Temple Grandin offers hope for fellow autistic people in Modesto

Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin visits Modesto Junior College

Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin talked about educating autistic people, including herself decades ago, at Modesto Junior College on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. She took questions from Jacquelyn Forte, director of student services at MJC.
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Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin talked about educating autistic people, including herself decades ago, at Modesto Junior College on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. She took questions from Jacquelyn Forte, director of student services at MJC.

Temple Grandin spoke in Modesto about her autistic brain, and how she has used it to improve the lives of cattle.

Modesto Junior College hosted the acclaimed author at three venues Tuesday and Wednesday. She talked about her success in designing livestock handling equipment despite mental wiring that made schooling difficult and social encounters awkward.

Grandin, 71, urged parents and teachers to approach the autistic children of today with a belief that they might have hidden talents of their own.

“You’ve got to stretch these kids,” Grandin said. “You don’t stretch them, they don’t develop.”

More than 1,000 people in all turned out for her Tuesday night talk at the agriculture department on the west campus and Wednesday night’s lecture in the east campus auditorium. Grandin also met Wednesday with several hundred high school ag students.

The Modesto area is among the world’s leaders in dairy farming and is flanked by rangelands that supply the beef industry. Workers spend plenty of time guiding cows in and out of milking parlors and loading animals onto trucks bound for slaughterhouses.

Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a frequent speaker at livestock and autism gatherings. Claire Danes played her in an HBO movie that won seven Emmys.

About one in 59 American children have some form of the autism, Grandin said. She is on the upper end of the “autism spectrum.” On the lower end are people who might not be able to speak, dress themselves or follow directions.

Many autistic people can be overwhelmed by sudden noises, crowded grocery stores, even the feel of certain fabrics on their skin.

Grandin, a Boston native, did not speak until she was 3. She credits part of her success to a mother who got her into speech therapy and other assistance. Mom also set rules at home: Mind your table manners. Take turns during board games.

The young Grandin often visited her aunt’s cattle ranch in Arizona, where she indulged her love of animals and building things. At 18, she created a “squeeze machine,” which eased her anxiety by applying gentle pressure to her body. The idea later turned up in chutes that hold cattle.

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Grandin went on to advocate for livestock practices that now are widespread: Don’t yell or whistle at cattle, which only agitates them. Don’t approach them from the rear, or they might think you’re a natural predator. Use non-slip flooring on loading ramps, because slipping “makes animals freak out.”

Grandin also has consulted with meat packers to assure that the animals are rendered unconscious before slaughter.

Bill Hobby, who teaches dairy science at MJC, said he has used Grandin’s principles throughout his 23 years as an educator. An example: Most cows have a distinctive tuft of hair on the face, and its placement can determine how easy they are for students to handle.

Grandin said farm animals have something in common with certain autistic people. They don’t grasp abstract concepts, but their brains can work with “photo realistic” images of what is around them.

“I think in pictures, and it helped me understand animals,” she said.

Grandin said many autistic students fail algebra, but they could thrive if they jump ahead to geometry, which is all about shapes. They could train in welding, plumbing, cooking, auto repair and other jobs that don’t need much abstract thinking, she said.

Designing video games and related products is another career option, although children should not hole up in their bedrooms with screens for long stretches.

Grandin recalled her own 1950s fascination with making sets for school plays and model rockets, which helped her socially.

“When you’re weird, you’re going to get friends who share interests,” she joked.

Carla Seawright, who works with autistic students for the Ceres Unified School District, came to Tuesday night’s talk. She said Grandin’s first-hand accounts of being autistic — with detail such as hating the sound of a marking pen on paper — help others in the field.

“She can literally tell us ‘this is how it feels to me,’ “ Seawright said.

A video of Grandin’s entire Wednesday night talk will be on the MJC website for about a week afterward. Her speech begins at about the 25-minute mark.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.