Temple Grandin, author, world-renowned autism spokesperson, consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior and professor of animal science at Colorado State University
Nov. 29, 2016
Great to be here. I've got lots of things to talk about today.
Why don't I just ask you? There are a lot of innovators who probably were on the autism spectrum. Einstein had no language until age 3. Steve Jobs was a weird loner and he brought snakes to school, turned them loose in the elementary school classroom just to liven things up. You know, by the time I was 4 I learned how to talk. There are a lot of different kinds of unique minds.
All right, since I'm in animal behavior, I had to pick out a woman in animal behavior. That was Jane Goodall. In fact, starting out in the cattle industry in the '70s, being a woman in a man's world, it wasn't fun. That was shown in the movie really accurately. But what would happen to somebody like Jane Goodall in today's educational system? She had a two-year secretarial degree. She got her Ph.D. without her bachelor's, and she had difficulty remembering faces — somebody who was definitely kind of different. She liked the solitude of the woods.
How about Thomas Edison? Hyperactive high school dropout labeled "addled" by his teachers. That was Thomas Edison.
Now I do a lot of work in the meat industry. In fact, I developed a piece of equipment called the center track restrainer system or double rail restrainer system. It's in all the big plants. So I worked in these large plants. And who do you think works on a lot of the really clever equipment? It's the guys who are kind of different. Tyson's hiring right now — billboards on the highway. And they can't find skilled mechanics. Cargill's hiring — big banners on their fence up in Milwaukee — because the kind of quirky guys who are kind of different, they're all retiring now. And I'm concerned about where they're going, getting addicted to video games, because the schools have taken out the skilled trades and the hands-on stuff. The thing that saved me.
When I was in elementary school I was saved by hands-on classes like woodshop and sewing — making things. And then when I grew up, I still kept making things. What about Steven Spielberg? Not a good student: bullied, teased in school, dyslexic. Boy, I can tell you I was bullied in school. And the only places I was not bullied was the shared interests — things like electronics, horseback riding. Rejected from a top film school — where would he end up today? How about Elon Musk, the rocket guy? He experienced severe bullying — very severe bullying — appeared deaf. And in this book his mother wrote that he was different in a nerdy sort of way. Sounds familiar?
You see the thing about autism is it goes from someone who can't dress themselves to half the geeks out in Silicon Valley. That's where the lucky people on the high end of the spectrum get to go. They get to go work for Google and other Silicon Valley companies. And then other kids get into a video game problem, get bullied, and do not have such a good outcome. And they're the same kid.
OK, there's the Dragon docking with the space station. And actually it's Puff the Magic Dragon but that doesn't sound very professional so they just changed it to Dragon.
All right. Let's look at some of the common denominators for success in unique minds. Grew up in an educated family — that's true for the four people I just showed, also true for me. Early exposure to books and reading — mother used to read to us. Early exposure to career-relevant interests. I got introduced to beef cattle when I was 15 when I went to my aunt's ranch. Well, if you take out all of the things out of the schools that can turn into careers, the kids aren't getting exposed to enough stuff. Also learning how to work at an early age. When I was 13 my mother got me a sewing job. When I was 15 I was cleaning eight horse stalls every day and running a horse barn — learning how to work and also not to overspecialize. And I had a great science teacher. This is where mentors really turn a student around.
Well Jane Goodall got a serious introduction to animal behavior young because when she was 5 she went to the next-door neighbor's chicken house to figure out how the chickens laid eggs. Good high school student, loved animal books, and she had a mentor. She was originally hired by Dr. Leakey as a secretary, and then they let her start observing the chimpanzees and things changed.
Thomas Edison: childhood chemistry experiments. Yes, he burned up the baggage car on a train, almost got drowned in a grain elevator, but he was exposed to career-relevant things. He dropped out of school but he was homeschooled by a mom in a house full of books. Thomas Edison learned how to work at a really early age. At 14 he was a telegraph operator. Even earlier he was selling newspapers, learning work skills.
I'm seeing too many kids that get a label — fully verbal kids labeled autistic, ADHD — and autism and ADHD are mixed up all the time — and they're not learning how to work. Sometimes they're not even learning how to shop, things that I learned when I was 7.
Well, Thomas Edison asked lots, and lots and lots and lots of questions. Yep, that's an autistic trait. And he memorized every street in his town.
Steven Spielberg got introduced to his profession young. He was saved by his little Super 8 movie camera. Early introduction. And then he got an internship at Universal Studios. I always emphasized to students the importance of internships to get into jobs.
