Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Temple Grandin says we just don't see it

Sort of from
"What Do Animals Think?" by Verlyn Klinkenborg
May 2005 issue of Discover Magazine

"Say the words cattle, autistic, and woman, and a surprising number of Americans will come up with the name of Temple Grandin. Thanks to her writings, and those of Oliver Sacks, she is perhaps the best-known autistic person in America."

At the age of two Temple was diagnosed autistic. Her parents refused to have her institutionalized and instead sent her to private schools. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois in 1989. She is associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities.

She has written many books and more than 300 articles in scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design.

Temple Grandin says autism causes her to see the world as animals do, to see the things cattle see and humans don't. Her slaughterhouse designs reduce stimuli that distress animals. Even tiny things, like bits of litter or harsh light, can startle cattle. "Cattle handlers have to learn two things ... They have to learn that a Styrofoam cup, for example, lying in an alleyway will stop cow traffic dead because it worries the cattle. But first the handlers have to learn to see the cup."

(This reminds me of how many of us are "houseblind," inured to our messes, no longer seeing the piles of newspapers and - whatever - that clutter our living and working spaces.)

Grandin feels "normal" humans are good at seeing the big picture but bad at "all the tiny little details that go into that picture. ... normal human beings are blind to anything they’re not paying attention to ... and see what they’re expecting to see."

She points out how badly designed airport concourses and parking lots tend to be. The underlying fault is a lack of visual perception. "They just don’t see it," she says of the designers.

Grandin coined the word "abstractification" for the ability to "live in our thoughts ... cut off from tactile participation in the real, physical world. Klinkenborg: "We surround ourselves with television and computer games. We practically live in our offices ... We inhabit a cocoon ... a world divorced from nature."

"Driving through Fort Collins with Grandin, I found myself looking at a landscape that embodies a massive change in that direction. In the Rockies, there are the remnants of a wild world, and in the fields around Fort Collins itself, the patterns of an older, nonindustrialized agriculture. But to the south, reaching up from Denver, there lay an utterly abstractified landscape, humans living in suburbs and exurbs, surrounded only by themselves, lost in television and big-box retail and big-box religion."

Another of her key concepts is that, as we alter our world, we stop noticing it changing for the worse. She calls this "bad becoming normal" and uses as a one small example the wretched nervousness of pigs bred to be extra-lean. "If the only pigs you see are those pigs, then you don’t realize how bad they’re getting."

Klinkenborg mulls "our tolerance of the erosion around us." Crazy skinny pigs, endless parking lots and housing developments, fish poisoned by mercury, air we can't breathe...

We can get used to anything. That old parable about the frog that sits placidly in a slowly heated pot of water until it boils to death - wait, that's global warming ...

Lastly, I was very taken with a point which was peripheral to this article. "[Grandin] laments the way schools have dropped classes like wood shop and metal shop and drafting — the kinds of classes that saved her when she was going to school and failing classes like algebra."

By and large schools only cultivate a sadly impoverished pittance of the myriad of human talents and interests. Kids who are intended someday to be wonderful mechanics, jockeys, artists, musicians, instrument builders - how often during the school day are their passions addressed? Lucky are the kids who like breaking the seal on the test with their sharpened Number 2 pencils and writing essays. There are a lot more people - Temple is among them - who have a brilliance in them for ... something else.

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At 7:08 AM, Blogger kenju said...

"House blind" and "lacking visual perception" THAT'S what is wrong with my husband!?

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Lora said...

She's got some very good points. Thanks for sharing.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Rurality said...

Nice post! I love Temple Grandin's first book, can't wait to read the latest one.

At 5:11 AM, Blogger Nancy said...

I love love love Temple Grandin and I recommend Thinking in Pictures to everyone I know, especially if they've read The Curious Incident of the Dog....
I just finished a book by Verlyn Klinkenborg called The Rural Life. Beautiful book. Highly recommended!

At 12:07 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

Oh, I love her! I have to get teh new book.

(BTW, this would be great for The Tangled Bank!)

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

I wish I was house blind.

Regarding the lean pigs, my father kepts pigs for a few years, and they must have been the most comfortable pigs EVER. They even had their own swimming pool. ("Oh, there was some concrete mix left over from the flooring of the new shed." Yeah, Dad. You did that on PURPOSE.)

There was a Judas pig amongst them, though. He was the one who led the others confidently into the abattoir, and was the only one to emerge from the other end. My father had mixed feelings about the Judas pig, even though he was the one who had trained him.


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