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Temple Grandin, animal behavorist and sufferer from autism June 1, 2009

Posted by thedukeofurl in Animal Behavior, Philosophy, Psychology.
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Temple Grandin is a remarkable person by any reasonble definition. I have been aware of her work and the insights she has into animal behavior for a number of years. A film of her life and achievements is due to come out this year entitled simply Temple Grandin.

Her achievements are all the more remarkable because she is severly autistic. As terrible as this is, she has been able to utilize her autism in some way to better understand the ways in which animals “see” their world. She is an animal behaviorist at the University of Colorado and a consultant to livestock producers, solving some of their most perplexing problems; she has also designed livestock enclosures and related apparatuses that she contends renders the animals’ treatment more humane. She is also a superb draftswoman.

However, don’t take my word for this. She describes herself in terms of Oliver Sacks’ phrase, ‘an anthropologist from Mars’ and I highly recommend her own writing – the content I found astonishing.

Thinking in Pictures (1995);

Animals in Translation (2005); and the newly published

Making Animals Happy: How to Create the Best Life for Pets and Other Animals (2009).

She has her own web site and there are videos on youtube.

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A critical assessment of Grandin’s thesis, put forward in Animals in Translation, that animals are cognitively much like autistic humans, including a response by Grandin, can be found at http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060042 (“Are Animals Autistic Savants”: 2008).   Grandin contends that humans think narratively with language, while animals, lacking language, think in sensory terms. Animals also attend to details at the expense of the overall picture, which she claims is what those with autism do. The authors disagree with this and contend that animals and humans are not dissimilar in the ways they attend to detail, using data from brain function studies in animals to support their case.

The article is exceedingly interesting and I recommend it without endorsing its conclusions. I am neutral with respect to Grandin’s hypothesis as well. The article and Grandin’s response is a prime example of how scientific discussion should proceed.