Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, Host:

This is Fresh Air, I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Temple Grandin, has written extensively about autism and the connection she sees between autistic behavior and animal behavior. Grandin is autistic. When she was young, doctors recommended that she be institutionalized, but her mother said no. Grandin has worked to educate people about what it's like to live with autism. She's also fought for reforms in the livestock industry. She has her doctorate in animal science from the University of Illinois, teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University and consults with the livestock industry on livestock handling and animal welfare. She spent a lot of her career designing humane handling facilities for farm animals. Her new book is called "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals." Her previous books include the memoir, "Thinking in Pictures" and the bestseller "Animals in Translation." Temple Grandin, welcome back to Fresh Air. As we've discussed before in the show, you see similarities between animal behavior and autism. And in your new book you say that, you know, one of the signs that an animal may be troubled is that if they're engaging in really repetitive, compulsive behavior. What are some of those behaviors and how does that relate to autism, too, in humans?

Dr. TEMPLE GRANDIN (Associate Professor, Colorado State University): When I was a little kid I used to do stereotypical, repetitive behaviors, like sit for hours and dribble sand through my hands, sometimes I rocked, some children will flick their fingers in front of their eyes. I did this because loud sounds hurt my ears, so I did it to escape the loud sounds. And then I would just get fascinated watching all the little sand grains, you know, go through my fingers. You know, sort of studying like a scientist and the thing is if I've been allowed to do that all day I wouldn't be here now doing an interview, I don't know where I would be. Stereotypic behavior, repetitive behavior, is highly abnormal. But there's different things they can motivate and this is the basis of the first done chapter in the book, and I need to get my co-author Catherine Johnson credit for coming up with the idea of linking stereotypic behavior motivation back to Jack Panskepp's(ph) core emotions, which are: fear, rage, separation anxiety and seeking. And when I first started out, the deer motivated me to do the stereotypic behavior, because the loud sounds made me scared and then seeking would take over. Now, I just studied the little grains of sand. I want to say that, you know, repetitive behavior is extremely abnormal and the nervous system is not working normally when an animal or person is doing hours of repetitive stereotypie.

GROSS: What are some of the typical like animal or repetitive behaviors that are signs that something is wrong, like we've all known dogs who'd chased their tails unless they would - would that be an example?

Dr. GRANDIN: That would be an example of pacing in a lion or a polar bear. A tongue-rolling - recently I saw some Jersey cows putting their heads up in the air and just waggling their tongues all around. That's totally abnormal. A gerbil just sits in the corner digging and digging and digging constantly, that's abnormal. But the main thing about the stereotypie is it - it's just sort of - is exactly the same over and over and over again and the animal that's pacing will - you know wear down the floor right where it paces.

GROSS: So, how did you break out of your repetitive behaviors like - you know, watching grains of sand or rocking back and forth?

Dr. GRANDIN: I had very good early education starting at two-and-a-half, and I was only allowed to have an hour a day where I could do that sort of thing. And when I was in my bedroom, I'd spin this little brass thingamajig round and round and round that was on the bed frame. Rest of the time I had always kept tuned in - speech therapy, hours of turn-taking games. I was expected to sit at the table and have table manners and ask them, pass the potatoes, when they needed to be passed. You know, everybody worked with me to keep my brain connected to the world. I was allowed to only have an hour a day after lunch where I could space-out and revert back to autism.

GROSS: And was that a pleasurable hour?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yes, that's the thing about it. Stereotypie is actually pleasurable. They calm you down. And I think it's OK for an autistic kid, that little bit downtime when they can do these things and calm down. But, if you will let them do it all day they're never going to get anywhere because the brain is shutting out the world.

