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Dr. Temple Grandin may be the most extraordinary person you’ve never heard of. As a leading expert in the field of animal science and humane livestock-handling methodology, Grandin holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois and is the published author of eight books – covering subject matter from animal welfare to social relationships to specialized teaching strategies. Her professional accomplishments have been lauded in major televised news shows and national publications, and in the title essay of neurologist Oliver Sacks‘ 1995 release, An Anthropologist on Mars, a moving account of Grandin’s struggles and successes in experiencing life with autism.

Diagnosed when she was three years old, Grandin credits the support of teachers and mentors throughout her schooling that enabled her to adapt to – and succeed in – life in a neurotypical world. Indeed, rather than impairing her professional work, Grandin has used her considerable talents and skills to far surpass others in her field, raising awareness for the ethical treatment of animals, and creating equipment and methods that, at heart, demonstrate a respect not often witnessed in the cattle industry.

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow – BBC feature

Medical knowledge and understanding of autism is, like most neurological disorders, still in its infancy. A diagnosis of autism is made after the careful analysis of numerous and specific atypical symptoms, such as repetitive behaviors and impaired social skills, rather than a recognized physical impairment. While the causes behind the disorder are still unknown, and there is no known cure, doctors and researchers have committed tremendous energy to addressing the unique behaviors and to helping those with autism develop coping mechanisms that better channel the fixations of the autistic mind.

Grandin has described her mental processes as a video playback machine – working through images, rather than words. When designing complex equipment, Grandin can view the completed machinery in her mind, at any angle, to discern possible engineering problems – all before a single component is welded together. She also uses her encyclopedic memory to combine workable solutions from disassociated fields – such as swimming pool filtration systems, cattle ramps, and fence construction – into the development of more humane, efficient handling methods.

While her mental idiosyncrasies have benefited her on a professional level, Grandin does acknowledge the challenges that autism brings to her life. The unique viewpoint from inside an atypical mind, she feels, has gifted her with an understanding for animal psychology but is markedly less helpful in human relationships. Like others with autism, she is unable to read social cues – such as body language, vocal tone, and facial movements – that neurotypicals learn intuitively from an early age, and rely on during interactions with other people.  In her personal life, Grandin has admitted to a lack of interest in emotional relationships, instead channeling her energies to her work.

Grandin has become a worldwide advocate for those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) – giving voice to a neurological disorder that has mystified those in the medical community, as well as the general public. Temple Grandin’s descriptions of how her brain processes information is providing an enlightening glimpse into a private, little understood world and changing previously held beliefs about what those with autism can accomplish.  Or indeed, what any of us can achieve, if we put our minds to it.