Jmple Grandin is perhaps the most famous autistic researcher in the world. In over 50 years working in animal agriculture – specializing in designing more humane livestock processing facilities – she has improved livestock processing internationally. She is also a prominent autism activist, author and speaker. Her shared insights into her personal experiences – she had difficulty speaking as a child – have gone a long way in increasing our understanding of the disease. His new book, Visual thinking: the hidden gifts of people who think in images, patterns and abstractions, argues that, in a world dominated by verbal thinkers, those with a visual brain are overlooked and undervalued – to the detriment of all of us. Grandin, 75, is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
What are the different ways of thinking, as you conceive them?
I came to see gradually, and it was confirmed in the scientific literature, there are two kinds of visual thinkers: ‘object viewers’, like me, who think in images (concrete, detailed images), and a second group who, unlike me, are ‘spatial viewers’. More mathematically inclined, they think in patterns and abstractions. They are distinct from verbal thinkers who perceive and process information primarily through language. Both types of visual thinkers tend to be more bottom-up, details first. Verbal thinkers tend to be more top-down, linear, and sequential. Most people are mixtures of different types of thinking. What tends to happen with fully verbal autistic people is that you get the extremes of one kind or another. If I’m an extreme object viewer, it’s probably because I have autism.
your memoirs, Thinking in pictureswas first published over 25 years ago and you’ve written books afterwards about autism and thinking differently. What’s new here?
The most important thing is that I look at the problem of the loss of skills, which is gigantic in the United States. We are losing essential technical skills at a time when we need to rebuild our physical infrastructure and manufacture more high-tech products here. I focus on the education system and how it filters our visual thinkers – especially object visualizers who thrive on building, manufacturing, and mechanical things. At the feed yard I visited this morning, it’s hard to find people to repair the feed mill equipment and the specialized feed trucks: that fits perfectly with the book.
What would you most like to see schools do differently?
Deliver practical lessons. They fell from the 1990s with more academic tests. This would include boutique (with training in trades like metalworking, carpentry or auto mechanics), cooking, sewing, music, art and theater (which requires stage design and lighting). I’m a big proponent of visibility: kids have to try different things and find out what they’re good at.
How attitudes towards autism have changed in your life?
Many more services are available. Small children can be diagnosed early, there is better early intervention and support from parents; that’s good. But I also worry for too many kids, even fully verbal kids are so overprotected by their parents, who are locked into the autism label, that they don’t teach them basic life skills. like shopping or laundry, which I was taught.
The diagnostic criteria for autism were revised in 2013 so it is now on a spectrum and known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Was this a good thing?
The spectrum is so broad that it doesn’t make much sense. Are we really going to put severe autistic people who can’t dress themselves in the same category as mild autistic people who work in Silicon Valley? It also compounded this problem of not learning life skills – because even slightly geeky kids are labeled as “on the spectrum”. Where this labeling can be useful is with relationships – it can help clear up misunderstandings.
Given your affinity with animals, how can you design better slaughterhouses for them?
You need to give animals a decent life worth living, where they can have positive emotions. One thing that makes me angry is seeing cattle come lame into the slaughterhouse. I’ve seen issues with this recently for a few different reasons, including animals being bred at heavier weights. They must be able to walk, it is a basic behavior that they should have! And I got in trouble with some people in the industry for saying that.
Where does your bond with animals come from?
I think it’s because, like me, they don’t think in words. Rather, they think through their senses. It used to be that people denied that animals had emotions, which always seemed ridiculous to me. In my first scientific articles, I was not allowed to use the word “fear”. Critics have made me call it “behavioral agitation”. This is slowly changing, but I think part of it comes down to verbal thinkers who may have a hard time imagining that an animal can think and feel when it’s not using words.
You note in the book that many historical figures that we consider geniuses were also neurodivergent. Is it a prerequisite for genius?
I haven’t researched everyone, but that may be a factor. Einstein, for example, did not speak until he was three or four years old. He would land in an autism program today. I am also talking about scholars, who have extreme skills in certain restricted areas. They can perform amazing mathematical calculations in their heads, for example. A significantly higher proportion of people with autism have savant characteristics, compared to the general population.
A biopic about your childhood was published by HBO in 2010 (Claire Danes played you). Do you still use the hugging machine you invented as a student to give you the feeling of being hugged without being touched? And you eat more than jelly [jelly] and yogurt these days?
The hugging machine broke about 11 years ago. I never fixed it because by then I had kissed real people (the machine helped desensitize me). I came up with the idea for a cattle cage: I was having horrible panic and anxiety attacks and the deep pressure was easing.
The jello and yogurt were because in my late twenties I discovered I had terrible bouts of colitis. Everything else went straight through me. Then I took low dose antidepressants for my panic attacks (which I’ve been taking ever since) and the colitis cleared up. My abnormal fear response – I found from a brain scan that my fear center, my amygdala, was three times larger than normal – was the cause.
Visual thinking: the hidden gifts of people who think in images, patterns and abstractions is published by Rider & Co (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply