Temple Grandin defied the odds, blazed her own trail, and became the single most influential person with autism in modern times. One look at her life reveals an incredibly gifted mind paired with an unbreakable spirit. With her life’s work, she accomplished the impossible—Temple Grandin changed the world’s perception of what it means to live with autism.
Temple’s biography is a laundry list of achievements people thought were impossible for someone who has autism: she invented an internationally-renowned therapy device; she earned a Ph.D.; she wrote and published papers, articles, and books; she tours the world as a famous animal welfare speaker and autism advocate; she busted her way into the male-dominated world of the livestock industry and revolutionized the way animals are handled and treated. She’s amazing. She’s wonderful. She’s inspirational. She works hard; she talks straight.
We are shameless fangirls and fanboys of Temple Grandin. Here’s a little bit more about her if you’re new to the TG party.
Born in the 1940s, when people with disabilities were often institutionalized, Temple benefitted from a proactive, creative mother who found specialists to encourage Temple’s language and fine motor skills. When she entered grade school, Temple’s love and appreciation for teachers and mentors emerged from the adults who focused on her gifts – not her disabilities.
“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what he cannot do.”
Temple survived the bullies of middle school, eventually landing in the high school science classroom of William Carlock, a former NASA space scientist who had seen out-of-the-box thinking. He “got” how Temple’s brain processed and helped her translate the visual engineering marvel that is her mind to the world at large.
“Mr. Carlock was essential. He saved me,” she says. “He gave me interesting science projects that got me interested in studying. Studying was a pathway to a goal.”
In 1965, at 18 years old and with Carlock’s encouragement, Temple invented a deep-pressure “squeeze machine” designed to calm people with autism. Like most people with sensory sensitivities, Temple craved the relief found in deep-pressure touch yet human hugs were way too overstimulating. She needed something to offset the sensory overload. After seeing cattle settle down for inoculations in a small, special chute, she realized that the principle of intimate pressure by machine could do the trick. She conceptualized, designed, built, and implemented what would become known worldwide as a “hug box.”
Today, Temple’s hug box is commonly used in therapies for people with sensory sensitivities—it also paved the way for the current weighted blanket craze.
Temple’s genius for thinking in laser-sharp, 3-D mental pictures defined her career in animal science, where she reshaped the livestock industry with groundbreaking inventions that would create more humane, successful handling of animals. Because her autism provided an inside view of feeling threatened by environmental factors like noise or by incomprehensible movements towards her, Temple understood the livestock business from a cow’s-eye-view, not from the outside perspective of a business owner or worker. In short, her “disability” was actually a superpower that gave her the special ability to see and understand things a typical brain could never comprehend.
“We are all different types of thinkers,” Temple says of people who have autism. “There are visual thinkers, word thinkers, math thinkers. You have to concentrate on the things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well.”
Temple pioneered the shift in worldview towards people with sensory sensitivities through her work and subsequent writings about growing up, her career, and her thought-life as someone living with autism. Her bestselling books Thinking in Pictures, The Autistic Brain, and Animals in Translation all profoundly changed the way people understood what autism is and how to relate to those of us who live with it.
“It’s hard for people who don’t have sensory sensitivities to imagine an alternate reality where sound that doesn’t bother them sets of a big fear response. [For people with autism] a sound that is not bothering you is really bothering them,” she explains. “I was writing about sensory sensitivities 20 years ago, and people just didn’t believe it was real. But it is. We now have the brain imaging to prove there’s an overreaction in the nervous system. The fear center lights up.” So, the world caught up with Temple, thankfully, who’s always been a woman ten steps ahead of everybody else.
We can credit her with demystifying autism for the common person. She did that through her dogged perseverance in the beliefs of education, hard work, and accommodating extraordinary people who just happen to have sensory sensitivities the average person doesn’t experience. She’s somebody who comes along once in a lifetime and changes the course of human history for the betterment of all.
So, if you want to know if superheroes live among us, we say yes. And her name is Temple Grandin.