GROSS: So do you feel like you have any insights about how to break animals of that kind of - like, you know, repetitive compulsive behavior?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you've got to start looking at what does that animal do in the wild. You take the polar bear. He's a nomad animal, he walks for miles and miles and miles and miles. Grazing animals like cattle tend to get mouth stereotypies because what do they do all day? They eat. Gerbils will get into diggings stereotypies. But what's get interesting is looking at the motivation. A polar bear is turned, you know, he's seeking, seeking stuff to do that's why he walks and walks and walks. Now the gerbil here, I thought, OK, let's make a good environment for a gerbil, let's just give them more sand to dig in. Well, he still spends 30 percent of his day digging and digging and digging. You know, what the gerbil really wants is a place to hide because of he's a prey species animal, and he's trying to dig a hole in the bottom of the aquarium and he can't make a tunnel. Well if you give him give a tunnel, even a fake one, he'll go in there, that gives him cover. And he's digging because he feels exposed, you know that's stereotypie was motivated by fear, where the stereotypie in the polar bear was motivated by seeking.

GROSS: Seeking is when you're hunting for something, looking for something, and you have anticipation that when you find it, it's going to be really good and therefore, you even got pleasure in the hunting part, in the seeking part, because of that the sense of anticipation.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, that's right. It's, you know, it's the anticipation more than - it's thinking about, you know having a chocolate sundae more than the actually having of it.

GROSS: So, once you know what you think might be behind the repetitive behavior in the animal, how do you break it?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you've got one of the things that was done with Gus the polar bear is you had to give him things to do. OK, the problem is an animal that walks for miles and miles and miles and miles I mean he can't do that at the Central Park Zoo, so what they did was they gave him lots of barrels that he could jump on with all of different buoyancies. And every time he jump on this barrels in the water they would float up at different buoyancies. And that cut down on the stereotypies. But the emphasis has to be on preventing that behavior in the first place, because the problem with stereotypic behavior is it can get entrenched into the brain and the difficult to get rid of.

GROSS: In your new book "Animals Make Us Human" you describe cats as having a high level of OCD behavior, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder behavior. What are some examples of that, that you see?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you can get a laser pointer out there and boy, that cat won't stop chasing that.

GROSS: So true. (Laughing)

Dr. GRANDIN: Now, I have some cats that will grab the laser pointer, but there are some cats you get a laser pointer they're just obsessed. In fact, you have to be careful with the laser pointer not to injure a cat because you can get so much into the chasing that little red dot that he'll - he can injure himself if you not careful about how you do it.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: Another thing that can get kind of, you know weird is sometimes a cat can't figure out how to get out of a tree. I had a weird situation when I was a child with our Siamese cat. We had one of these old-fashioned dishwashers that pulled out like a big file drawer, and Billy got underneath the dishwasher. And he was pulling out through the crack out into the kitchen, yowling trying to go forward. All he had to do to get out was to just back off and you know go out around and come out from underneath the sink. And he did - he couldn't figure out how to do that, so I had to slowly very, very slowly push the dishwasher in then very slowly let him back up and get out.

GROSS: And one of the things you've been doing for many years is consulting to the livestock industry on humane handling of livestock. You've consulted on cattle, pigs, chickens, anything I'm leaving out?

Dr. GRANDIN: Sheep, I've done some.

GROSS: Mm hmm. And I think the first animals you worked with like that were cows, and you built humane chutes to get the cows to slaughter. In doing this kind of work and in trying to find humane ways of keeping the livestock while they're alive and getting them to slaughter when they're killed, you've had to really understand how animals process information and how their senses compare to human senses because some things that would upset animals wouldn't upset us. So, unless we understand what upsets animals we can't design humane systems for them. Can you talk - let's start with cows. Can you compare what you know about how cows process information and what they find upsetting in terms of what they hear, or see, or smell that most humans would not?

Dr. GRANDIN: Animals, I mean especially cattle, notice visual detail. Things that move rapidly, things that are high-contrast. When I first started out working with the slaughter plants, I had to figure out, do they know they're getting slaughtered? So, I'd go over to the Swift plant in Arizona, this is back in the early 70s, and then I'd go out down to feed yard and watch them in the vaccinating chute and they behaved exactly the same way. But then I start to figure out what are they really scared of so? So I'd get down the chutes and see what they were seeing and they were scared of shadows, reflections, a chain hanging down, seeing a person walking by up, you know, up in the front of the chute. And if you got rid of these things that the animals are afraid of, and the animals will walk right up to chute really, really easily. I'm still doing that kind of consulting. Just last week, I went out to - out to two plants, and in one of them I found five distractions that were causing cattle to balk that they had not seen, and they were simple things. A moving yellow hose, some spraying water, a flashing light, they were simple things but they just didn't see them.

