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Autism allows scientist to unlock animal brain
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Temple Grandin, an animal scientist from Colorado State University, thinks in pictures, a characteristic that gives her valuable insight in how to handle animals.
Grandin is a best-selling author and a world-renowned speaker. She also has autism. Grandin was the keynote speaker at CVM’s Human-Animal Bond lecture series in late October. She has been instrumental in developing welfare guidelines for handling and transporting livestock and is a past member of the board of directors of the Autism Society of America.
“I am a total visual thinker,” Grandin said. “An animal is a sensory-based thinker. Their memories are going to be in pictures, smells and sounds. They are very sensitive to tone of voice. There’s a whole world of cognition without having language.”
Grandin said animals have emotional systems capable of fear, rage, separation anxiety, curiosity and more. She said these emotions have been mapped in neuroscience literature but not in veterinary literature, so what is known in one scientific field has not been discovered or applied in another.
“Neuroscience has its journals; veterinary and animal behavior sciences have theirs,” Grandin said. “People usually don’t cross disciplines, but I have always tried to.”
She earned a doctorate degree in animal science from the University of Illinois and worked for more than 20 years in industry before becoming a professor at Colorado State University. She has been involved in animal behavior studies since she took neuroscience classes in her graduate work and began reading neuroscience journals extensively.
“When I started out in my work, I noticed that when cattle went up the veterinary chute, they were afraid of things like a chain hanging down, a coat on a fence or a shiny reflection. They noticed little visual details that most people fail to notice,” Grandin said.
Grandin began giving tips on how to handle animals better and became a livestock handling equipment designer. Today, half the cattle in the United States are handled at packing plants using a restrainer system that she developed.
Grandin has insight into animals’ emotions and thinking because hers is similar.
“If you don’t have a verbal language, the only other way the brain can store information is in sensory-based ways. There is no other way,” Grandin said. “People with autism process information in the primary visual cortex. When I access my memory, I go into the graphics files, which in most people are hidden under the language.”
Grandin said there is good clinical evidence that this is the way animals think.
“The brain makes file folders and puts sensory-based information in them,” she said. “In a normal human being, language covers up the more sensory parts of the brain. I don’t think with the language parts of the brain. In the animal and human brain, the desktop is language. Underneath that is visual, sensory based.”
Grandin’s expertise has resulted in seven books, two of which have been on the New York Times best seller lists. Her most recent is Animals Make Us Human, and she has several hundred industry publications, book chapters and technical papers on animal handling, plus 45 refereed journal articles. An HBO movie based on her life and starring Claire Danes will be released in February.
While animal science is her “real job,” as she calls it, she also is heavily involved in autism education. She tries to educate audiences on the science of autism, what is being learned about the disorder and its wide spectrum.
“There are a lot of kids with the milder forms of autism, and I want to see those kids developed to their potential,” Grandin said.
Jennifer Burgess coordinated the Human-Animal Bond lecture series for the veterinary college. She said Grandin was chosen as keynote speaker because she uses her unique perspective to discuss the wellbeing of many species.
“The No. 1 goal of this series is to get people to see that the human-animal bond involves animals beyond our pets,” Burgess said. “Companion animals play an extremely important role in our lives, but so do many other species. Mississippians are fortunate to be exposed to wildlife and production animals through farming, and that enhances our experiences with the human-animal bond.”
Burgess said Grandin’s comments were well received, and her audience appreciated her insights into both animal handling and autism. The lecture series allows the CVM to involve the community, and CVM students were given information on issues they will deal with in their careers but may not have been exposed to yet.
“As a teaching institution, whenever MSU can make learning enjoyable and accessible, that’s a win-win situation,” Burgess said. “MSU becomes known for providing quality programs, interested parties in the community form networks and people begin to think about things in new ways.”
Contact: Dr. Jennifer Burgess, (662) 325-3712