Last week I attended a talk by Temple Grandin here at NIU. I jotted down a variety of take-aways from her presentation, but one of the ideas that stuck with me (a doctoral student suffering from depression) is how those of us with different minds, those whose minds refuse to conform to neurotypicality, can often provide new insights into research and other kinds of intellectual work. Grandin also argued that as difficult as work might be when you have to struggle against the limits of your own mind, in some ways her high-functioning autism is a blessing. Knowing one's mind and having to work around it enables the differently minded to succeed in unexpected and unconventional ways.
Who is Temple Grandin?
If you didn't get the title reference to horned animals...Temple Grandin knows a thing or two about horned animals. Grandin is an animal scientist, author, and entrepreneur who, despite her autism (and perhaps because of her autism), earned a PhD from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1989. Since then, Grandin's work with farm animals and how they think has led to her invention of the curved corral and other innovative solutions for working with animals. While all of that is extremely impressive and interesting, what interests us most is how her "different mind" enabled her to develop unique and unexpected ideas about animals, and to do doctoral work.
What is a different mind?
Grandin herself has a diagnosis of autism and cerebral damage, but her philosophy on the strengths of the differently minded applies to anyone who suffers from neuro-atypicality -- whether a person is dyslexic, has lost their short-term memory, has dyscalculia, or thinks in pictures rather than words. A number of mental conditions could apply to people who are otherwise functional and intelligent. What Grandin and others find advantageous about what are otherwise considered disabilities is that a differently minded person's altered perception and processing enables them to see things from a completely new perspective, and to sometimes discover solutions that a neurotypical person would never have access to.
For instance, Grandin's patented cattle corral design was developed when she decided to walk with the cows on the way into the slaughterhouse, and to try to see what they see. Rather than looking at their progress toward the plant analytically, from the outside, she did so sympathetically, walking in the shoes (or the hooves, in this case) of the cattle. In her presentation she shows several photos of cattle avoiding entrances. It is not always immediately apparent why they seemed to stop dead in their tracks with only thin air in front of them. But Grandin points out shadows, streams of light, reflections, and even a stray chain swaying, hanging from a ceiling, as sources of confusion and fear for the animals.
Grandin also names many other well known "different minds" who put mild disabilities to work for them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk -- she offers them all up as examples of people whose minds did not fit the mold, yet enabled them to innovate. The Steve Jobs reference reminds me of Apple's ungrammatical tagline from twenty years ago -- "Think Different."
Why Grandin Doesn't Have to Be an Anomaly
Folks like Bill Gates aren't born every day, it's true. But it's also true that people with mild disabilities, disabilities which may eventually make them believe they are incapable of advanced study, are born every day. A significant portion of Grandin's talk is devoted to teaching people how to live and work better with the minds they have. Some key takeaways that could help us all through an advanced degree:
- Develop workarounds: Grandin believes there are types of minds -- mathematical ones, visual ones, and verbal ones, to be specific. And each of them can be differently affected by autism, dyslexia, etc. So if, for instance, you have been shown by your mind time and again that you are not particularly verbal, then develop a method where you don't have to rely on words. Draw your notes, use visual reminders, make big checklists, etc. Research your disability to learn other workarounds that will support you through the intellectual work you have to do.
- Don't overspecialize: Though Grandin has a Ph. D. in animal science, she is adamant that graduate students should not overspecialize. Here she offers particular caution to her autistic peers who tend to be hyper-focused. Grad students need to specialize in a degree area to complete a thesis or dissertation, but they should surround themselves with different minds when they do collaborative work. Most of the research work Grandin has produced has been in interdisciplinary teams, and some of her articles are co-authored. Working with people across various fields keeps her versatile and keeps her interested in her work. It also keeps her more social! (She gets in a few jokes here, about Ph. D. students who can't talk to people at parties...)
- Have art or hobbies in your life: Piggy-backing (haha) on "don't overspecialize," Grandin stresses the importance of doing art, music, or any kind of hobby that is unrelated to your studies. For an autistic person like Grandin, this can express itself in many ways! For instance, she is obsessed with space and NASA, and reads voraciously about these topics. She mentions people she knows who have nearly pigeon-holed themselves with their studies, but were saved by picking up a violin or learning woodcraft. I can speak to this personally. I am always in a rock band or working on recordings. People ask me how I have the time to do that, and "Don't you go crazy from doing too much?" I answer no, I would go crazy if I didn't have bands and gigs in my life! Because it's not anything like what I study.
- Learn to work early: Even if your parents didn't turn you loose until grad school, you can still learn to work... Grandin believes in putting kids to work early, not to teach them the value of a dollar or anything like that, but to make sure they can take care of themselves early. Without her own work on a ranch during high school, she may never have found her talent for working with animals. So whatever your discipline, get your hands dirty with it as soon as possible. Intern, volunteer, collaborate, conference, teach, or do whatever your field will let you do. Doing is better than just thinking and writing.
Temple Grandin was a joy to watch. I think she is a person who lives by her own advice and is a role model for autistic folks and other folks who struggle in an academic environment. Her gruff delivery and straightforward manner was refreshing and funny. (At one point she tossed the audience a ball of duct tape she'd found on the floor. "Here you probably want this!"). She closed the talk by saying it was time to go sit at the book table, because she loves to sell her books. ...As she would not let us forget, she is also an excellent businessperson.
This ends this month's installment of our two-part series on Temple Grandin. I hope her wisdom and example inspires you to push forward on your studies, whether you struggle with a disability or not. Next month we will talk about what kinds of contributions different minds like Grandin's can bring to higher education and to university research.