GROSS: So, what happens if cattle see a yellow light or a moving hose or something that distracts them and actually scares them as they're on their way to slaughter? I mean, they're going to get killed, right? So why are we worry that they're going to be a little upset beforehand?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, you could say the same thing. You know, get some old grandmother in nursing home and say, we'll just throw her over in the corner, she's going to die of cancer tomorrow, that doesn't matter. I mean, it gets back to relieving suffering and there's no reason for it to be scared. In fact, there's been some research on the cortisol, the stress levels, at the slaughterhouse and at the farm vaccinating chute. Yes, there is stress in both places, it's the same in both places.

GROSS: So, do you find when you remove the kind of distractions you were talking about, that the cattle calm down?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, the cattle walk right up to chute if you remove the distractions. There's other plant I went to, there was some piece of equipment that just screamed, "ee-ee-ee-ee-ee," and that high-pitched noise was hurting their ears, so I could see it is as they came up the chute. I have found that if you get rid of these distractions then the animals will remain calm. Also, you've got to have good handling. I got to emphasize the importance of management. You know, what I have found is people are much more willing to buy the fancy new system than they are that put in the management that's required to run it correctly and you've got to have well-trained people that are not constantly poking animals with electric prodders, and I work really hard on training people not to be carrying electric prodders around, and you've always going to be working on keeping that handling good.

GROSS: You found that a lot of employees, both at livestock facilities and at slaughterhouses, don't really believe that animals have emotions.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, actually, the hourly employees aren't the ones that are the problem. It's some of these business manager types. I remember one time a vice president of great big pig company said - asked me in all seriousness, do pigs have emotions? Well, if you look at the structure of the brain, that's really pretty silly because the emotional circuits - let's get back to this core emotions of fear, rage, separation anxiety and seeking, these are sub-cortical brain systems. They are the same in all mammals. The have been completely mapped. Some of that research by Jack Panskepp and all these was done back in the 60s. I can remember in the 60s in psychology class, learning about the rage cat, you know, you put on electrode in the rage center and the cat goes into a rage.

GROSS: So, it's been neurologically proven, you're saying, that animals have emotions?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yeah, it's been neurologically proven, but the problem is, is that that's been looked up in the neuroscience literature, and you know, people get into what they call stovepipes, you know, nobody communicates, you know, outside their area. And you've got, you know, one bunch of journals over here that's neuroscience, and then you've got another bunch of journals over there's agricultural science, veterinary science and there's just very little communication lots of times between the two. And the thing that's interesting is some terminology, if you look in neuroscience literature, they'll actually use the word "fear." You get into some of the other literature and they force me to write things like "excitement" and "agitation." But if you look at your neuroscience, there's no question that they have similar emotional systems and these are primitive emotional systems down the old parts of the brain that humans share with other mammals.

GROSS: Now again, you have made connections between certain animal behaviors and behavior patterns and the nervous system of people with autism. And in the case of cows, you talked about how sounds can be very upsetting, visual distractions, flashing lights, can be very distracting and upsetting to cattle. Do you feel like you relate to that?

Dr. GRANDIN: I relate to that because I'm a visual thinker. I think in pictures. Words are the index tabs that they kind of a trigger up the memories. It sort of like putting a search terms into Google or one of the other search engines and then pictures come up. And so I can relate to thought without language because when I'm finding, and I guess this will going to give me job security, I'm just amazed to go to two plants last week and I find a ton of distractions. I got all kinds of videos, all kinds of stuff about this and people still have a hard time finding them. In fact, one of the ladies I was working with, she had looked through her chute looking for distractions but she hadn't looked over the top of the chute. I found a bunch of things she hadn't noticed. The spraying water, a yellow hose moving, a flashing light. That's three things right there that I found that she hadn't noticed, and she'd actually had looked through the chute trying to finds the things.