And then Elon Musk was reading "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" — and fortunately the local bookstore let him just come in and read books even though he didn't buy them. Again, exposure to educated things. He also learned skilled trades in his dad's workshop at a really early age. He also did extensive international travel. I've traveled all around the world and it's really broadened my outlook on many things. He was introduced to programming at age 11. Fortunately, he's just old enough where he got an old-fashioned kind of computer where you learn how to program it without fancy video games on it. He almost went into the video game addiction but he didn't have that happen to him. He did try to rent a shop to start a video arcade. He was too young to do that. He was doing grubby manual labor in his 20s and then he talked his way into an internship at the Bank of Nova Scotia and started PayPal.
One thing I figured out very early on — and he figured out early on — is certain people could open the door. And he was so persistent calling up this vice president that he had lunch with him and got the internship. Yes, and he used carwash valves in his rockets. Now I think maybe he's kind of got maybe a little hubris because one of his rockets just blew up. And I think he was pushing the system too hard. I've been trying to read about some of the stuff that went on with the fuel tanks. I don't think it was the carwash valves, though, that did it. He was pushing some other stuff.
The thing about these creative geniuses is that none of them had a conventional educational path. I'm really concerned about so many smart, geeky kind of different kids getting screened out. Also, they did not overspecialize. I was at a plant science meeting this summer talking to some of the plant scientists, because I gave my "Different Kinds of Minds" talk, and they told me they've got these graduate students who've got all these advanced degrees but they've got no creativity. They've gotten too hyper-specialized.
This is one of my most important slides: the different kinds of minds. Kids who learn differently, kids who get a diagnosis for various reasons, tend to have uneven skills — good at one thing, bad at something else. I am a photo-realistic visual thinker. This helped me in design work. Everything I think about is a picture. But I couldn't do algebra. This algebra requirement is screening out a lot of good kids. I talked to a president of a community college just recently and she's got smart students who can't get a business degree because they didn't pass algebra.
How did I get through school? Because in 1967 algebra was not the national norm. It was finite math — matrices, probability and statistics. With tutoring, I got through the statistics. With tutoring, I got through the finite math. Why not let them take something else? The other thing I'm observing — and I just saw this this fall — is kids are doing all this pre-algebra stuff but they're not teaching them to find the area of a circle. And I've designed hydraulic and pneumatic equipment with cylinders. You better know how to find the area of a circle if you're designing pneumatic equipment. It's that simple. They can't find the area of this stage. Just the simple, practical math. Also I talked to a third-grade teacher two months ago who told me she got in trouble for teaching her kids borrowing and subtraction. Well, if I wasn't able to write it down on the paper I wouldn't be able to do it because I've got working memory issues. We're screening out the kids. I don't know whom Cargill and Tyson are going to hire in the future to keep their plants going. And this morning I met a salesman for Frito-Lay and I told him that they're going to have problems with their plants falling apart because the people who can fix them are playing video games in the basement.
Now another kind of mind is the pattern thinker. This is the mathematician mind. This is your Silicon Valley programming person. They think in patterns, they don't think in pictures. This is your mathematician, your engineers, programming people. And they tend to often have some trouble with reading. But kids don't learn programming by osmosis. It's got to be introduced. They also have to learn how to do tasks other people want. Even at Google you're allowed to have 15 percent of the time to do what you want and the rest of the time you've got to do assigned projects.
And then you've got the verbal guys. They know everything about their favorite subject. They might be really good at specialized retail. You've got kids in your classes who are different. Maybe they're dyslexic, ADHD, mildly autistic — they need to learn how to work. That needs to start in middle school with things like church jobs. The instant they're legal age I want them on the retail floor. They have got to learn working skills. I don't want a transition phase. I want them to know how to work before they graduate my school.
Now I'm a visual-associative thinker, sort of like Google for images. Get a keyword, I see pictures. You know, maybe a teakettle? Now I'm seeing a teakettle we had as a kid that whistled, I'm seeing a British teakettle with a cozy on it. And then I'm seeing a truck stop with a giant coffeepot for a sign. So now I've gotten from tea to coffee. It's associative, and in my book "The Autistic Brain" I'm going to give you evidence that these different kinds of minds actually do exist. There is scientific evidence of visual thinking and the more patterned mathematical thinking; two different types of thinking.
Elon Musk was a visual thinker and he was able to take lots of different information and put it together. I kind of do the same thing. I read a lot. People will say to me, "Well, how come you know about, you know, the Fukushima nuclear power plant," which was a gigantic visual thinking mistake. That's why I read about it. It's not a very good idea when you live next to the sea to put your super-important emergency-cooling pump in a non-waterproof basement. That's what they did.
