Can Autism Help Explain Animal Behavior?

If there is such a thing as a rock star in the animal welfare business, it might be Temple Grandin.

She has single-handedly improved the lives of countless livestock -- millions of animals from the foothills of Colorado to the Canadian plains. Her animal welfare guidelines have become the gold standard in the $80 billion meat packing industry.

At her suggestion, electric prods have been replaced with plastic paddles. Workers are trained not to shout at the cattle, and plants are regularly audited to determine how well they're reducing animal stress.

Today, more than half the cattle in the United States and Canada are processed through cattle handling systems that she has designed.

But the key to the 57-year-old Grandin's expertise is not just her doctorate in animal science. Rather, it's the fact that she's autistic -- and her belief that animals and autistics perceive the world in similar ways.

"I don't like seeing people abuse cattle. Cattle feel fear, cattle feel pain," Grandin told ABC News' Jay Schaedler. "We owe animals a decent life."

A World Through Senses

In her current best seller, "Animals in Translation," Grandin argues that both autistics and animals are hypersensitive -- skittish in a sense -- to the tiniest changes in their environments.

They perceive the world not through words or a written language, but through their senses: Sounds, smells, touch and sight.

Animals are visual thinkers, she said. One of her favorite examples is the squirrel, who buries his nuts in a wide variety of different places.

"How does he remember that?" she asked. "After the nut has been buried, the squirrel rears up -- click -- and like takes a picture of what the surroundings look like. And then they store all these pictures."

Grandin said this is the same way she finds her car when she parks at the airport.

Many autistics are also visual thinkers, Grandin said. She likened her mind to "Google for Images": "If you put in a key word it pulls up pictures," she said.

Picking Her Battles

This kind of perspective helped Grandin when she was called upon to redesign a feedlot. She took a cattle's eye view of the facility, recording what it would be like for an animal to move through it.

She saw how the cattle -- like some people with autism -- would fixate on sensory details: a coat hung on a fence or a man walking in front of a chute. A scrap of paper might even spook them.

So she redesigned the old square pens into long curved metal chutes, eliminating sharp edges while taking advantage of cattle's natural instinct to walk in circles.

"The reason for making it curved is because the cattle come on around the bend, they think they're going back to where they came from."

Grandin's animal welfare crusade has often been waged one rancher at a time. She was not only an unwelcome presence because she would get upset when animals were being handled poorly, but because she was often a lone woman among cowboys and ranchers.

"I got kicked out of a feed yard in the '70s because they said the cowboys' wives wouldn't like it and then they went and decorated my car with bull testicles," she said.

Personal History

Grandin is comfortable in mainstream society today, but she has had a long struggle with her autism. She didn't speak until she was 4 years old.

As a teenager, she was more talkative but had a quirky personality that estranged her from nearly everyone but her immediate family. Like many autistics, she had a steel trap memory but virtually no social skills.

"Tape recorder" was her nickname. "I didn't have that much information in my brain, so I had just a few pre-recorded phrases that I would use," she said.

The nickname bothered her, she said. "Autistic people have emotions. Very strong emotions." When she was 14, a girl called her a retard and Grandin threw a book at her.

Squeeze Machine

To complicate matters, Grandin, like some other autistics, was often nearly paralyzed with anxiety. "It was like a constant state of stage fright," she said. "Imagine if you had that kind of nervousness and anxiety all the time for no reason."

But then at 16, Grandin had a revelation of sorts. While on vacation at her aunt's ranch in Arizona, she noticed cattle being placed inside a contraption shaped like a 'v' to keep them still during vaccinations.

They appeared almost serene when they were in the machine. "So I went and tried out the squeeze chute and got in the squeeze chute," she said. "I found that the pressure helped calm me down."

She wound up building her own squeeze machine, which she uses to this day. "It's a lot nicer with padding in it." The same kinds of devices are now also being used at many schools specializing in autistic children. For the children, whose nervous systems seem to operate in hyper-drive, the simple pressure provides a calming release.

An Obligation

Temple's insights stand in stark contrast to her relations with another member of the animal kingdom: Humans.

"You won't catch me dead in a singles bar. That is too socially complicated. I just don't do that," she said.

By "complicated" she means too many nonverbal cues that go right over her head. And her hypersensitivity means a "hug" from a person can be less comforting than one from her old squeeze machine.

But then again, most of the subjects of her expertise -- animals -- will be killed for food. It's a contradiction not lost on Grandin.

"We should care about the cattle and their last moments. But we also need to be making sure that through the whole life of the animal, it has a good life," she said.

Dr. Temple Grandin's website is: www.templegrandin.com

American Meat Institute: www.meatami.com

PETA: www.peta.org

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