GROSS: My guest is Temple Grandin. We'll talk more about autism in animals after our break. Her new book is called, "Animals Make Us Human". This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and she's written a lot about autism, a condition that she has, and she's also written a lot about the connection between animals and autism. And her new book is called "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals." And much of the work that she does is consulting to the livestock industry and to slaughterhouses on humane treatment of animals. You've consulted about cattle. You've also consulted about pigs. What's some of the worst things that you found about the condition on the pigs are typically kept in, the pigs who are bred for their meat?

Dr. GRANDIN: One of my biggest concerns is overloading the biological system. This has not happened in beef cattle because they still have to be out on the range. But on pigs, dairy cattle, and chickens, just been pushing, pushing, pushing for more and more and more production to the point where their biological system just starts to fall apart - bone problems, metabolic problems, weakness, you can push it genetically too hard, you can push it too hard with food additives and hormones. But this is one of my biggest concerns. I mean right now for example, I mean, huge numbers of sows - the mother pigs are lame and it's just structurally bad legs. Now, the pig companies are starting to correct some of that, but I'm very concerned about this. I'm very concerned about some of the bad dog breeding that's going on where we just, you know, over-select some stupid appearance trait, or you just over-select giant muscles for giant milk production. They've got the dairy cows so over-selected for milk production now, that you have a hard time getting her bred, the embryo just doesn't take.

GROSS: So, because pigs have been bred to create the most meat, we're ending up with like physical defects like legs that can't support their weight?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, it can support the weight, but you just don't have what's called "good leg conformation." You know, you can like - I don't want to get into all of different things on leg confirmation but they can be too straight. They can be, you know, the little dew claws things can collapse and they'll be walking on the dew claws. And the bottom line is it's they end up lame. And I think with all animals we need to be looking at having you know, animals that are structurally sound and animals that are mentally sound. You know, some of them, we bred the chicken for more and more and more and more eggs. One of the problems was the hyper-excitable chicken. When the pigs are bred they're just to be super-lean, some of the genetic lines of the super-lean pigs were really hyper excitable.

GROSS: So what are some of the worst things about the conditions in the stalls that pigs are kept in?

Ms. GRANDIN: Well, I never liked stalls where pigs are not able to turn around. You know, scientific research shows that they produce just fine in those stalls, but you know, as far as I'm concerned, that's no life not being able to turn around. I did a little survey kind of, on the airlines and I showed the passengers pictures of sow stalls and you know, two-thirds of the people thought that was, you know, not a good thing and one guy who had hunting dog says, well, I wouldn't keep my dog in something like that. I think an animal needs to have a better life than you know, being in a box where it can't turn around.

GROSS: So, what are some of the things that you've tried to do to improve the conditions of pigs?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, my biggest thing with all the animals is working on handling. I've done a lot of work with many different companies on you know, loading trucks, you know, how do you handle pigs, training people on handling of animals, the stockmanship. Stockmanship is really, really important. You know, people lots of times will the buy the new thing more than their worth on the stockmanship. There's been research on stockmanship by Paul Hemsworth…

GROSS: What are stockmanship?

Dr. GRANDIN: Stockmanship is just being good at animals care. Like you work with your animals in such a way that your animals are not afraid of you. Because if your dairy cows are afraid of you, or your pigs are afraid of you, they don't grow as well, they don't reproduce as well, they don't give as much milk.

GROSS: So, how do pigs compare to cows and what scares them and what - therefore, what you try to eliminate from their world?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well obviously, you want to totally eliminate people that are slapping and hitting and doing those kinds of things, but there's differences in how pigs will react even with two stockman that are pretty good stockman. I remember on one farm, there was a guy and he was you know, a good stockman, he never abused the animals. But then when they got a new lady in the barn to take care of the baby piglets, you know, they actually had more litters weaned and the sows just felt more relaxed around the lady than they did around the guy.

