Temple Grandin, PhD., wants kids — especially those on the autism spectrum — to start using their hands again. The woman Oliver Sacks called “the anthropologist on Mars” explains how our brains may be naturally wired to think in words, mathematics, or visuals, and there’s nothing disordered about any of them.
Dr. Grandin urges us to respect our young visual thinkers and celebrate their strengths instead of labeling them with disabilities.
Phil Stieg: Hello. My guest today is Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University. With her fascinating ability to understand how animals think, she transformed the cattle and livestock industry with a revolutionary re-design of handling facilities and slaughterhouses. But she is probably best known as an advocate for people like herself who are on the autism spectrum. She has provided enormous insight into how those with neurodivergent brains see the world.
I spoke with Temple about how individual brains are wired to think in different ways, including Visual Thinking, the title of her new book. In our conversation, she shares some insights into how her brain works – freely associating images and sensations in a manner that reveals a uniquely brilliant mind.
Temple, thank you for being with us today.
Temple Grandin: It’s great to be here.
Phil Stieg: So I think the world owes you a great debt for being so honest about having been born with and lived with autism. I was struck in reading the book, with the complexities of that. Given the era in which you were raised in the 50s, can you tell us a little bit about what that experience was like as a child?
Temple Grandin: Well, I got into very good early speech therapy because I couldn’t talk. When the grown-ups talked fast, it went into gibberish. People had to slow down when they talked to me. Not being able to talk was very, very frustrating. And I had a good childhood. I would spend hours and hours when I was seven or eight years old tinkering with little parachutes I made out of scarves to make them open better, tinkering with little bird kites. I loved making things, and kids today don’t do that anymore. I spent hours stiffening the wings on the bird kite with different amounts of tape to get them to fly better.
Phil Stieg: I was struck by how often you praised your mother. It sounded to me like she was a Florence Nightingale in your life. Do you think that that was extremely important in terms of your ability to navigate the world?
Temple Grandin: My mother always encouraged my ability in art. And I would make the same horse head over and over and over again, and she’d say, “let’s do the whole horse, let’s do the saddle”. She took my interest and she broadened it. It’s really important to broaden these kids interests. Like, if they like cars, let’s read about them, let’s draw them, let’s learn how the engines work, broaden that interest.
Phil Stieg: I also know that you have or take issue with autism being referred to as a disease or disorder, which I’m sure has been done so that doctors can bill for managing the issues. If it’s not going to be called a disease or disorder, how do you like to describe it?
Temple Grandin: In the mildest forms? I think it’s a personality variant. A brain can be more thinking and cognitive or brain can be more social emotional. So probably half the population tends to lean towards the autism where interesting things I think about is more important than social emotional. Now, at what point does it get severe enough to put a label on it? Because the problem is we’ve got programmers out in Silicon Valley that are probably autistic, and I worked with people that built metal equipment for me all kinds of mechanically complicated equipment that were probably autistic and they have the same name as somebody who can’t dress themselves. Einstein would land in an autism class today. He had no speech until age three. And then you got individuals very severely impacted and it all has the same name. To me that doesn’t make much sense.
I’m a visual thinker, so I’m seeing examples of the different people, computer people I’ve known that I know are on the spectrum.
Phil Stieg: It kind of leads into your concept about neurodivergence. And as I think about it in reading your book is the spectrum as you just kind of outlined there’s mild autism and then there’s severe autism. Once you get labeled, it’s problematic. But what do you mean by neurodivergence?
Temple Grandin: Well, in my book Visual Thinking, I discuss different kinds of thinking and I’m an extreme object visualizer. Everything I think about is a picture. Now I didn’t even know that verbal thinking existed till I was in my late thirties. And in my book Visual Thinking, I actually present some of the science to show that this object visualizers like me, we’re good at mechanics and art. Then there is the visual-spatial mathematical pattern thinker. That’s mathematics and music. And then you have word thinking. Now, most people that don’t have a label are mixtures of the different kinds of thinking, but you get somebody who has a label autism, ADHD, dyslexia, they tend to be more extreme, maybe a more extreme mathematician or a more extreme object visualizer.
