Most modern livestock handling facilities and methods that minimize stress and insecurity to large animals owe their implementation to an autistic person, Dr. Temple Grandin.  Her recommendations have been implemented by nearly all the major livestock slaughtering plants in the U.S. and by a growing number of livestock producers.  

Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University who has also changed the way society thinks about autism.

Now called autism spectrum disorder, autism is either becoming more common, or more frequently recognized and diagnosed. 

Typically, persons diagnosed as autistic exhibit varying intellectual capacities, some of which are deficient and others occasionally spectacular in certain areas, as well as variable communication deficiencies and lower ability to socialize and form relationships with others.

What causes autism has generated much controversy about childhood vaccinations and parenting methods.  I won’t enter the dispute about the possible effects of vaccinations.  

Parenting methods have largely been ruled out as a contributor to autism.  I will note though that something affects parts of the brain to develop unusually and for the behaviors governed by these parts to vary from most other people’s behaviors.  

Are the biological changes in the autistic person due an increasingly chemically-altered environment and nutrition?  Experts don’t know for sure. 

The amygdala and inheritance are important.  The brain structure known as the amygdala is the chief controller of the fear response, as well as the recognition of emotions in other persons, the meaning of facial expressions and responses to common social behaviors like affection. 

Deficiencies in these functions are key features of autism.  The amygdala has been identified as a major structure that is different in varying degrees for persons with autistic behaviors. 

A heritable component to autism is also fairly certain, for autism appears to be expressed genetically in people because of a proclivity inherited from multiple previous generations, or from mutations in one or both parents’ DNA.  Gestational abnormalities due to the mother’s exposure to something also have been suggested.

It is not fully clear how stress and other environmental conditions such as exposures to toxic substances alter DNA. 

Autistic behaviors shouldn’t automatically be labeled as disordered.  Atypical social behaviors aren’t necessarily dysfunctional.   

Dr. Grandin’s observations about how to minimize stress on cattle, pigs, sheep and horses came about because autism enabled her to sense how animals feel.  

She demonstrated that minimizing noise and using circular sorting pens and winding alleyways with opaque walls which prohibit animals from seeing people hustling about, and other threatening visual stimuli outside or ahead, help the animals to feel calmer. 

Forcing excited and insecure animals such as cattle with prodding pokes on their rears to move ahead in straight alleyways worsens their cooperation with handlers to enter loud and unfamiliar headgates in which they witnessed other cattle bellow in fear or pain.

On the other hand, squeeze chutes that can’t be seen and which hold animals securely, help them feel safer.  Grandin said she also calmed down if she wrapped herself tightly in an invention she called a “hug box” when she felt distraught.

Grandin also taught parents, teachers and therapists how to work with persons exhibiting a degree of autism.  Most of her methods aim at reducing stimulation and showing autistic persons what to say and do, while recognizing every autistic person is different.

Some of the greatest contributors to science, such as Albert Einstein, and to literature, like the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, were possibly autistic to some degree.  The variations called the autism spectrum disorder can be useful capacities.

To be sure, severe limitations in communication, self-maintenance and near incomplete ability to adapt to social norms can be viewed as disabled behavior.  But society needs to develop much more tolerance for differences and understanding of behaviors that may be labeled as disabilities.

Most of us should change our views about what disabled means.  My youngest brother Larry helped teach me this.  

Larry had a form of Down syndrome and was born with a bowel imperfection that required surgery when he was three days old.  He was not autistic, although he had a limited vocabulary, and could not read or write despite participating in special education for 14 years.  

Larry had disabilities, but he figured out what was most important in life better than me and most other people.   Although he often experienced pain, he never complained, even when he died in 2008 as his organs shut down.  His gestures seemed to say “I can do this, you don’t have to be afraid or worried.”

Larry was almost entirely unselfish.  He was one of the kindest and most caring persons I ever knew, and a teacher for me to the end. 

Larry was a motivational force for me to study psychology.  Dr. Grandin also inspired many people, including me, to better understand animal behavior and autism.


Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.