GUESTWORDS: Thinking in Pictures

By John de Cuevas

    I recently flew to Fort Worth, Tex., to attend a dinner in honor of Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science. I assume that most readers know who she is, but for those who don’t, I suggest visiting her Web site at grandin.com. The dinner was sponsored by the American Humane Association and held at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Before the dinner, a friend who works for the association, knowing of my interest in animal behavior and human psychology, introduced me to Dr. Grandin and ushered us into a small room where we talked for about an hour.
    Dr. Grandin is a plain, sturdy woman in her mid-60s with intense blue-gray eyes and a shock of gray hair tied loosely in back. She favors colorful cowgirl shirts and boots, and that afternoon she wore a yellow four-in-hand that gave her a dashing appearance. At first, her face was expressionless. She stared ahead at nothing in particular, and when we shook hands, she looked down at the floor. She made eye contact only after we sat down and started talking. Then her face came alive with an intense look that lent weight to everything she said.
    She struck me as direct, down-to-earth, highly intelligent, and well informed on the subjects we talked about. At the same time she seemed wanting in those everyday social skills we normally take for granted that make a conversation go smoothly. For example, she began and ended her bouts of speech abruptly, waiting until I asked a question before she spoke again. It was also a one-sided conversation in that she never asked me about myself. But I knew about her autism before I met her, and her idiosyncrasies didn’t surprise or bother me.
    The first question I asked was about autism, how she experienced it and dealt with it. She explained that autism is a developmental disorder that affects people differently. “It’s a continuum with many degrees of severity,” she remarked, and went on to say that many autistic people lead productive lives in spite of, or perhaps because of, their autism, “Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, for instance, and a lot of people in Silicon Valley.”
    “I think in pictures,” she said. “When I think about anything, I have clear pictures in my head, like a movie. That’s the way I think. I can’t help it.”
    Our conversation ranged over many aspects of human and animal psychology, how children and animals think and learn, what the best methods of training are (positive reinforcement), and how teachers and trainers get the best results when they’re aware of the particular strengths, abilities, and intelligences of the creatures they work with and foster those inherent qualities rather than try to suppress or override them.
    Since early childhood, Dr. Grandin has had a special affinity with, and feeling for, animals. Her first love was horses, then cattle, but she relates easily to all animals. She talked about chickens, remarking on how they bob their heads when they walk and how that natural behavior makes them comfortable and puts them at ease. How cruel, then, to confine them in cages where they haven’t enough room to walk and bob their heads.
    Cattle, she said, don’t like being prodded and yelled at, which is what we humans unthinkingly do when herding them into corrals or the chutes that lead them to slaughter. “It frightens and confuses them,” she said. In the abattoirs she designs, workers are forbidden to prod the animals or to yell at them. But inevitably a few individuals do just that, so she has introduced TV cameras to monitor what goes on and insists that those workers who consistently break the rules be let go.
    I asked her about the “squeeze machine,” a device she invented in her youth that consisted of a pair of wooden boards hinged together in such a way that she could get between them and gently press them against her body. She found great comfort in the physical pressure, she said, even though she doesn’t use the machine anymore. It was a way of lessening sensory overload, whether from sights or sounds or touch.
    Oversensitivity to stimuli is part of her autism — she is careful, for example, about the clothes she wears, preferring a loose fit — but it’s also what allows her to relate to animals. “A dog or a cow is like an autistic human being,” she said, explaining that they are acutely sensitive to the nuances of behavior in others, particularly humans. We ought to be aware of how we come across to them, she added, and how hurtful and disturbing some of our actions and behaviors can be.
    I told Dr. Grandin about my own interest in animals, which also began at an early age. First it was dogs, but I fell in love with horses when my family spent a summer at a ranch in Montana, where I learned to ride. I was 8 years old at the time. Later I rode with a Russian cavalry officer well known for his gifts as a trainer. I described his method as positive reinforcement combined with patience and kindness. He never punished an animal but rewarded it immediately with a caress and a gentle word of praise whenever it performed in the manner he wished for. He took the same approach with his human trainees. He said little, but when he spoke, it was always with a few words of praise and encouragement.
    Dr. Grandin nodded in approval and said it wasn’t surprising that the same basic approach worked in classrooms and workplaces. Find ways to praise before you criticize or correct, whether you’re working with animals or people. Her expression turned to one of impatience at the thought that some people don’t get it. Perhaps they themselves were abused or punished early in life, she ventured, and then internalized the notion of punishment as a means of controlling the behavior of others. It just doesn’t work.
    We talked along those lines until it was time for dinner. About 150 guests turned up for it, and I had the honor of being placed at the same table as Dr. Grandin. Once again I noticed that she avoided making eye contact, although she turned in the direction of those she spoke to, as she has undoubtedly trained herself to do, knowing that it’s what people expect even though it’s not a behavior that comes naturally to her.
    Later that evening, Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and C.E.O. of the American Humane Association, introduced Dr. Grandin and presented her the association’s National Humanitarian Medal “for her inspirational work and her lifelong dedication to animal welfare.” Dr. Grandin went up to the podium to say a few words of thanks, and the audience gave her a standing ovation.
    Back home in Amagansett, I think of Dr. Grandin whenever I see chickens walking around freely, bobbing their heads, or whenever I encounter dogs, those autistic creatures who lack language. We are all of a kind, each of us with a place on the continuum of life.
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    John de Cuevas has been a summer resident of Amagansett since 1958. Now retired, he was until recently a science teacher and writer at Harvard and Lesley Universities in Cambridge, Mass.