I’m going to estimate that 20% of the skilled people that laid out entire factories and also built mechanical devices for me were either Autistic, Dyslexic or ADHD. I went back to all the projects where I spent a lot of time out on the construction project, and I go, “yeah, I’m sure this guy here with 20 patents, and right now he’s selling complicated hydraulic equipment all over the world, and he would absolutely be labeled autistic if he was a kid today.”
Phil Stieg: I think one of the reasons I went into neurosurgery is because I view myself as more as a visual learner and I can see things in three dimensions. And that’s why I gravitated towards a surgical subspecialty rather than something that really spent a lot of time on verbal components.
Temple Grandin: But the problem is, some of the best surgeons are probably getting screened out by all the calculus and algebra requirements. And I don’t think you use calculus or algebra to do neurosurgery. And this is something that really concerns me.
Phil Stieg: I think the biggest hurdle for most medical students or pre-medical students is organic chemistry. Yeah, I know you emphasize how algebra in high school was such a barrier for many of the visual thinkers.
Temple Grandin: Well, you see, there’s nothing there to visualize. Now. I can remember a specific formula like pi times the radius squared for sizing hydraulic cylinders because that’s related back to a real thing. And I’m seeing hydraulic cylinders and all kinds of equipment like an excavator or something like that, that the cylinder is on.
Phil Stieg: Why do visual thinkers relate to animals better? Or is that a supposition of yours?
Temple Grandin: No, I think they relate to animals better. Now, if a person is a total verbal thinker, they might have a hard time imagining that a dog or some other animal can think. So I always tell veterinary students when I talk to them, animals live in a sensory based world, not a word-based world. What are they smelling, hearing, seeing? It’s sensory based. And there are still some people that don’t think animals think. And it gets down to basically verbal thinking versus sensory based thinking.
It’s been interesting looking at the affiliations of the authors that write this stuff. Okay, Computer science people, they’ll accept the dog thinks. Some of the highly verbal people coming out of humanity is the psych department. They’re more likely to deny animal spot. It’s really interesting. I just look up where what department at the university where they were in.
And I just recently, (and this is not in the Visual Thinking book) I read about some Cornell research done with DTI imaging with dogs. And they discovered that a dog is a giant internet circuit going from the olfactory bulb for the nose to the visual cortex.
Phil Stieg: So smell connected with vision.
Temple Grandin: Smell pictures! Dogs have smell pictures. Now, I show that to the veterinary students when I talk to them.
Phil Stieg: How is your visual thinking? And I guess that’s the question then is do you also have a stronger sense of smell and hearing and tactile that relates to your visual thinking and the impact that’s had in terms of the humane treatment of livestock?
Temple Grandin: Well, my hearing. I don’t hear auditory detail that well. I have a lot of difficulty screening out background noise and hearing conversations with restaurants. I’ve always had that problem. I had problems with scratchy clothing. But you see, when I visualize something, then I can also get the smell. I can get the touch and the sound. But everything in my database is visually indexed and I can search it just like Google for images. It’s total bottom up thinking. So the more things I get out and see, I can think better because there’s more data in the database.
So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Chat GPT that let’s say we went back the old internet archives, like the first year of the Internet. I don’t think Chat GPT would write very good stuff. Also on those programs that take pictures and invent pictures, the Dalli program. I was reading in one of them, Wired magazine, one of those programs, the way it finds the pictures is they have to have captions. In other words, if the picture doesn’t have a caption, it doesn’t put it in the database. So words are attached there. But of course, when I search my database, obviously words are, you might want to try giving me a keyword and don’t make something that I can see now, like house or car or something boring. Think up a creative keyword and I will tell you how I search my database. Inside my head.
Phil Stieg: MRI scanner.
Temple Grandin: Well I’m seeing now all the scans, okay, I’ve had too much familiarity with that. Pick out something that maybe I’d be something. You would. I’m also seeing some very poor technique they did on actual research study I was in, which I’m not going to mention because I don’t know, it was in a very fancy hospital and they were going to line up on line up Pet scans with MRI scans. And the way they did it was just sloppy. I couldn’t believe it. And we’ll just leave it at that. And I’m seeing it right now.
