Diagnosed with autism early in her childhood, Temple Grandin’s seemingly improbable success as an animal behavior scientist and designer of livestock-handling equipment has made her a bestselling author and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2010. Later today, the 63-year-old author, scientist and advocate will speak at Duke University for the talk “My Experience with Animals.”
Grandin, who received an honorary doctorate from Duke last year, spoke with us by telephone recently.
“I talk a lot about visual thinking, and animal behavior, and trying to combining those things together, and how being a visual thinker helped me in my animal behavior work,” says Grandin.
“And it’s Duke’s Women’s Studies group, so I’ll talk about getting started in the 1970s in a man’s world, which was real, real difficult.”
Grandin’s work came into the spotlight last year when HBO aired a TV-movie, Temple Grandin, which went on to win seven Emmy awards, including one for Claire Danes for her portrayal of Grandin.
“Oh man, I’ve gotten so much busier!” says Grandin of the film’s success. “All I do now is travel, giving talks.”
Indeed, our conversation takes place during a layover between flights to different appearances. After appearing at Duke, she’ll hop a plane to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the American Meat Institute.
She describes herself as “sort of like Google for pictures,” and is impressed by how more defined the autism spectrum has become since she was growing up.
“Half of Silicon Valley has something you’d call Asperger’s—I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg has something like that,” Grandin says. “You’d almost have to have a touch of Asperger’s to be that good a programmer. Social circuits take up a pile of processor space in the brain, and then you don’t have the processor space to make stuff like Facebook.”
In some ways, she feels that the advancements in technology and social media have helped humans develop a more fractured type of visual thinking closer to animals, though in some ways this worries her.
“To create something like Google, people had to sit still for hundreds of hours to learn how to program,” Grandin says. “We’re getting a lot of people today texting all the time, fragmenting their attention. It’s ironic that the thing that they text on has to be made by someone who is not distracted and is looking at information in whole bits for long periods of time.”
Grandin says that while she stays focused on her work, she appreciates the effect that her story has on people. “I get students, young kids on the spectrum, telling me, ‘Your movie’s motivating me to study harder in school,’ or someone will e-mail me saying, ‘My kid’s an Eagle Scout now because of your book.’”
“That’s the sort of stuff that motivates me—it’s sort of like I’ve got a new job now.”
Grandin appears at the Baldwin Auditorium on Duke’s East Campus at 4:30 p.m.; the talk is free and open to the public, but the event is now full; tickets are no longer available.