GROSS: And what are some of the changes that you've recommended in the handling and the living conditions of pigs?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, in handling, just you know, basic things, move smaller groups, no yelling and screaming. A lot of it's very basic, you know, then they need to learn things like flights on the point of balance. If you want an animal to go forward, I don't care what species it is, you don't stand in front of the head and poke it on the butt, because now you're telling that animal to go forward and backwards at the same time. You've got to get behind the point of balance at the animal shoulder, you get behind the shoulder, then it's going to go forward. Just teaching some of the behavioral principles about animals and you know, some people have the temperament to work with animals and some don't. There's some people that shouldn't be working with animals. But then on the other hand, if you have a good stockmanship, you can't have a place that's understaffed and whether over-worked because there's no way that you know, they can be good at taking care of animals.

GROSS: Temple Grandin, we'll talk more about autism and animal behavior in the second half of the show. Her new book is called, "Animals Make Us Human." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Temple Grandin. She has written extensively about the connection she sees between autistic behavior and animal behavior. She is autistic and has her doctorate in animal science. She teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design at Colorado State University and consults with major companies in the livestock industry on humane handling facilities and slaughterhouses. Grandin's new book is called, "Animals Make Us Human." One of the things you've been doing in a livestock industry is creating audits to basically measure the welfare of cows and pigs and chickens. What's an audit like?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, basically you manage things that you measure, you know, you manage weight gain, but nobody's measuring handling. One of my biggest frustrations is I'd go out to a farm or I go out to slaughterplant, and I'd get their handling really good. And they're using the electric prod hardly any at all. And then I come back a year later and the handling was awful. And what had happened is they slowly reverted back to those old, rough methods, but they didn't realize it.

So the concept that I brought into it was measuring handling. OK, how many pigs fall down? How many pigs are squealing? How many pigs did you use the electric prod on? If you measure it and count that, then you can tell - is my handling getting better or is my handling getting worse? And I developed an audit system called the American Meat Institute guideline, did that about ten years, and that's use by McDonald's and other big companies to audit the slaughter plants. And you go in and you count, you know, how many times they used the prod. Well, sometimes people act good when you there, so the big new frontier right now is video auditing with video cameras with people looking in at the handling at the plant over the Internet and then scoring it.

GROSS: So, this is done over time and it's not like oh, we'll just make everything look good for the one day when Temple Grandin visits. And then...

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, that prevents that kind of problem because on these video auditing systems, they'll maybe two times a day, you know, they'll score maybe, you know, 20 cattle, or you know, score a few animals, and they'll never know when they're looking...

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: And there's five plants now on this system, and it's been going really well.

GROSS: Now, you've also consulted to the poultry industry, and one of the things you say in your book, and I found this really appalling is that there are certain procedures that are done, like beak trimming, the amputation of the toes of breeder roosters, cutting the combs of roosters, that are done with no anesthesia, and some of these procedures, particularly the beak trimming, are actually very painful. I don't even understand why these procedures need to be done in the first place. So maybe you can explain why and tell us what effect you think it has on the chickens.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, it definitely hurts. There's no question about that. That's been documented scientifically. The reason they do it is because sometimes chickens will peck each other and damage each other. And there is a genetic component here with the egg layer hens. When you breed egg layer hens to make more and more and more eggs, you also tend to breed a hens that's worse about pecking other chickens. Bill Mewer(ph) at Purdue University has done a lot of work on genetic selection and to get rid of having to cut beaks on chickens is probably going to require selecting for some genetics, where it's kind of a kinder and gentler chicken. And you have to give up a little bit of egg production, not a whole a lot, but just a little bit. You know, this gets back to pushing the biology, you know, you just select the one thing like egg production, you just select from one thing like milk production, other bad things tend to get linked along with.

GROSS: Have you come up with ways to improve poultry slaughter?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, one of the big things I've done on that, again, is the measurement system. When I first started working with poultry, I remember going out to this farm, they were catching chickens, it was terrible, running them over with a forklift, and they thought it was normal to have five percent - five to six percent of the birds having a broken wing. I was watching what they were doing, I go, this is just a rough handling. So then, at one of the plants we start measuring it, and we very quickly got it down to one percent. And one of the best ways to clean that up is to put the catching crews on incentive pay, like each person might get an extra $30 a week if they don't bust up the chickens.

