish.

FLATOW: Mm hmm Are you talking about things that might get into a pregnant woman, in-utero, and causing things that show up later in life? Or things that happen from childhood after birth?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, I think, looking at the research, genetics is probably 60 to 70% of autism.

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: And, in my case, I mean I'm old enough where I didn't get these vaccines, I'm young enough to have done anything to me. And my case would have been purely genetic. All the Aspergers around, you know, when I was a kid were purely genetic. But I think you might be getting some kind of susceptibility, you know, that goes with genetics, where maybe they have a very difficult time metabolizing some of these toxins out.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. GRANDIN: Or there's a genetic by environmental interaction.

FLATOW: Talking this hour with Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation on Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Let's see if we can get a couple of more calls in, if we can. Let's go to David in Iowa City, Iowa, hi, David.

DAVID (Caller, Iowa City, Iowa): Hello, it's a pleasure, great pleasure to speak with you, Dr. Grandin. And I have a question about, you mentioned earlier in the show the difference between pattern thinking, people with autism with extraordinary music or math ability, versus picture thinking, which is how you've described your abilities. And, I'm curious to know whether there are, are you familiar with cases of people with autism who have extraordinary pattern thinking abilities, music, math, and through therapy or intensive instruction, have they been able to develop an extraordinary, or at least a normal, language ability, based on their pattern thinking ability?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well one thing that happened with me is they pounded away and pounded away in trying to teach me Algebra and that was just hopeless. And one of the mistakes made in my math education was not going on to trigonometry and geometry. Yes, you can do things, you know, like, we take somebody who's a poor visual thinker and you can work on improving their visual thinking. But you're never going to get them to my state, where they can, I do, I can look at a blueprint and I can do 3-D, you know, full motion video of that blueprint.

Dr. GRANDIN: You know, and I've been talking to people that are pattern thinkers and it's different for me. I was never very good at chess, that was, like, too abstract for me. You know, what I'm good at is something where I can manipulate photo-realistic pictures. And again, I want to emphasize the importance on building on a person's strength. We need to be thinking, when these kids are in junior high school, what are they going to do when they grow up? Because I look at the successful people that have, you know, high functioning autism and Asperger's, they're ones where maybe the parents were in the computer industry and they just taught the kids programming at, you know, age eight and nine and they just went on into the industry with their parents.

FLATOW: So, you're worried about the future?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, we need to be, you know, I think some of the other countries, in some ways may be doing better than we're doing. I went to Japan, that was a little while ago and, I met a lot of Aspergers people over there and they all had decent jobs.

FLATOW: Can you train people to have decent jobs?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yes, people have to learn social skills. I mean I had to learn social skills, like being in a play. And this is one advantage that being a child of the ‘50s was. All children in the ‘50s were taught manners, they were taught to say please and thank you, they were taught not to be rude. And I'm seeing some problems today where somebody's losing a job because they made fun of a fat lady that couldn't fit in the elevator. I mean that was the sort of thing that, when I was eight years old, my mother made it very clear to me that that was not okay to say that kind of stuff.

FLATOW: Well, I want to wish you the best of luck, Dr. Grandin and I thank you very much for taking time to talk with us this hour.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, thank you so much for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Temple Grandin, Associate Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Her latest book is Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. A terrific read, I highly recommend it.

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