Temple Grandin’s professional resume is impressive: BS, MS and PhD degrees; dozens of awards and professional papers; author, editor and subject of books and videos; and currently associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin is also autistic, which she credits for her ability to understand how animals see, think and feel. We talk with her about her riveting book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (co-written with Catherine Johnson, PhD).
Claudia Kawczynska: You liken animals to autistic savants. How are animals similar to autistic people?
Temple Grandin: First of all, autistic people don’t think in language, we think in pictures. During my thinking process I have no words in my head at all, just pictures. So if you say the word “teapot,” I start to see teapots, like a teapot slide show of teapots. Animals don’t think in language; they are visual thinkers too. When you think in pictures, it has to be specific in order to form concepts.
Like when I was a little kid—in order to figure out that a dog was different from a cat, I used to sort animals out by size: horses are big, dogs came up to my waist and cats were smaller. But then our next-door neighbors bought a Dachshund—now, there was a dog the same size as a cat! What I figured out was that all dogs—no matter how big or small—had the same nose. I picked out a visual feature that every single dog has that none of the cats had.
People with autism also have tremendous memory and tend to think in details. You probably have seen the Rain Man kind of memory, where people with autism can memorize big parts of a phone book [and] can memorize maps and do number calculations. So let’s look at some of the things that animals do that would be savant-like—let’s take bird migration. Look at Canada geese or other migrating birds. They just have to be shown the route once by the other birds, and they remember the rest. There is no person that could do that.
CK: You point out another difference: Animals don’t have defense mechanisms, such as denial.
TG: It is the same with autistic people—one of the things that blows my mind about normal humans is [their capacity for] denial. When I see that something isn’t going to work, I say so, but when I do, I am accused of being negative! I also think that animals don’t have an unconscious and thus don’t have defense mechanisms. You never see a dog act as if a dangerous situation is safe.
CK: What does it mean to be detail-oriented rather than a generalist?
TG: Visual thinkers of any species, animal or human, are detailed-oriented. They see everything and they react to everything. The big difference between animals and people is that animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things, they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world—normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.
Animals will have place-specific fears. I knew a dog that was hit by a car, and you would think that he would be afraid of cars after that. No, he was afraid of that one spot in the road where he got hit. Because that is what he was looking at the time he was hit. [It was as though] he saw a picture of that spot and would think, “Unh-unh, I’m not going there.”
CK: Do animals have consciousness?
TG: Of course animals have consciousness. The reason that researchers might not think they do is that they can’t imagine thinking without language. But I remember when I was in college, I read that the caveman could not have invented tools without language. I kept saying that is a bunch of BS, because when I design things, I do not use language. I test run equipment in my mind; I can see it in my mind.
CK: You take a rather firm stance on single-trait breeding, citing “rapist roosters” and “needle-nose Collies” as examples of the unintended consequences of this kind of breeding.