A Woman I Admire Writing Competition Spring 2018
Mary Temple Grandin's life has run a remarkable course during which she has used her unique talents to build a career as a respected scientist. She has transformed the welfare of countless animals and improved scientific and public understanding of autism. Born in Boston in 1947, fate seemed to have dealt her a rather mixed hand. On the one hand she was autistic at a time when the condition was poorly recognised and much misunderstood: her father wanted to follow the medical recommendation of institutional care. However, she also had the good fortune to be born into a very wealthy family which enabled her mother to hire staff, including a speech therapist, to work intensively with her at a young age. She has said that without this input her life could have been very different.
Despite Temple's privileged background her teenage years were very difficult and following expulsion from school she moved to a boarding establishment for emotionally troubled youngsters. Such an event might at first sight appear to be a negative experience, but it was here that she was taught by a science teacher, Mr Carlock, whom she credits with directing her special interests into productive learning. Under his guidance she designed a ‘squeeze box’, using pressure to reduce her anxiety levels. She progressed successfully to higher education, culminating in a doctorate in animal science in 1989. The experience of sensory overload related to autism enabled her to understand the stresses experienced by commercial livestock during handling. In combination with her unusual visual thinking she was able to design stress-reducing animal handling systems. Dr Grandin also supervised research which proved that calmer animals had better weight gain, providing a commercial incentive for the livestock industry to adopt her methods. She has published widely on animal behaviour in scientific journals. Temple Grandin has also spoken extensively about her experience of autism, such as hypersensitivity to noise, and has published books on the subject including Thinking in Pictures in 1995. She has developed her ideas about autism over time, for example by removing references to being a ‘recovered autistic’ from later editions of her books.
I first heard about Dr Grandin when studying animal welfare at university and first and foremost I have great admiration for her success in improving welfare at slaughter — a process meat-eaters and animal-lovers alike usually prefer not to think about. As a shy and reserved person myself I also admire her openness in talking about her own experiences and although some of her views have proved controversial (such as her refusal to attend talks by autistic people unless they hold down a job) her overall aim seems always to improve the lives of others, whether human or animal. Dr Grandin's story is not about overcoming a disability. Instead her life continues to be about making use of her very specific and unusual skills, inextricably linked to her autism, to make an enormously positive difference in the world.