COLLEGE STATION - Nationally renowned author, autism activist and animal scientist Temple Grandin just completed a three-day trip to Texas A&M University, where she both gave and received—gave the commencement convocation address for the university’s summer graduates and received a rousing response—and, subsequently, received an honorary doctoral degree.
During two commencement exercises Friday, 1,870 students received degrees and 26 of them who were members of the Corps of Cadets were commissioned into the armed services. Several other former cadets finished their degree requirements earlier in the summer and are already on active duty.
Speaking at the Thursday evening convocation, Dr. Grandin gave a humor-laced presentation titled “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds,” and the Colorado State University professor of animal science spoke her mind on variety of topics, including how she views the world, as well as how others view it—and even how animals take note of their surroundings.
“I see the world in pictures,” Grandin said, referring to her autism. She said she is a “visual thinker” and sees the world from a bottom-up perspective, “whereas most people see it bottom-down.”
She said “visual thinking” has been a huge asset in her career of designing livestock facilities.
“Art class was my salvation in elementary school,” she noted, adding that she learned a lot of valuable work skills in high school and lamented the reduced emphasis on such activities in schools today. “Carpentry and horses saved me in high school.”
Dr. Grandin punctuated her remarks with a series of graphics and photographs, some of which showed scans of her brain contrasted with those of people who are considered to have more normal brains.
To underscore how different people process information differently, she cited Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. “Albert would be labeled ‘autistic’ in most schools today,” she observed.
As for Jobs, even though he was instrumental in producing technological marvels, Dr. Grandin regards him as an artist—not an engineer. She noted that Jobs was fascinated by calligraphy.
“The connection between Steve Jobs and ‘useless’ humanities programs such as calligraphy should not be ignored,” she said, underscoring a concern about the humanities not being valued and appreciated to the degrees they once were and should be now.
She also shared some thoughts regarding children and how parents and teachers, through modified thinking, could better interact with them.
“Kids are not seeing enough of different kinds of things,” she emphasized. “If you don’t show kids interesting stuff, they don’t get interested in interesting stuff,” she said, adding “they should be doing real stuff.” “Real stuff” includes hand-on experiences.
Additionally, Dr. Grandin took issue with the thinking of many lawmakers and suggested how they could better serve society: “We have lots of people making policy. They should have to get out there and see the consequences of those policies.”
Regarding animals, such as horses and cattle, they are well aware of their surroundings, particularly if they feel threatened.
“Animals see visual details,” she said. To underscore that point, she projected a photo of an uneasy horse “watching” with its ears, with one ear pointed towards the individual taking the picture and the other pointed toward a nearby zebra.
Dr. Grandin was honored at the first of the university’s two commencement exercises Friday with the formal presentation to her of a Doctor of Letters Degree. Such honorary degrees are awarded only after a process that starts in one of the university’s academic units and is endorsed by the Faculty Senate and the administration with final approval by The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents.
While she was on campus, Dr. Grandin also spoke at a luncheon hosted by Texas A&M’s Animal Science Department and met with various faculty and students in animal science and related fields.
Dr .Grandin’s life and successes have been featured by numerous national and international media outlets, and HBO produced a 2011 movie about her that won several major honors, including seven Emmy awards, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. In addition to numerous honors for her animal science work and promoting better understanding of autism, she has been elected into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
In her professorial capacity, Grandin is widely known and respected for her work in the design of facilities for handling livestock. Half the cattle in the U.S. and Canada are said to be handled in equipment she has designed for meat plants. Other professional activities include developing animal welfare guidelines for the meat industry and consulting with McDonalds, Wendy’s International, Burger King and other companies regarding animal welfare.
She earned her undergraduate degree at Franklin Pierce College in 1970, master’s degree at Arizona State University in 1975 and Ph.D. in 1989 at the University of Illinois.
Following up on her Ph.D. research on the effect of environmental enrichment on the behavior of pigs, Grandin has published several hundred industry publications, book chapters and technical papers on animal handling, plus 63 refereed journal articles in addition to 10 books. One of her books, Animals in Translation was a New York Times best seller and another, Livestock Handling and Transport, now has a fourth edition published earlier this year. Other popular books that she authored are Thinking in Pictures, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, Animals Make Us Human, Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach, The Way I See It, and The Autistic Brain.
Her numerous honors include the Meritorious Achievement Award from the Livestock Conservation Institute, being named a Distinguished Alumni at Franklin Pierce College and receiving honorary doctorates from McGill University, University of Illinois, and Duke University. She has also won prestigious industry awards, including the Richard L. Knowlton Award from Meat Marketing and Technology Magazine, the Industry Advancement Award from the American Meat Institute and the Beef Top 40 industry leaders and the Lifetime Achievement Award from The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Her work has also been recognized by humane groups from which she received several awards.
Grandin, who is a former member of the board of directors of the Autism Society of America, frequently presents lectures to parents and teachers throughout the U.S. about her experiences with autism. Articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, People, Time, National Public Radio, 20/20, The View, and the BBC. She was also honored by Time in the 2010 issue featuring “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” In 2012, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.