Temple Grandin and Me

by Wayne Still

You may have heard of Temple Grandin. She is a professor of animal science and welfare at the University of Colorado. Half the animals managed in commercial stockyards pass through handling facilities which she designed. The design encourages animals to pass through the facility on their own accord with a minimum of stress. She is also possibly the worlds most famous person on the autistic spectrum having had a movie made of her story. Her explanation of the mechanics of autism makes it fairly easy to understand. The brain is made of grey matter and white matter. Grey matter is where intelligence resides. White matter is where the intelligence is translated into communication and action. Think of white matter as a switchboard with many connections going to various parts of the persons being. Now imagine that some of those connections are missing or are connected to the wrong part of the person. Speech, general comprehension, understanding social cues, physical actions can all be affected to the personal detriment of the individual so affected. Temple Grandin is an outstanding example of someone who, with proper training was able to overcome the difficulties associated with autism. As with many others on the spectrum she has a gift, in her case the ability to empathize with animals. She combined this with a skill in designing animal handling facilities which has lead to her fame.

So what does all that have to do with me? A couple of columns ago I alluded to having had social problems in my life. This is particularly true when it comes to interpersonal interactions and communication. Comments I considered to be innocuous were misinterpreted and offence taken sometimes leading to alienation. Social cues which could have lead to a deeper friendship were missed. Relationships which seemed promising dwindled and ended rather than becoming deeper. I became more and more of a loner, happy enough on my own but not very comfortable in social situations where I had to make small talk or engage in conversation with strangers. All these things I was able to recognize as being detrimental to my sense of well being but always thought they were unique to me.

A couple of months ago I read an article on Aspergers Syndrome describing symptoms and life experiences of those with the syndrome. That sounds like me I thought!!! Yes, it was a bit of a downer to think that, in fact, I have a neurological disorder but on the other hand I learned that I am in good company. Einstein, Mozart, Newton, Steve Jobs and a lot of the geeks working in Silicone Valley were or are thought to be Aspies. Apparently the lack of connectedness allows the intelligence to focus on a topic of interest with laser like intensity which allows for great creativity.

Over the holiday period I had time to do some in depth research on the subject. I read quite a bit and was eventually lead to You-Tube and the many videos posted there by people on the spectrum describing their life challenges. Almost all had difficult childhoods being friendless and bullied, my experience too. Many described being overwhelmed by visual and auditory stimuli making “normal” life difficult or impossible. Thankfully I don’t have that problem but I do prefer quiet music to the head banging variety. Interestingly enough when I lived in India and China I found the crowds to be quite stimulating in a good way. But that reinforces the fact that everyone on the spectrum experiences it in their own way. It was often stated that when you meet one person with autism you have met one person with autism.

I am now a septuagenarian and in all have lived a pretty good life as a high functioning, borderline Aspie. At least now I have a better idea of why some situations in my life went as sideways as they did.Temple Grandin has become a role model showing how far a person on the spectrum can go.