But what I've learned about the mathematician is the mathematician doesn't see the water going in there. You see this is where we need the different kinds of minds doing stuff. You know what Thomas Edison said? "I'm not a mathematician. I can always hire some mathematicians but they can't hire me." Because what I've observed working on things like big Cargill plants is who does different things. That quirky guy who's a visual thinker thinks up that really creative piece of equipment.
I'm concerned about over-specialization. We're getting doctors now who are getting so overspecialized they're going to end up getting replaced by an artificial intelligence program. All right, within the last year — you know, when older folks like us get together we like to gripe about health problems. I talked to a lady who actually just had an allergy that could be treated with Benadryl and a top lupus specialist was doing hive biopsies. Really? Hive biopsies? I think that's kind of ridiculous. And a bone specialist failed to test a patient with a lot of diffuse symptoms who had untreated Lyme disease. Maybe you need to rule out the simple first.
I kind of like this think from Isaac Asimov. I read this when I was in college: "A degree is the first step down a ruinous highway. You don't want to waste it so you go onto doctoral research. You end up a thorough ignoramus on everything in the world except for on a subdivisional sliver of nothing." Well artificial intelligence can do super-specialized tasks. It can replace the super-specialized doctor but will not replace his receptionist. It's that simple. Right now there's an expert system that can read X-rays better than doctors can read them.
The thing about the AI and people with autism is it's both bottom-up thinking. It's sort of like epidemiology. There's kind of two ways you can approach science. You can approach science that you get the hypothesis first or you form the hypothesis through specific examples — like in epidemiology when you get a case of food poisoning and another case of food poisoning and then you've got to figure out what are the common factors between these different cases of food poisoning. That's bottom-up thinking. That's the kind of thinking that needs to be used a whole lot more for a lot of policy stuff because a big concern I have today is what I call abstractification. You've got people making policy who have never drilled down into the field to find out what's actually going on. When you do top-down thinking you tend to overgeneralize into vague, grandiose things that just aren't going to end up working very well.
So what would happen to a child like me today? I had no speech until age 4, all the symptoms of severe autism. I probably would have gotten really good early intervention. That is something that's being done right. That's the bright spot. But what I'm seeing now is video game addictions — and don't call me an old fogey. I'm seeing smart kids getting addicted to video games, and they're playing video games on Social Security when they need to be working in the maintenance shop at the Cargill plant. That's where they need to be. And you know what they're going to find? That working in that maintenance shop is a lot more fun than video games. Some of the most fun stuff I ever did was out on a construction job. There's two things we used to like to talk about in the job trailer: how to build all kind of cool stuff and how stupid the suits were. That's typical job trailer talk.
But I would be in a lot of trouble if I hadn't had the hands-on activities. I spent hours as a child making bird kites to fly behind my trike when I was 7. And I put little wing tips on them just like modern jets have got. And it took a lot of experimentation to get my bird kites to fly. I'm seeing kids today who are not willing to make a mistake on something. I had to try again and again, try different ways to make the kites. I spent hours making and building things.
Also, teenagers are not getting work experience. OK, let's start out with middle school. You can walk dogs for the neighbors. And I had one mom say to me, "We don't have an educational program for that." And I'm going, "Really?" I'm talking about just sending them up to the next-door neighbor's because I want them out of the house doing a job for somebody else on a schedule. Yes, cash economy.
Yes, I have a special little rule system. I kind of divide society's rules into four categories: Really bad things like robbing banks and stuff like that we don't do. Then you have courtesy rules kids need to be taught that. Table manners — you've got kids who are different; we need device-free meals. I want to get rid of all the phones, we're going to have a meal without any devices. You've got to learn how to talk. In the '50s we were not allowed to bring toys or coloring books to the table. TV was limited to one hour a day. You've got to learn some courtesy rules. Then I have illegal but not bad. Oh, man you really learn this in the construction industry. I remember asking Jim Uhl, a contractor, how he got permission to block Hopple Street in Cincinnati with a concrete truck. You don't. You just do it at 10 in the morning when the traffic's light, and when the police come around you ask them to direct the traffic. It's just that simple. And then you have the sins of the system and don't touch those dogs because they really bite. Boy, they're the things you don't — they're so red-hot sensitive I won't even discuss what they are — but they're things that get you in tons and tons of trouble, so don't do them.
