Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Book Review (#3 of 2014) Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World is a biography of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman whose inventions have drastically altered the treatment of animals for slaughter. (The HBO docudrama of her life earned 15 Emmy nominations.)

I found this book very thought-provoking, particularly in thinking about the minds and emotions of animals. Grandin is a Dr. Doolittle of sorts, her autism causes her to see the world similarly to how animals do-- perceiving and being affected by the minutest details of sight and sound. Why are the cows misbehaving and seem upset when going into the pen? Because there is a coat draped over the fence somewhere and it doesn't belong there, or there's a chain blowing in the breeze and it's moving unpredictably. Grandin is able to figure that out where others do not.

Many people with autism have sensory processing disorder, and they often find therapy either being in motion or feeling the pressure of being tightly squeezed. Grandin designed contraptions to help her senses cope and later designed similar instruments for cows and other animals, to great result such that most cattle farms in the U.S. now use something she's invented.

Her autism leaves her with an inability to empathize or read human emotions naturally. As such, she's experienced a life of social awkwardness and persecution. But a few caring people in her lives--mostly at special schools her parents could afford to send her to--helped her develop into a successful PhD who does speaking engagements.

Some people with autism are fortunate to have resources behind them, or mentors to guide them, as Grandin did and this book struck me of that importance. Many people throughout history we now suspect to have been autistic-- Einstein and Van Gogh to name a couple. Their brains worked differently and they had obsessions with objects like those diagnosed with autism. How many others in history have been outcast or locked up in asylums, as Grandin's father wanted for her, so as to rob the world of their creative powers? (Tyler Cowen points to Alan Turing as one example of a likely autistic person who was persecuted to suicide). That's a sad thought.

Grandin was dismissed as less-than-human in part because she could not speak or imitate humans until a late age. So, she empathizes with animals for much the same reason. This made me think a lot about animal ethics. Grandin, remarkably, isn't a vegan-- she eats meat. She sees the inevitability of using animals as resources--thousands of products we use from plastics to cosmetics are the result of animal slaughter.

This book made me wonder about the ways my autistic son sees the world that I may not realize or appreciate. Does he see the world in pictures? Can he empathize with animals, or in certain situations, while not being able to empathize "normally" in most situations?

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It was too brief.


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