And again, just simple measurement improved a lot of things. You know, some of the other problems were, you know, leg problems with rapid growth. Fortunately, some of the chicken companies have started to correct that problem.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and she has written extensively about her life with autism. She has written about the connection that she thinks exist between animals - animal behavior and autistic behavior. And she also consults to the livestock industry on humane conditions for housing animals and for slaughtering them. Her latest book is called, "Animals Make Us Human: Creating The Best Life for Animals."

You've written about how - because you do have autism, you don't really like physical contact with people. You've chosen to avoid romantic love in your life. You choose to live alone. What about, kind of, physical contact with animals? Do you enjoy petting them? Do you enjoy things like a cat sitting in your lap and snuggling up against you?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yes, and I really enjoy stroking an animal. You don't want pat an animal, you want to stroke it, kind of just firm strokes, like mother's tongue. And I really get a lot of enjoyment if I can stoke an animal, and the animal is obviously liking it, like a kitty will rub up against me and the dog is - Mark, my assistant, had a little dog named Andy, and all she wanted to do when she saw me was to roll over on her belly and have me scratch her belly. And you know, cattle, sometimes, you rub them on the neck just right. They put their head up in the air, and they' kind of go, oh, that just feels so good. I do get pleasure out of, you know, seeing - stroking an animal and seeing that animal get happy when you do it.

GROSS: What else gives you pleasure beyond work?

Dr. GRANDIN: Talking about autism with other people, talking about animals with other people, talking about engineering with other people, talking about really interesting stuff. And I can relate to another lady that's got Asperger's. She was giving a talk, and she was telling me that, you know, she and her husband have these great romantic dinners in a really nice restaurant with candles and everything else, and that sets the stage for a beautiful, romantic conversation on computer data storage systems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love it.

Dr. GRANDIN: Because that's just so interesting, and I can completely relate to that.

GROSS: Now, when you were diagnosed with autism in the 1950s, not too much was known about the science behind autism, you know, like what's really going on. And I don't think that the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome even existed yet - and if it did, it wasn't widely acknowledged. So, knowing what you know about Asperger's and autism, where do you place yourself on this spectrum of autism? And by spectrum, I mean that - I think, you know, scientists and doctors agree now that there's different levels of autism and that, you know, different people fall, you know, on different levels - some have mild, some have severe, there's all kinds of cases in between. So, where do you think you fit it in on that spectrum now?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, autism's a continuum, going all the way from geniuses like Einstein down to somebody that remains very non-verbal and will have to live in a supervised living situation. Now, if you go according to the American Psychiatric Association DMS4 manual, to be autistic, you have to have delayed speech and Asperger's, there is no delayed speech. So, if we use that criteria, then I would be what they call high functioning autism.

See, the problem you have with this diagnosis is it's not precise. It's not like taking a lab test with tuberculosis, they can tell you exactly what kind TB you've got. It's basically kind of a behavioral profile. In fact, there's a lot arguments going on right now about how these, you know, diagnostic categories may change when they put out the next version of the book in three years. And I think it's rather weird that doctors had to sign a non-disclosure secrecy agreement to not discuss what they were going to put the next version of the book.

GROSS: So you're not sure where you fall, is that what you're saying because...

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, I had delayed speech. In other words, when I was two years old, I had full-blown, classic autistic symptoms. So according to,you know, some people that would put me as autistic, but in terms of my functioning level now, it would be more like Asperger's. The thing is it's a continuum of traits. In fact, scientists are starting to track down some of the genetics, they're finding out things like abnormal gesture and delayed speech or different genetic factors are involved in that. And I think eventually, they're going to, you know, like split the syndrome apart into its component parts, like a lack of sociable relatedness, gesture abnormalities, speech delay, things like that.

GROSS: You mentioned Einstein a moment ago. Do you think Einstein had Asperger's?

Dr. GRANDIN: Einstein, according to the DMS4 criteria, would be labeled autistic, because he had no speech until age three. In fact, I have a xerox copy of a letter that an autistic parent got from Einstein, basically saying that his parents are really worried about his delayed speech.