Brain scans show that I have a large visual thinking circuit — bigger than a control, probably in the top 25 percent visual thinking circuits. Now here's where I'm in trouble (Let's see if this little pointer's going to work. Oh, now I've just managed to make the computer do something weird here.) Where you see what's blue in there, that's full of water. You can see an asymmetry — my left parietal area is missing some stuff. It kind of ruined the algebra department. I've got no working memory. So when I do math I've got to write on the paper to do the borrowing and subtraction. I can't do it in my head. And in engineering we've got to do a workaround. So if you get one of these guys out and you've got to teach him how to run the Starbuck's coffee machine. He's going to need a pilot's checklist or teardown: step one, step two, step three. Cleaning steps — give him a pilot's checklist. (Now the computer seems to be frozen. Maybe somebody can help me with this? Get the computer to work? OK, maybe it's going to work now. OK, I got rid of it. I don't know what I did.)
Now, some big advantages. (I'm not going to use this clicker; it's dangerous. I'm just going to use the arrow key because I know how to use that. This clicker messed up the computer so I don't dare touch it now.)
Now one advantage in the meat industry is there's no academic barrier of entry. You need to be able to read USA Today and do old-fashioned sixth-grade math — that you will need to know how to do. And I know a lot of quirky, smart maintenance people. They built big, complicated things and they were saved by that welding class in high school. Their making equipment right now the cattle industry is buying. How about somebody who stutters, ADHD, dyslexic? Horrible student saved by welding and then he makes a thing and he sells it — I can't tell you what it is — that's been a very, very successful metal fabrication business.
I was saved by the fact that algebra wasn't required in 1967 and I entered college on probation. Mother talked the dean of Franklin Pierce College that was 2 years old to take me in on probation. At this point I had decided I was going to study. Now growing up in the '50s I learned some important things: to be on time — I'm seeing a lot of smart kids with various labels today that can't get up in the morning and get to class. That was not an issue for me. Once I had decided to study I got to class. I did not lose my homework. I got it done. I was in an educated family with lots of books.
Art ability was nurtured. I was very good in art and that became the basis of my design business. Mother taught me reading. You know, the "Dick and Jane" books didn't work for me. Mother taught me reading with phonics. But I want to warn you phonics works for one kid, but it doesn't work for all of them. There are others where the whole word method works better. My favorite books when I was a child were about famous inventors and "Black Beauty." I just loved those books. These aren't the exact same books but they were the best I could find on amazon.com that was similar to the books I had as a child.
Early exposure to career interests. I cannot emphasize that enough. I was exposed to dairy cattle when I was 14, beef cattle at 15. I was riding horses at 14, 15, 16. I learned carpentry. I took an experimental psychology class and got interested in optical illusions. That helped me in some of my work with cattle because I noticed that cattle were afraid of shadows, they were afraid of a coat on a fence, or a reflection. And I did have two subjects I did do well in high school: biology and writing. Those were two things I was good at.
Work experience: sewing job at 13, horse stall cleaning at 16, roofing at sixteen — that probably has to be 18 today for that. I had a great time: wonderful shingle-throwing contests and it was a shared interest. Sign painting. I started making signs and selling them. And my first sign was for a beauty shop and I had to make a sign a beauty shop actually would want. So I put the Breck lady on it. Now I'm really dating myself. And carpentry work. I was not overspecialized.
I loved biology. When I was in college — we were very lucky in my little, small college that had only been going for two years — they hired a retired animal behavior scientist to teach animal behavior. So I was introduced to that in college. Dr. Tom Evans. I took an English literature class that was required that I thought I was going to hate. Turned out loving it because the teacher was so good at explaining what the author was trying to convey in things like "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad." And I had practical building skills and carpentry. My science teacher got me motivated. If you watch the HBO movie, I really did make that optical illusion run. And he didn't tell me how to make it; I had to figure it out. And then out on my aunt's ranch I built gates, I learned driving — all the projects in the movie were true.
Yes, I was weird. So how did I get people to have me design their cattle facilities? I showed them my drawings. When you're weird you've got to show off your portfolio. It's just that simple. And when I was a young kid they thought I was mentally retarded. And then I grew up and I designed this piece of equipment, the center track restrainer or double rail restrainer; it's in all the big meat plants. I designed the cattle-handling facilities at Cargill plants all over the U.S. and in Canada. How'd I get that job? I showed Bill Fielding this drawing. I mailed him this drawing and I also mailed him my very professional brochure. Thirty-second wow. Mr. Fielding opened it up. The drawing folded out like this — this is pre-internet, you've got to remember; this is the late '80s. He opened up my brochure. I had plastic pages in there with a few pictures, I had a couple of articles from a meatpacking plant magazine, list of references — 30-second wow. You don't put too much junk in it. And they called me. And I got my first job with a portfolio.