Phil Stieg: How about scuba diving?
Temple Grandin: I’ve only done it once and I was in a swimming pool. So I’ve got the scuba gear on. I remember the sensation of being able to breathe underwater. I can feel it. I also can feel that the mouthpiece was one size too big and hurt a little bit, but I see it first what it looked like. But now I’m feeling a weird feeling of breathing underwater. It was so weird.
Now I’m also seeing a lot of the Jake Cousteau movies. I’m seeing that movie The Abyss. I’m seeing that and I can go different threads. Like where the place where I did the scuba diving – The one time I did it, I was in a summer program for autistic kids and I was an aide. So now I’m seeing some games that we’ve played with them. So I could either go on a big oceanography scuba diving memories or something into the autism field. Because the pool where I actually tried out scuba equipment was at this autism program. And then I also did some other things with some of the staff. I made an alarm, a burglar alarm for a motorcycle. So I’m seeing that that was something I did when I was at that place.
Phil Stieg: Do you think that we’re making progress in society debunking the concept of you’re a little autistic so you should be marginalized? And making people realize that there is this spectrum of visual, verbal and mathematical, and thereby accepting the way they approach the world and getting them incorporated into society better.
Temple Grandin: Now, I do a lot of talks to all kinds of large businesses steel companies, airlines, travel companies, banks, computer companies, motion picture companies, just all kinds of things. And I said, you need these skills. You need the visual thinkers that are working out in the maintenance shop right now at that steel mill to keep the mill from falling apart. You are going to need some visual thinkers like me. And you need the mathematical thinkers to program computers. Let’s look at automation in a factory. My kind of mind makes the tool on the end of the robot’s arm and a computer scientist programs it. You need both.
Phil Stieg: Yeah. Do you think the educational system is biased towards the verbal, mathematical individual?
Temple Grandin: Yes I do. And I get asked, what would I do to fix the educational system?
Phil Stieg: Before I ask that, I want to ask, why do you think it’s biased in that direction? Do they get something out of it?
Temple Grandin: Well, there was always a tendency to kind of look at, oh, the stupid kids take shop. But I can tell you working on big, complicated factories like Cargill, for example, where I spent a lot of time out on the job. The visual thinkers inventing that equipment, it’s a different type of intelligence, and I’m very concerned about skill loss right now. If you want a poultry processing plant, you’re going to have to import the equipment from Holland. And we’re paying the price for taking out the shop classes because many of the people I worked with that built big, complicated things took a single welding class in high school, and that’s what got them started.
Phil Stieg: So I’ll ask the question you thought I was going to ask. How would you change it?
Temple Grandin: When I was doing the book signing for Visual Thinking, one of the talks I did was in a school. And I sat and talked to the principal for an hour. He did not know that my kind of visual thinking existed. He only thought verbal and mathematical thinking existed. That’s the problem. In 2022, October, when the book was released, I was talking to this principle. He did not know that my kind of mind even existed. And I said, who’s going to keep the AC on in your school?
I would put the hands-on classes back into schools sewing, cooking, woodworking, music, theater, welding, auto shop. I’d put all these things back into the schools. And then a lot of these kids that are different, they have a place where they could really shine and show off their work. And we need. The. Skills. Period. There’s stuff we’re not making anymore.
(Interstitial Theme Music)
Narrator: Temple Grandin grew up in the 1950’s, living with what we now know as autism, but which at the time was diagnosed as brain damage. Popular culture provided very few role models for those who were neuro atypical, as she was. Representation in film and TV was either stereotyped, negative, or both.
From Conan-Doyle’s quirky genius Sherlock Holmes through Steinbeck’s “Lenny” – the child-like farm hand in “Of Mice and Men” – positive depictions of characters with neurodivergent brains were nearly non-existent.
