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The RMPBS Q&A: Temple Grandin talks her new film and different learning styles

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Gabriela Resto-Montero, managing editor at Rocky Mountain PBS, interviews Temple Grandin.
Photo: Rocky Mountain PBS.

Over her decades-long career as an animal science educator and scientist, Temple Grandin’s research on the humane treatment of livestock has changed farming practices.

But it was her disclosure in 1986 that she was diagnosed with autism that opened up public conversations about neurodivergence and how it leads to different ways of learning and thinking.

Grandin has authored more than 30 books on autism and animal welfare and is now the subject of the documentary “An Open Door,” about visual thinking and empowering children to use their gifts.

The professor sat down with Rocky Mountain PBS to discuss her work, the importance of practical learning and her favorite movies. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Colorado Voices

A conversation with Dr. Temple Grandin

Rocky Mountain PBS: So just to get started, for those of us who may not have seen the documentary, can you tell us a little bit about what it's about and what chapter of your life it's covering?

Temple Grandin: Well, it covers a lot of my teaching at Colorado State University. I've been at Colorado State University for 34 years, and I think teaching is really important. And I'd like to emphasize the importance of hands-on things. I think one big mistake that a lot of schools have done is taking out the hands-on learning. I mean, one thing CSU's been trying to do is put hands-on learning back in. We also need to be doing hands-on learning with younger kids.

RMPBS: Your latest book, I believe it's called “Visual Proof.” [Editor’s note: Grandin’s 2022 book is “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions.”]

TG: Yes. 

RMPBS: You talk a lot about how children, and also children who are neurodivergent, learn. And so is this something that you are kind of addressing in the film and working with kids? 

TG: That's the three ways that people can think. Object visualization, like me, where everything is like a photographic picture, you know, sort of like having your Google images in your mind. And our kinds of minds are really good at mechanical things, fixing things, animals, photography and art. 

But another kind of thinker is the visual spatial thinker. This is your mathematician, your music, your musician, they think — patterns. I think in photos, the mathematicians think in patterns. There are actually different types of thinking and there’s scientific research that shows that. 

And then, of course, you have verbal thinkers, they think in words.

And I've done a lot of talks to businesses, and that's the first step, is you have to realize that different kinds of thinking exist.

Like, for example, my situation, I didn't know that other people were verbal thinkers until I was in my late thirties. It was a shock to find that out. But we need the different kinds of thinkers because they bring different kinds of skills into whatever you're working on.

RMPBS: You mentioned that you didn't learn that there were verbal thinkers until your thirties, and so we're always learning new things, especially about the way that people think. Is that something that when you're talking about hands-on learning that you're wanting to see more of? 

TG: I'm worried that they're getting screened out of our educational system because they can't do algebra.

But I've worked with brilliant people…who graduate from high school and are then designing entire factories because they can see how mechanical things work. And I worked in heavy construction for 25 years, mainly in the 1980s and early nineties. And the visual object visualizers I worked with, they've all retired out.

They're not getting replaced. I've been on a lot of highly questionable elevators lately. 

There's a lot of people in schools pushing algebra because they think you need algebra for logical thinking, you know?

But that's not how I think. I just see how something works. Now, that helped me with animals, because I looked at what animals were seeing. And we're going to need our visual thinkers. When you want to have lights on, have water in your building, you're going to need those visual thinkers that are terrible at algebra. 

RMPBS: As someone who is terrible at algebra I am definitely looking forward to a place where there's more room for people who are thinking in a different way.

TG: And there's certain fields you absolutely need higher math for. Absolutely. But the thing I would recommend is, instead of making everybody take algebra, how about geometry? Or how about business, math or accounting, or maybe statistics?

And people argue, well, how do you manage to get a Ph.D. without all that math? Well, I majored in psychology. And, fortunately, in college back in ‘67, when I was in college, algebra wasn't the beginning math class. And then I got through to statistics classes with lots and lots of tutoring.

Temple Grandin has taught animal science at Colorado State University for more than 30 years.
Photo: Colorado State Univeristy

RMPBS: I saw that in one of the clips from the documentary you’re talking about how you really want to open doors for kids who are different, for kids who think differently.

TG: I do a lot, a lot of travel. And I'm seeing many, many questionable elevators that I know are not being serviced. That'd be a perfect skill for an autistic kid. He's going to love elevators. And you got to make sure they work. And the other good thing about the hands-on job is, AI is not going to replace them. 

You need somebody who knows exactly how elevators work, who can walk in there, get in there, service them, design them. People talk about how everything should be computerized. The elevator may be controlled by a computer, but until we get antigravity like Star Trek, it's going to be a mechanical device. 

RMPBS: Is that kind of borne out from your experience as well, from your educational experience?

TG: When I first started working on my cattle handling stuff, I discovered this whole thing called industrial process equipment. That's all done by the shop people and sometimes degreed engineers would go, ‘They just manufacture equipment?’ No. I've worked with people that barely graduated high school that were inventing and patterning equipment, and it's still being used in the beef industry.

RMPBS:  Do you think that there's a lot of positive reception to your message?