GROSS: My guest is Temple Grandin. Her new book is called "Animals Make Us Human." We'll talk more about autism after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and she's written a lot about autism, a condition that she has. And she's also written a lot about the connection between animals and autism. And her new book is called, "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals." Now, when you were diagnosed with autism, there weren't nearly the number of medications that there are now that deal with biochemistry of the brain. Have you found any medications to be particularly helpful with symptoms that you find problematic?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, in my early 30s, I started taking antidepressant medicine to stop the constant panic attacks. I wouldn't be functioning if I wasn't on that medication because I had these horrible panic attacks. And when I do autism talks, I say to people, well, just imagine in this conference center here, we just locked the doors, turned the light out, and then we throw a few baskets full of rattlesnakes and cobras in this room, and it's pitch black in this convention center.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRANDIN: Imagine how you're going to feel. That's the way I felt all the time, and the medication stopped that. Now, I want to emphasize, I think there's way too many powerful drugs given out way too casually to the little kids, way too many powerful drugs. But there's a number of older children and adults where careful use of medication, and I want emphasize that if you use an antidepressant, thinking about something like Prozac, its tiny doses, tiny, tiny doses.

In fact, in my book thinking in pictures I totally revised all the medication section. The mistake that's made is they give too much, people get on too much stuff. You need to figure out what are the few things that actually work. And it's very variable, you know, one person can be helped by antidepressants and another person - they're not going to work. This is where autism is just so variable.

GROSS: Has finding drugs that help you quiet your nervous system and function better helped you understand what is actually going on in your nervous system?

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, it's - what's happened, it's kind of interesting, is there's kind of two mechanism. You have the orienting. OK, you hear a sound in the middle night when you're in your house and you orient. And then you got, oh, man, is there a burglar in the house? Then your heart starts pounding. That's the fear. And what's happened now with me is the orienting is still there, but it stopped a lot of the fear. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping at night because the next door neighbor's car beeps when he starts the car. And I orient towards that, I can't help it, but that used to just cause a great, big, massive panic reaction, even though I know it's the next door neighbor's car, it's not going do anything to me. But that's blocked now by the medication. It's blocked that massive fear response, but the tendency to orient towards the beep is still there so it still keeps me up.

GROSS: You know, how does your body and how does your nervous system respond to physical pain? Even the ordinary aches and pains of aging, does that send you into panic, or are you OK at coping with that?

Dr. GRANDIN: No, I've got quite a bit of back pain, and I'm coping with that.

GROSS: So that doesn't frighten you? You can handle that?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yeah, I can handle the pain. In fact, when I had a major surgery, the nurse told me that I used very low pain medication compared to some of the other patients.

GROSS: Now why do you think that is? Like so many people can't deal with pain, like pain is very upsetting? Pain hurts, and you seem to cope with pain fine and yet, you know somebody's car beeping is going to send you into panic if you're not on medication.

Dr. GRANDIN: Well, that's a common thing with a lot of people, you know, with autism, you know, they're more pain tolerant.

GROSS: Really? Has anybody investigated why?

Dr. GRANDIN: That's something that probably needs to be investigated. One of things that really need to investigated in autism are the sensory sensitivity problems, and they're very variable from mild nuisances to being totally debilitating. There are some people in the spectrum - in fact, smart Asperger people on the spectrum, they can't tolerate a normal office because they can see the flicker, the 60 cycle flicker, of fluorescent lights. They feel like they're in a disco. They can't tolerate just the noise of, you know, office equipment, things like that because it hurts their ears.

And these sensory problems are now just starting get researched. I mean, I've been a big proponent of saying to researchers, please, you've got to study these problems. They are just so debilitating. You know, how can a person socialize or live a normal life if they're - if every little phone ringing or something hurts their ears?

GROSS: Right. You recently wrote a book that's about socials skills and teaching social skills to people. Do you feel like you had to be taught social skills, that you didn't have any intuitive understanding of them, that you had to - you had to be shown what the rules are?