Excerpt from “Rainman”
“I am an excellent driver…”
Narrator: Even Dustin Hoffman’s 1988 portrayal of an autistic man in the film “Rain Man” – as endearing as it is – was criticized for perpetuating the stereotype of the savant, and for treating autism as a disabling condition. A true breakthrough for neurodivergent characters had to wait until 2007…
Excerpt from “The Big Bang Theory” TV theme
…when a TV series chronicling the lives of an engineer, an astronomer, and two physicists became the number one sitcom on American television: “The Big Bang Theory.”
As actress Mayim Bialik (an actual neuroscience PhD) explained to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on his podcast “Star Talk Live”, the series creators took great care to treat their neuro-divergent characters with respect.
Tyson: “What’s interesting to me is that they each have some kind of psychological issues. I think your “love interest”, which is Sheldon, I think he comes closest to what anyone might describe as having Asperger’s or some other type of non-social behavior.”
Bialik: “Right. So all of our characters are in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say. Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger’s or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he’s got a lot of that precision that we see in OCD. There’s a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially.
I think what’s interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is we don’t pathologize our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them. And I think that’s what’s interesting for those of us who are unconventional people or who know and love people who are on any sort of spectrum, we often find ways to work around that. It doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labelled.
And what we’re trying to show with our show is that this is a group of people who likely were teased, mocked, told that they will never be appreciated or loved, and we have a group of people who have successful careers, active social lives (that involve things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games), but they also have relationships, and that’s a fulfilling and satisfying life. And that’s what we try to show on our show.” (applause)
Narrator: Temple Grandin reached her potential due largely to the support of her mother, who never treated her as disabled. Children today are growing up in a world in which neurodiversity is better understood. And representation matters, so seeing characters on The Big Bang Theory, The Queens Gambit, and other shows can make a real difference.
Phil Stieg: You’re not implying that all visual thinkers should be put into the autistic spectrum, are you?
Temple Grandin: No, No, No, No, there are some visual thinkers that are definitely not autistic. But when you have people with autism now, the thing is, not all autistics are visual thinkers. You have the object visualizer like me who can’t do algebra. Then you’ve got the mathematical autistic person that’s programming computers, and some of them are running Silicon Valley. And then there’s a word type autistic thinker that loves facts about their favorite thing. It might be movies or sports statistics. And they love lists, and they’ll know every feature on something. And they often are very good at jobs in specialized retail, for example, selling cars, because they’ll know the feature of every single car on the lot.
Phil Stieg: I could tell you’re fascinated by the utility of functional MRI scans.
Temple Grandin: Yes, I’m very fascinated.
Phil Stieg: It’s a gadget. What did you learn about your brain with functional MRI in terms of visual thinking?
Temple Grandin: Functional MRI, I learned that my amygdala was bigger than normal. My fear center, my Cerebellum, was 20% smaller. With DTI imaging, I learned I had gigantic visual thinking circuits that other people don’t have.
Phil Stieg:I just want to clarify for the audience. And when you refer to DTI, it’s Diffusion Tensor Imaging. It’s a way of looking at the fiber tracks within the brain that connect various brain regions.
Temple Grandin: Yup, and that I have giant cables for visual thinking that’s right. That other people don’t have. And that my “speak what I say circuit” was smaller. That was super interesting. And then the things like I was more interested in looking at pictures of things than at faces. I remember that was functional MRI. And what I was doing, they were showing me all these old slides and I’m going, where did they get some of those old pictures. There was cars in them. I’m trying to figure out what year would those cars have been that they showed.
Phil Stieg: You refer to being a visual thinker as a gift. How has it been a gift for you?
Temple Grandin: Well, it’s made me very good at doing design work, because I can just see it. Now in my book Visual Thinking, I have a chapter on disasters, and we need to have visual thinkers to help prevent disasters, because the more mathematically inclined engineer – he will calculate risk.
Take Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Meltdown. When I found out why that happened, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was a visual thinking mistake so elementary. Watertight doors would have saved it to protect the electric emergency pump from drowning. And it only took me 30 minutes on Google to look up that the tsunami would breach a ten meter sea wall. 30 minutes. It’s all it took me to research that.
And I go, how could they do this, not have watertight doors? I can’t design a nuclear reactor, but all I know is electric pumps don’t run underwater. And if that pump doesn’t run when I need it, I’m in so much trouble it’s not funny.
