What a Visual Thinker Teaches us About Being Different

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is an expert on animal behavior. She has designed humane handling systems for half the cattle-processing facilities in the US. The culmination of almost thirty years of research, experimentation, and experience her Animals Make Us Human teaches us to challenge our assumptions about animal contentment.

At an emotional level, she says, we have more in common with our animal friends than we think. “All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain.” The Core Emotions she explores in the book are — 1./ Seeking, 2./ Rage, 3./ Fear, and 4./ Panic; plus three sophisticated, special-purpose emotions — 5./ Lust (or sex drive), 6./ Care, and 7./ Play.

Dr. Grandin is also a high functioning autistic person. She didn't talk until she was three and a half years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping, and humming. She says autism is a continuum of traits. When does a nerd turn into Asperger, which is just mild autism? I mean, Einstein and Mozart and Tesla would all be probably diagnosed as autistic spectrum today.

Grandin's advocacy for understanding different ways of thinking contributes greatly to our understanding and appreciation of the nuances necessary to learning. She learns most by doing, she says:

I think in pictures, I don't think in language. Now, the thing about the autistic mind is it attends to details. OK, this is a test where you either have to pick out the big letters, or pick out the little letters, and the autistic mind picks out the little letters more quickly.

And the thing is, the normal brain ignores the details.

Well, if you're building a bridge, details are pretty important because it will fall down if you ignore the details. And one of my big concerns with a lot of policy things today is things are getting too abstract. People are getting away from doing hands-on stuff. I'm really concerned that a lot of the schools have taken out the hands-on classes, because art, and classes like that, those are the classes where I excelled.


what is thinking in pictures? It's literally movies in your head. My mind works like Google for images.

Now, when I was a young kid I didn't know my thinking was different. I thought everybody thought in pictures. And then when I did my book, Thinking In Pictures, I start interviewing people about how they think. And I was shocked to find out that my thinking was quite different. Like if I say, Think about a church steeple most people get this sort of generalized generic one.


I see only specific pictures. They flash up into my memory, just like Google for pictures.

Grandin's comment is a good example of how we see the world as we are. From the inside, we do think everyone is somewhat like us.

Usually, we learn to appreciate our differences when we set out to make a difference, to find opportunities to have an impact. Sometimes we find out when things don't go as planned. Other times, like in Grandin's case, we develop a fuller understanding of our differences and strengths by using curiosity.

Grandin learned how to bridge the gap between the way she experiences the world and what others need to connect with her. She says:

one of the things I learned very early on because I wasn't that social, is I had to sell my work, and not myself. And the way I sold livestock jobs is I showed off my drawings, I showed off pictures of things.

Another thing that helped me as a little kid is, boy, in the '50s, you were taught manners. You were taught you can't pull the merchandise off the shelves in the store and throw it around.

It gets more interesting when we look at how Grandin uses her abilities and talent to contribute at different levels in her work:

this ability to put information into categories, I find a lot of people are not very good at this. When I'm out troubleshooting equipment or problems with something in a plant, they don't seem to be able to figure out, Do I have a training people issue? Or do I have something wrong with the equipment?

In other words, categorize equipment problem from a people problem. I find a lot of people have difficulty doing that. Now, let's say I figure out it's an equipment problem. Is it a minor problem, with something simple I can fix? Or is the whole design of the system wrong? People have a hard time figuring that out.

This kind of problem solving is useful in today's complex environments. Grandin's chosen profession, the result of support from a mentor at an early age, gives her the opportunity to leverage her strengths fully animals are sensory-based thinkers, as in pictures, sounds, and smells, and to see what others miss.

Temple Grandin's books about her interior life are a wonderful contribution to increasing our understanding of what it feels like to see the world from the vantage point of someone who thinks in pictures. The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed co-authored with well regarded science writer Richard Panek provides first hand research on brain science on autism, including scans of her own brain.

Watch the delightful and humanity-rich video of her journey below.

The world does need all kinds of minds.


Sometimes you have to go outside your friend of study to find the right people, says Grandin. Sometimes you have to go out of the way to help people see how it is our differences that make us stronger together.


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