Can Autism Help Explain Animal Behavior?

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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