Phil Stieg: Aside from you, who would be another stellar example of a visual thinker?
Temple Grandin: Well – Michelangelo. And in my book, he’s profiled. And I spent a lot of time looking that stuff up and ordered some of the books about him. And I found out he was twelve year old school dropout and kind of a naughty little kid. But he was running around all these churches looking at great art. You see that’s exposure running around churches that were commissioning all this great art. He also grew up with stone cutting tools. You see that’s exposure. Then he started doing some drawings, he started making some things and then an artist saw him and apprenticed him.
You see exposure first, then mentoring. Now what would happen to little Mikey today? He’d probably be playing video games in the basement instead of making David
Phil Stieg: He’s a naughty boy. He’d probably be in jail.
Temple Grandin: Yeah. I’ll tell you what he did that was naughty. He borrowed a drawing and then he copied it and he gave the owner the copy back and got away with it!
Phil Stieg: And I think the thing that’s important for society is you talk about the collaborations between visual and verbal thinkers. I certainly think and agree with you that we need more of that. You talk about Jobs and Wozniak and Rogers and Hammerstein.
Temple Grandin: That’s right, yes.
Phil Stieg: This gets back to your neuro divergence. How do you see that interplay working between two individuals like that?
Temple Grandin: The first step is you have to realize different thinking exists. I’ve done a lot of talks to corporations and they ask me what the first step is. The first step is you have to realize different kinds of thinking exist. That’s your first step. And they use different ways of doing things and different ways of problem solving.
And when I was younger, I was very young, I used to say the suits were stupid. Those are the verbal thinkers. Now I’m realizing it’s a different kind of thinking because a lot of startup companies get started up and then they got to hire somebody that’s more verbal just to run the business so they can crank out the work. But the first step is realizing different kinds of thinking exist.
When Betsy and I worked on the book Visual Thinking, we were fully aware of our differences in how we think. My wonderful verbal co-author Betsy Learner, it was our big COVID lockdown project. And I would do the initial drafts, visual thinkers, associative of thinking. They’re not that organized. And Betsy, my wonderful verbal coauthor, would straighten everything out. And we were a great team and we understood that our thinking patterns were different.
Phil Stieg: Yeah. How is this providing meaning in your life?
Temple Grandin: Well, the things that give me meaning I’ve done a lot of work to improve how cattle and animals are treated. That gives meaning in my life. I also get meaning in my life when a parent says to me that one of my books enabled their kid to go to college or their kid got a job and bought a house. That gives meaning to my life. The things I do work to improve something.
Phil Stieg: Is that what drives you? Or is it trying to help everybody understand what the autism spectrum is? Or both,
Temple Grandin: Well, I want to see the kids that are different get out and do things that make a positive difference in the world. Because there’s too many kids that are getting addicted to video games, probably get involved in crime and some other bad things when they ought to be using their abilities to do things that are constructive.
Phil Stieg: So my last question: what’s next for Temple Grandin? you still look young, vibrant, and I can just see with all your animation, you’ve got the energy. So what are you going to do?
Temple Grandin: Well, I just gave talks at two different universities, animal science departments, veterinary colleges, and inspiring students. I still do autism meetings because I want to help the young people now that are different be successful. People ask me how I respond, all the attention I get. Someone comes up to me at the airport and wants a picture. I say, it’s a responsibility.
One of the reasons why I wrote the book about visual thinking is I want to see these kids that are different get out and get a great career. Some of the most fun stuff I ever did in my life is we’d be sitting in a job trailer trying to figure out how to build stuff. That was some of the most fun stuff I ever did.
Phil Stieg: Temple Grandin, thank you so much for enlightening us on the different ways of thinking, most importantly, in the visual perspective. I think it’s incredibly important to hear your opinions on our educational system and hopefully change the way we go about training young visual thinkers.
Thank you so much for being with us.
Temple Grandin: Thank you for having me. And the first thing is, people have to realize that different ways of thinking exist.
Phil Stieg: Yes. Couldn’t agree more. Couldn’t agree more.