Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Autism, Animals and Design

This evening, I was fortunate to catch a lecture by Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted author and professor of animal science widely known as "the highest-functioning and most successful autistic adult in the world." She is a livestock consultant in high demand for her humane designs of slaughterhouses around the world.

Curved chute and race systems she has designed for cattle are used worldwide and almost half of North American cattle are handled in a center track restrainer system of Dr. Grandin's design. Her goal is always reduce stress on livestock animals during handling. We may get uncomfortable with the idea of slaughterhouses - god knows I do - but the reality is, they exist, so why not make them kinder if at all possible?

Dr. Grandin also developed an objective scoring system for assessing handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants. This system is widely used by many large corporations to improve animal welfare and decrease the stress in their lives.

The good doctor is a tall woman with a loud, twangy voice who has an awful lot to say. Her experience as an autistic child in the 50s, before autism was widely recognized as such, presented a number of problems, mainly sensory and social. She discussed different types of thinking and her epiphany in college, when she realized that her thought process was more like an animal's - without language and based in visuals - than a 'normal' human.

She sees a troubling trend in design students these days. "Many of them are so accustomed to drafting on a computer that they do not know how to draw, they can't locate the center of a circle, have never used a protractor and do not know how to measure shapes. As a result, many mistakes are made, such as gates swinging the wrong direction or over-sized gates or walls. It's very worrisome," she said. "Students are losing their ability to do anything with their hands, other than type," she said. "It is also affecting their tactile perception of shape, depth, angles and traffic flow."

When it was time for discussion, I was the first to raise my hand (Kiss ass!) to share a similar observation. In the early 90s, I was an art model hired by several animation studios, such as Warner Bros. and Disney, to pose for their animators. Seems that the artists had grown so accustomed to 'drawing' characters with their computers that they were losing their sense of 3-D form and basic human anatomy - they needed a refresher in Drawing 101.

I recall standing before 50 or so WB animators and listening to them talk. "Whoa. Weird," said one, "When I make a mistake, I keep reaching for my mouse."

"Yeah," said another, "I SO needed this. I had no idea."

I'd attended the lecture to gain insight into animal thinking, a pet (!) topic of mine. Dr. Grandin thinks in pictures, as do animals. She talked about how a horse will fear black cowboy hats if a previous abuser wore a black cowboy hat. A dog might fear yellow doors if that's the last thing he saw before getting hit by a car. Cattle (horses too) do not like multiple shadows, reflections and flappy movements.

She relayed the memory of being flown in to a big ranch to determine what was scaring the cattle. Within five minutes, she found the problem. "Well, that big flagpole out in front with the American flag is too bright, casts weird shadows and flaps around - that's scary," she said. The ranch removed the flagpole and the cattle were calmed.

Some quotes from tonight:

"My brain works like Google images - I don't think in terms of words, only pictures. And categories. Lots and lots of file folders in there."

"They used to be called just 'geeks' and 'nerds' but now it's all Asburger's Syndrome, often called 'Autism-Lite.'"

"Silicon Valley is a great place to have Asburger's Syndrome - it's like they almost have an apprentice system."

"There is an awful lot of research into why so many engineers are autistic or have AS."

And my favorite ...

"Wal-Mart is a sensory overload nightmare. When I am talking to parents to help diagnose children, my first question is: 'What happens when you take him to Wal-Mart?'"

A-HA! I knew it! Mall-Wart is a certain kind of Hell on Earth ... and not just for me. She also confirmed another fact I already knew to be true: Fluorescent lighting is THE DEVIL.

Under softer lighting, check out Dr. Grandin's books:

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism

Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals

The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships: Decoding Social Mysteries Through the Unique Perspectives of Autism


rosalicious said...

This is SO interesting. I will have to check out one of her books. I believe she teaches at CSU..

ClizBiz said...

Yes, she does. Her mind is unbelievable - I'm sure her books make a fascinating read.

Kath said...

So happy you posted this. I used to follow her back in the day when she first broke into the media (totally dating myself here!)

And I love it that she recognizes how fluorescent lights can be a person's private hell.

ClizBiz said...

Wow, you were way ahead of me. I've only just heard about her. What a inspiration.

Miss Tinselly said...

Hi - Great entry. I was actually Googling pictures of Dr. Grandin to put on my blog, when your blog came up. I'm wondering if I can put a link to this entry on my blog?