Can Autism Help Explain Animal Behavior?

ByABC News
March 10, 2005, 8:50 PM

March 10, 2005 -- -- 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."

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.