Have you ever heard of Dr. Temple Grandin? She is not a medical doctor, but a doctor of animal behaviour. She is famous not only for her brilliant mind and her insight into animal behaviour but also because she has autism. Or, as her official description puts it:
“Internationally Renowned Livestock Behaviourist, Autism Advocate and Outstanding Person of Our Times”
On May 8, 2015, Dr. Grandin spoke at our local agricultural college as a benefit for 4H, and the Mister decided to get tickets for me and our seven-year-old son to attend.
I was doubtful that he would get anything out of it, but in the end, I’m glad he came.
Most people know who Dr. Grandin is, either through her work in animal sciences as “the woman who thinks like a cow”, her work in autism activism as a very successful woman with Aspergers, or through the movie that was made about her, called, simply enough, Temple Grandin.
At the beginning of the talk, a young man of about 18 introduced her.
He said his nickname was Cowboy … Ben? Bill? I’m embarrassed to admit that I only remember the “cowboy” part and his white ten-gallon hat.
He spoke about living with autism and how much working with 4H had helped him grow, and then he said how proud he was to be introducing his hero, Dr. Temple Grandin.
As she began her talk, Dr. Grandin expressed how much she loved 4H. As an autistic child growing up, 4H was one of the few places where she was accepted and not badly teased. She says that when 4H asks her for a favor, she does it.
Dr. Grandin spoke about Low Stress Handling of Livestock – and it was a lot more interesting than the title might make it sound!
The basis point of the talk was that animals that are not stressed – who are with familiar people, in familiar settings, doing familiar things – provide better milk and meat, but they also cooperate better and are therefore safer and easier to work with.
Some of the points she made were, in retrospect, quite obvious. However, the fact that she has needed to tell people these things over and over again for the past forty years, tells us that the obvious is not always …. well, obvious!
Dr. Temple insisted that fear is certainly the proper scientific term and that it is used in animal neuroscience literature.
Fearful sows produce fewer piglets.
Fearful dairy cows have lower conception rates. However, cows that willingly approach humans have lower somatic cell counts. (Low quality milk with a lot of pathogens has a high somatic cell count.)
Dr. Temple is in favour of measuring good performance, stating that “You manage what you measure”. Maintaining high standards requires constant measurement, preferably with an objective numerical scoring system, to prevent bad from becoming normal.
The highlight of the evening, for me and our son, however, came during the question and answer period.
Our 7 year old, A, has a mild form of autism generally called Aspergers, much like Dr. Grandin. He is a wonderful, highly intelligent and lovable boy, and I was eager to show him a woman who had succeeded in life because of – and not in spite of – her autism.
Although I suspected the talk would be above his head (since a lot of it was above mine), I hoped he would enjoy it.
And he did.
When they began to bring around the microphone for questions after the talk, he said to me “I want to ask her something.” So we practiced quietly until he had a concise, clear question to ask. Finally, we had the microphone. I showed him how to hold it, covered it up and had him practice his question one more time.
And then, it was his turn and … he froze.
Now, that’s partly seven year old stage fright and it’s partly the autism, but he completely froze. Eyes wide, staring at me, he couldn’t get a word out. I knew how disappointed he’d be if I couldn’t get him to speak, but it’s very difficult to break him out of that trance.
Finally I spoke, “I’m sorry, Dr. Grandin. He’s seven, has Aspergers and he got shy.”
People started to cheer him and clap for him, until Dr. Grandin snapped “Stop! And hush!”
She then spoke for a bit about how dogs, horses and children are similar in that they need encouragement but they also need space and safety.
While she talked, I tried to get him to speak. I could hear her talking about how important it was for parents of autistic children to push them out of their comfort zones, to help them grow and experience new things.
Nothing I said to him, though, could turn off that glazed stare.
Suddenly there was someone beside me. “Would it help if you wore my hat?” A white cowboy hat was being held toward us.
My son suddenly grinned, put it on his head, turned to the stage and said, just as clear as a bell, “Hello, Dr. Grandin. How many years did you go to school to learn all this stuff?”
Well, I’m sure she answered, but I don’t know if anyone heard.
The room erupted in cheers and clapping for two brave and wonderful autistic boys.