TG: Well, I think we need to be looking at all the resources. There's a lot of equipment we need in the food industry coming out of Italy, Holland, Denmark, other places, because in ninth grade, those kids go in the university or tech route. And [here] they don't look at the tech route, it's something lesser.

And, you know, some teachers say, ‘Well, stupid kids take shop.’ Well, what they don't understand, it's a different way of thinking. It's a different way of problem solving. The first step is you have to realize it's different thinking.

RMPBS: So does that happen in the home? Does that happen by changing the way the classrooms function?

TG: Well, the only other thing is that I was at the Exceptional Rodeo today… they're getting those kids out, doing things, riding stick horses or riding a little bit of seesaw horses, things like that. And it shows parents what their kid can do.

Yes, I'm seeing a lot of kids today get a label. They kind of don't think the kid can do anything. And I've seen autistic kids that were fully verbal where they never went shopping, they never ordered food in a restaurant. The parents are doing it all for them, so they don't think their kid can do anything. And one of the most valuable things that probably happened at that special needs rodeo is it shows families what their kid can do.

And they were having so much fun. It was just wonderful. 

RMPBS: Is that one of your favorite experiences to, you know, when you're working with kids or when you're meeting kids? You have a lot of children's books that are about your life, I'm sure you've met many. 

TG: I also have two kids project books called “Calling All Minds,” which is a parachute and kite project.

Well, I did that as a child. But we've got kids growing up to date that have never used a ruler or tape measure. I had a college student in my class…who had never measured anything in her life. I find that just unbelievable. 

RMPBS: You also wrote a book called Autism and Education…

TG: Academics is important, but actually I had a really bad time in school. I was kicked out of ninth-grade for fighting, for throwing a book at a girl who called me a r—d. I went to a special boarding school and they put me to work running a horse barn and cleaning nine stalls every day. 

And Mr. Paley, the headmaster, said, ‘Let's get through adolescence, you can make up the academics later.’ That's what I did. But I've learned how to work, to just see other kids today not learning how to work. And it doesn't matter what job it is.

RMPBS: It also sounds like you had a good support in your life.

TG: Some very good teachers. My mother always pushed me, she taught me to read when I was eight. [I had a] great elementary school teacher. I had a great science teacher who finally got me motivated to study by making that a pathway to a goal, by making it practical once again. Well, then, there was a reason for it because if I want to become a scientist, I had to study.

RMPBS: Some of your research was the first of its kind in terms of showing the way that livestock is able to discern shapes, shadows, things like that. And one of the first people to look at what cattle were looking at and would interfere with their movement through a facility. 

TG: Also, one of my first graduate students, some of the very first cattle temperament work.

This was radical like 30 years ago, right? To think that cattle jump around flea chutes and get excited are going to have lower weight gain. They did. 

RMPBS: When I was doing my research for this interview and I was reading up about this study and the work that you've done, it did strike me that it was radical for its time.

TG: But now it's so it's kind of been accepted mainstream now. But back in the early nineties, I wasn't allowed to use the word ‘fear’ in my papers, I had to call it ‘agitated behavior.’ I was told, ‘you're considered anthropomorphic.’

RMPBS: Has it been satisfying then to see that your work has been adapted in this way?

TG: And then on the animal welfare, I developed a very simple auditing system for assessing animal welfare to meet clients. I designed one, put the data in the big meat plant that's practiced on our system, all the big plants have worked on developing that.

RMPBS: It's remarkable the impact that your research has had.

TG: Well, people ask me, ‘Well, how did I manage to make a difference?’ Very targeted. You see, verbal thinking is very top down, big broad concepts. But how do you implement it? I'm a bottom up thinker, so I picked up something else, something specific like cattle handling that work on, not just say, well, everything's terrible.

RMPBS: Just to switch gears a little bit, just because you've also made many TV appearances, this documentary is the latest film about your life. You've had fictional films about your life. That's also a completely different skill set for how to be out there in the world. Have you kind of developed some surprising skills in that way, or has it surprised you?

TG: Two things. I was terrified of airplanes, and this is back when I was in my twenties, and public speaking. I learned in public speaking to have really good slides. Then, if you panic, you go to the next slide. And when I'm on my cattle stuff, I had really good slides. I was a good photographer. I had good slides.

RMPBS: On the topic of films, I saw that you also are a fan of country Western music and that you like sci-fi films and that you're a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences.

TG: Classic Star Trek, I’m really into that. Spock, Captain Kirk, all of that.

RMPBS: I saw that you were a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and you're an Oscar voter. I wondered if you had any favorite movies that you've seen recently?

TG:  I’m really fascinated by the movie “Space Odyssey.” Hal the computer.

RMPBS: That’s a good one!

TG: That’s right now with AI coming in. Well he was instructed to never lie and couldn’t tell the astronauts the purpose of the mission. He wasn’t given Asimov’s rules of robotics that you never, ever harm human beings. Yes and he decided that killing the astronauts was the logical thing to do. Dave’s disconnecting and he’s going “well we’ve had some misunderstandings lately.”

RMPBS: So that’s like your all time favorite?

TG: Yes, that was 1968. And then I was watching Star Trek at the time, my favorite show. I loved Mr. Spock for logic.

Gabriela Resto-Montero is the managing editor at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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