Range Life

How the autistic brain explains the interior life of animals

Temple Grandin is our most famous autistic.

She first came to the attention of the public as the subject of one of Oliver Sacks's neurological studies, in which she described the way she experienced the world as that of "an anthropologist on Mars." Finding her way on this planet, she discovered an affinity for animals—specifically, that she shared perceptual abilities with domesticated cattle. She has become a valued consultant to the beef industry, designing humane slaughterhouse equipment that helps dispatch half the U.S.'s food animals every year. Her profile has risen so high she is employed by McDonald's to ensure that Big Macs, while still ambulatory, are handled to a standard that will keep PETA relatively quiet.

In a previous book, Thinking in Pictures (1995), she described how her brain functions: Input stays visual and discrete, rather than being translated into words and thence to concepts. Animals in Translation, her more readable follow-up, elaborates on the idea that autistic brains are more similar to animal brains than they are to "normal" human brains. She may, as a high-functioning autistic, have succeeded in getting a doctorate in animal science, but at heart she is a prey animal on the plain, alert to every movement in the undergrowth.

Temple Grandin: "What I've learned will help people start over again with animals.
photo: Rosalie Winard
Temple Grandin: "What I've learned will help people start over again with animals.

Thus her purpose is to rehabilitate animals in the eyes of the humans who for too long have scorned their intelligence. For what goal—psychic ease of maltreatment?—she does not assay. But she does give copious evidence, from a far-flung map of seemingly every behavioral, ethological, and biological outpost in the animal kingdom, that it is we who are lacking in the smarts department, at least when it comes to assessing or even noticing different ways of thinking. This is clearly the voice of someone who has endured grave misinterpretation herself; in 1995 Grandin wrote, "Some renowned scientist speculated that humans had to develop language before they could develop tools. I thought this was ridiculous . . . "—probably because she designed tools all the time, and she thought visually, not verbally. (But why not ask the owner of any dog who, by crawling into a lap and depositing something in the hand, has turned his human into the ideal tool for holding bones so they might be chewed with optimal vigor?) Here, though, she proves herself hardly outside the usual human pale, for she reads the same popular opinions as everyone else: Like many, she confuses "language" with "speech." She corrects herself later with examples of some terrifically complex animal communication systems, notably that of Gunnison's prairie dog, but first complains that the thinking of deaf-mutes is so little studied that a Google search on "language-less people" turns up only nine hits. She might have tried "people without speech": That one yields 11,300,000.

To those who find themselves daily shocked by the narcissism of humans who contemplate the rest of creation through tiny spyglasses only to find the view uninterestingly circumscribed, Animals in Translation will be clutched to the breast in relief. And then, perhaps, removed a little distance. Because it is ultimately troubling, not for the questions it does not answer—the author is wise enough to say that the probability of animals' rich emotional and communicative lives coincides with our inability to ever know for sure—but for the ones she does not ask. She claims a native ability to understand animals at the experiential level, yet she often works from the same analytical prison cell we all do, confined by prevailing philosophy.

At the outset Grandin hopes that "what I've learned will help people start over again with animals," and at the end she reiterates a desire for animals to "have more than just a low-stress life and a quick, painless death. I wish animals could have a good life, too, with something useful to do." Devoutly to be wished—except impossible, without dismantling the gigantic construct of factory farming, the industry that employs her. She never goes to the mat in the fight between animal rights and animal welfare, because she might not come back alive. Yet there is no figure who more perfectly exemplifies that vexing conflict. She only stands at the edge, addressing the riddle of her love for cows giving rise to a career of facilitating their deaths.

One of the true mysteries of autism is how a neurological short circuit can cause extreme emotional dissociation. In Temple Grandin, it explains a lot.

 
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