How Autism Can Help Us Understand Animals Animal-behavior specialist Temple Grandin explains how her personal experiences with autism have in some ways enhanced her work — and shed new light on the way in which we communicate with animals.
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How Autism Can Help Us Understand Animals

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How Autism Can Help Us Understand Animals

How Autism Can Help Us Understand Animals

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This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. It's Animal Week on FRESH AIR, featuring interviews about animals and people who work with and study them. Temple Grandin has written extensively about autism and the connection she sees between the behavior of people with autism and animal behavior. Grandin is autistic. When she was young, doctors recommended that she be institutionalized, but her mother refused.

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, 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.

I recorded this interview with her last January, after the publication of her book "Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals."

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 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 (Colorado State University): Well, when I was a little kid, I used to do stereotypical, repetitive behaviors. I'd 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 them like a scientist. And the thing is, if I'd 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 that can motivate it, and this is the basis of the first chapter in the book. And I need to give 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 fear motivated me to do the stereotypic behavior, because the loud sounds made me scared, and then seeking would take over. I would just study the little grains of sand. I want to say that, you know, repetitive behavior is extremely abnormal. The nervous system is not working normally when an animal or person is doing hours of repetitive stereotypes.

GROSS: What are some of the typical - like, animal repetitive behaviors that are signs that something is wrong? Like we've all known dogs who chase their tail endlessly. Would that be an example?

Dr. GRANDIN: That would be an example; 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 that just sits in the corner digging and digging and digging constantly, that's abnormal. But the main thing about a stereotype is it's just sort of -is exactly the same over and over and over again. An animal that's pacing will - you know, wear down the floor right where he 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 2 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. The rest of the time I had - I was kept tuned in: speech therapy, hours of turn-taking games.

I was expected to sit at the table and have table manners and ask to 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 - is, stereotypes actually are pleasurable. They calm you down, and I think it's OK for an autistic kid to have a little bit of down time where they can do these things and calm down. But if you 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, you know, like, 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 stereotypes because what do they do all day? They eat.

Gerbils will get into diggings stereotypes. But what gets 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, you know, they 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 stereotype was motivated by fear, where the stereotype in the polar bear was motivated by seeking.

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 it.

GROSS: So true.

Dr. GRANDIN: Now, there's cats that don't go after 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 he can get so much into chasing that little red dot that he'll - he can injure himself if you're 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(ph) got underneath the dishwasher, and he was pulling out through the crack out into the kitchen, meowing, trying to go forward.

All he had to do to get out was to just back up and, you know, go out around and come out from underneath the sink. And he didn't - couldn't figure out how to do that. So I had to slowly - very, very slowly - push the dishwasher in and very slowly let him back up and get out.

GROSS: Now, 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. And then I started to figure out, what are they really scared of?

So I'd get down in 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, then 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 worried 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 a nursing home and say, let's 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 scary. 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: 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 a 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 these core emotions of fear, rage, separation anxiety and seeking - these are sub-cortical brain systems.

They are the same in all mammals. They have been completely mapped. Some of that research by Jack Panskepp and others was done back in the '60s. I can remember in the '60s in psychology class learning about the rage cat. You know, you put an electrode in the rage center, and the cat goes into a rage.

GROSS: My guest is Temple Grandin. She's written extensively about how being autistic has given her insights into animal behavior. Her latest book is called "Animals Make Us Human." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: 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."

You've consulted about cattle. You've also consulted about pigs. What's some of the worst things that you found about the condition that 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 -just pushing, pushing, pushing for more and more and more production to the point where the 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 feed 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 or 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 dewclaw things can collapse, and they'll be walking on the dewclaws, and the bottom line is, is 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 when 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, it'd just be super-lean. Some of the genetic lines of the super-lean pigs are real hyper-excitable.

GROSS: So what are some of the things 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. There's been research on stockmanship by Paul Hemsworth, Jeffrey…

GROSS: What is stockmanship?

Dr. GRANDIN: Stockmanship is just being good at animal care.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRANDIN: 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 kind of things. But there's differences in how pigs will react even with two stockmen that are pretty good stockmen.

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 flight zone and 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's shoulder. You get behind the shoulder. Then it's going to go forward. Just teaching them 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, to have a good stockmanship, you can't have a place that's understaffed and where they're overworked because there's no way that, you know, they can be good at taking care of the animals.

GROSS: One of the things you've been doing in the 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'd go out to a slaughter plant, and I'd get their handling really good. And they're using the electric prod hardly any at all. And I'd come back a year later, and the handling was awful. And what had happened is, 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 10 years ago - and that's used by McDonald's and other big companies to audit the slaughter plants. You go in, and you count, you know, how many times they used the prod. Well, sometimes people act good when you're 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 we'll go back…

(Soundbite of laughter)

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 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. 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 5 percent -5 to 6 percent of the birds having a broken wing. I was watching what they were doing, I go, this is just rough handling. So then at one of the plants, we start measuring it, and we very quickly got it down to 1 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.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Temple Grandin, and she's written extensively about her life with autism. She has written about the connections that she thinks exist between animals - animal behavior and autistic behavior. 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's obviously liking it, like the kitty will rub up against me and the dog is -Mark, my assistant, had a little dog named Annie, 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: Well, Temple Grandin, I really want to thank you for talking to 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, recorded last January after the publication of her book "Animals Make Us Human." Our Animal Week series continues in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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