Features & Columns
Autism & the Silicon Valley
Temple Grandin—and some of its most famous minds have had autistic traits
In a bizarre twist of cosmic irony, Temple Grandin, the woman responsible for single-handedly revolutionizing livestock handling operations in America, now has a handler of her own.
Grandin is a leading autism activist and animal behavior consultant responsible for designing humane livestock handling mechanisms now used in half the nation's farms. She has grown so popular in the last several years that "she normally has to be pulled away from crowds," says Lyn Dunsavage, Grandin's publicist, "so we have people who handle her." Dunsavage explained this to me over the phone, after I had waited 45 minutes past the time of my scheduled call with Grandin. "Obviously, someone has blown it," she said. She suggested I call Grandin every five minutes until she picks up.
Once I got Grandin on the phone, after an hour and a half, she was in a car en route from one speaking engagement to the next. She had just been at Google, where she informed the crowd that Steve Jobs "definitely had some autistic traits."
Hearing her speak is worth the wait—an experience in and of itself. Her inflection is like choppy waters—parts of her speech are steady, but then certain words are practically shouted. This characteristic was portrayed heavily in the could-have-gone-horribly-wrong HBO film about Grandin's life, Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes. The film chronicles Grandin's young life, including her early social interactions, which were often characterized by Grandin feeling anxious and outcast.
In the film, there is a scene where Grandin's aunt, played by Catherine O'Hara, takes dozens of pictures of Grandin's face making different expressions and then labels each expression. The real Grandin says that was an accurate portrayal of how she learned emotions. "You have to learn what these things mean. Social skills, instead of being instinctual, you gotta teach the child what different facial expressions mean," she says.
That's not to say Grandin and other autistic folks don't have emotions. "We do have emotions. Everything is just simpler. I get real happy, I get real sad. I get angry. You gotta learn to control that one," she says.
Steve Jobs isn't the only famous person Grandin pegged as autistic in her Google presentation. Albert Einstein, too. Einstein didn't speak until he was three years old, which Grandin says is a telltale sign. (She herself didn't speak until four.) But she left it there.
"I said, 'I'm only going to talk about the dead undiagnosed people on the autism spectrum. All the live ones that are here in the Google building, that you know about, I'm not going to talk about.'"
Are there many more people on the autistic spectrum than will own up to it?
"Oh yeah. Basically geeks and nerds and being quirky and socially awkward and a mild autism—there's no difference. They're the same thing," she says .
Grandin famously designed a "hug machine" when she was a teenager—a mechanism that she could go into and the mechanical walls of the machine would tighten around her. It was based on machines used to calm cattle down, and can be preferable to being touched by other humans, for some autistic folks. (For others, it can be as scary as it sounds. A few days after watching the HBO movie, a friend of mine told me he had a nightmare he was trapped inside the machine.) But in 2008 Grandin's personal machine broke and she was quoted a couple years later in Time magazine saying she never got around to fixing it. "I'm into hugging people now," she said.
As an activist for autism, Grandin wrote the book Thinking in Pictures in 1995. She said that before she started doing research for the book she wasn't aware that other people thought differently than her. For example, when she asked her interview subjects to think of a church steeple in their minds, "I was shocked to find out that a lot of people think of this vague generalized kinda spiky image. And I see specific ones, and I can tell you where they're at," she says.
In the book, she describes in detail the feelings of anxiety and fear that she experienced as a girl and a young woman, feeling different from everyone else and not understanding why. But doing the research and the book empowered her, and today she regularly speaks in front of large crowds on the subject of autism.
Silicon Valley is the perfect place for young people with autism and Asperger's to aspire to go, Grandin says. There are uses there for all different kinds of brains. "To have good projects you need to have different kinds of minds working together," she says. "Working together!"
"There are visual thinkers—designers. Then there are more mathematical thinkers—that would be the programmers. And then the word thinkers. I use the example of Steve Jobs being an artist, and he made the user interface for the phone and then the engineers had to make it work," she says.
Most people, Grandin says, are a mixture of a few different kinds of minds. "Then you get somebody with a little bit of autism or something like that, and you tend to get more uneven skills."
She says if an "autistic-type" person is not sure what kind of career path is right, then he or she should find out what kind of mind they have, and pick a career that lines up with how their brain already works. She's worried that too many talented autistic kids are spending all their time playing video games these days. "Now if you're working and designing video games as your job that's one thing," she says. Grandin is big on working. She's big on productivity, on doing things. People should have jobs, she believes. Even if they have challenges.
Grandin was in graduate school the first time she attempted speaking in public. "I was really nervous and I walked out! But you get better just by doing it. You gotta do stuff," she says. "You gotta do stuff!"
Temple Grandin will speak at the Autism & Asperger's Syndrome Conference on Jan. 24 in Monterey.