Dr. GRANDIN: I had to just be taught. This is where my '50s upbringing, I think, really helped me. All kids back in the '50s were taught to say, please and thank you. They were taught table manners. My parents and my nanny spent hours playing turn-taking games, you know, like board games, Chinese checkers, Parcheesi, things like this that teach turn-taking. Because I have to learn social skills like acting in a play. Now the thing is, there's differences in how many social circuits are hooked up. It's going to be very, very variable.

GROSS: You've said that when you first started working, that because you really didn't understand certain social skills, you would dress in a very kind of, you know, unkempt way, your personal hygiene wasn't the greatest, until you were told that this had to change. So, when you were told and you changed, were you insulted? You know, most people if you say to them, wow, you're dressing unkempt, or you know you have bad personal hygiene, they'd be really offended. But this - does that kind of personal offense register on you? Do you take it that way?

Dr. GRANDIN: Oh, no. Yeah. I was absolutely furious, but I did it because I wanted to keep the job. Now I still dress kind of eccentric. And I think eccentric's fine. But a filthy, dirty slob - that's not fine. In fact, I've gotten after some other people on the spectrum for showing up at an important meeting, you know, with a dirty T-shirt and told them to go up to their room and get a different shirt, you know. But on the other hand you can't totally de-geek the geek, and don't even try. They can't...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRANDIN: You can't make me into something that I'm not. You know, you have - it's sort of like you've got to meet - you've got to meet halfway.

GROSS: I've noticed you do like to use the word geek. Is it helpful - are you pleased that there is such a word now, and that it's a word that we all - we all talk about with approval, you know what I mean? Like there's something really cool about geekdom now. We all kind of appreciate computer geeks and math geeks. We know we need them, you know, we respect them. So, has that been really helpful to have geek have a certain hipness to it, now?

Dr. GRANDIN: Yeah, and what I get concerned about is that I've seen some very smart kids getting labeled Asperger's and seen it hold them back, and this really concerns me. Because you get out into the areas where there's a lot of tech industry, those kids are often kind of apprenticed into that industry. You know, mom and dad were in the computer industry, they teach their kids how to do it. But then you've got some kid out in the mid-west and now, he's now bagging groceries. No, he certainly doesn't want to do that. And the educational system doesn't know what to do with a smart techy(ph). But the thing is, there's a lot of job opportunities around, there's lots of interesting stuff around.

I remember, one time I was in Texas, and they said, well, what we do out here in the middle of nowhere in Texas? I said, well, you've got oil wells, they're interesting. There's gas pumping stations, those are interesting, you know, natural gas stations. There's cattle feed yards. I remember one time seeing a wonderful, old antique airplane that was being remodeled in a dumpy old hangar. That'd be the perfect place for somebody to mentor a kid with Asperger's. What you got to do with these smart, kind of, geeky kids is find somebody that can get them turned on, even if it's something like auto repair, something - cars are complicated these days. You've got to get creative on getting, you know, getting these kids' obsessions channeled into something that may come, you know, a satisfying life.

GROSS: And you could be a music geek, too. It doesn't have to be a computer geek.

Dr. GRANDIN: That's right. You can definitely be a music geek. You see, and there's kind of different kinds of minds. I'm the photorealistic pattern thinker. Terrible at algebra. In fact, I'm finding a number of kids that absolutely cannot do algebra, but they can do geometry and trig, and they need to be allowed to skip algebra and go to geometry and trig. And then the teachers say, well, he just doesn't - he doesn't show his work. And I said, yeah, but his mind works differently. You need to let him do that. Once you rule out cheating, then just let him do it.

Then there's other kids that are pattern thinkers. They think in patterns. That's the music mind, the computer programmer mind. It's not me, I'm the visual thinking mind. And then you've got the kind of a word thinker, they'll know every sports' statistics, every weather statistic. And they're just kind of average in math.

GROSS: Well, Temple Grandin, I really want to thank you for talking with us and coming to Fresh Air, again. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much.

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

GROSS: Temple Grandin's new book is called, "Animals Make Us Human." Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new DVD documentary series on the history of popular music. This is Fresh Air.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.