There's the coming up to the dip vat at the Red River Feed Yard. This is the real one — and they duplicated it just beautifully for the movie. There's another one of my early jobs. Half the cattle in North America are handled in equipment I designed in the meatpacking plant. I think that's doing pretty good for a kid they thought was retarded. I talked to a student last night who's on the spectrum and wants to be a veterinarian. I said, "You can do it. Just prove to them you can do it." And here's another one of my designs.
Now, when I first started out I thought I could fix everything if I just build the right system. But equipment's only half the equation. The other half of the equation is the management. You get the equipment in and they've got to actually manage it right. So I was hired by the USDA in 1996 to do a survey, and only 30 percent of the plants could shoot 95 percent of the cattle dead on the first shot because equipment was broken. That's management. Then I was hired by McDonald's in 1999 to start working on assessing animal welfare at packing plants. So I came up with a real simple way to score them. Traffic rules for plants — really simple, no complicated bureaucratic nonsense. They had to make five numbers: shot dead 95 percent on the first shot; 100 percent dead before you cut them up; no more than 1 percent falling anywhere in the facility; 3 percent mooing in the stunning area; and the hot shot electric prodders, you had to get that down to 25 percent where previously it was 500 percent. They had to make their numbers. I didn't tell them how to build a plant. They had to make their outcome based numbers. And the thing I'm really happy about is that out of 75 McDonald's suppliers, only three had to build something expensive. Everybody else we fixed with nonslip flooring, with lighting, training and management. That's the other half of the equation. Engineering can fix half the problems. And I saw more change than I'd seen in my whole entire career previous to that.
All right, let's look at how the different kinds of minds build a big Cargill plant or a big other kind of industrial plant. This is how the different jobs work out. The visual thinkers — the ones like me — we're in the drafting department. You'd better give us respect. A big plant, we lay out all the conveyers for the meat fabrication — all the complicated stuff is done by the drafting department. You know, please don't put us in the service corridor with the cable trays — we really don't appreciate that; not given enough credit. The millwrights — the quirky guys in the shop — they invent all the new mechanical equipment. Now what's a degreed engineer do? We need him. Boilers, refrigeration — we wouldn't touch that stuff; that's for the mathematical mind. Calculate roof trusses. Don't put a young engineer out of college in charge of working with contractors; he will get ripped off. That is a job for the crusty old guy in the shop who's been there 20 years and knows every way to rip off steel and concrete work. Yep, seen it done. You need the whole team.
Yes, Tyson, Cargill — they're hiring right now. Visual thinkers, let's drag them off the video games; it's much more fun in the plant.
I've got students right now out on some interesting projects. On one of the projects we had to figure out because cattle are bigger, how much room they need to lay down in the corrals because our space allowances have to be changed. So Helen goes out at 3 in the morning and gets up on this catwalk over these cattle — she's got to be really quiet so they don't get up — and takes pictures of them when they're sleeping. And you know what? She's finding out that a meatpacking plant's a really interesting place. But you've got to get out and try it.
Now some people might ask me is observation part of science? Yes, it is. How about astronomy? That's science. How about the atom smasher, you know, super collider and things like that? That's science. Observation is part of science. It's where you make the hypotheses. Epidemiology is science. You start off with one case of food poisoning and piece it together.
Now when I learned that my visual thinking was different that gave me a lot of insight, so I get asked, "How do the different kinds of minds learn to work together?" The first thing you have to recognize is that the different kinds of minds exist. I've had to get a whole lot better on learning how to talk to verbal thinkers.
Let's look at the iPhone. Steve Jobs was an artist — an artist made the easy-to-use interface. The engineers had to make the inside of the phone work, because if the engineer designed the interface it would be so complicated nobody can use it. You need to have the different kinds of minds. We've got to make sure educators are not screening out some of these unique students.
This whole algebra thing really concerns me. You see, I think the mathematical thinkers think you need that to think. No, if you're a visual thinker you don't need that to think. I'm finding a lot of visual thinkers can do geometry just fine. Please don't screen them out.
The thing is, we need to have all the different kinds of minds. And I have found in all the years I worked with construction projects it kind of affects how I think. Because in construction I had to sell a job, design it, supervise its construction, and start it up and make it work. We've got to get that job done. And if some smart kid is in the basement playing video games, we've not gotten the job done. So I just want to finish up and say when you're in construction, you've got to get the job done.
Thank you very much.