Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

by Sy Montgomery

Houghton Mifflin, 2012

148 pages

Children with autism are (often very obviously) outside the norm in our society, and girls with autism are doubly so. While the CDC estimates that about one percent of children overall have an autism spectrum disorder, only 0.3 percent of girls do.

But statistical rarity isn’t the only thing isolating about autism. The disorder’s hallmark trait is social and emotional disconnection. People with autism have a reduced (or sometimes entirely nonexistent) ability to read others’ social and emotional cues and to express their own thoughts and emotions.

While autism awareness is becoming widespread, particularly among parents and other caregivers of young children, few people have an intimate understanding of the disorder. Many people’s conception of autism consists of stereotypes that often show the disorder at its most extreme. Few–perhaps apart from researchers–know what really goes on inside the mind of someone with autism.

Temple Grandin wants to change all that, and Sy Montgomery’s biography Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World shows how.

Temple attained household recognition in 2010, when she was the subject of an award-winning biopic. At the time, she was already well known in academia and the livestock industry, where she has a decades-long career as a respected professor and a pioneer in the humane treatment of meat animals.

Diagnosed with autism at the age of three, Temple discovered early on that she had an instinctive affinity for animals–and they for her. Because autism causes her to think in pictures, much like animals do, Temple can intuit how animals are thinking and feeling.

When Temple was a child, her father insisted that she was “retarded” or “crazy” and should be institutionalized; Temple’s mother, however, thought just the reverse. She was convinced that Temple was gifted, just in an unusual way, and would thrive if given the right education and training.

She accordingly enrolled the teenage Temple in a special boarding school for children with autism, and Temple went on to earn a Ph.D. in animal science. Inspired by visits to ranches and slaughterhouses, she decided to focus on designing machines and other equipment that would increase humane treatment of animals raised for food.

It was not an easy road. Temple was working in a male-dominated field, and autism traits (such as her speech patterns and her inability to read body language) made the job even harder. But she persisted in her work, and she spent hours practicing social niceties and teaching herself how to read conversational and body-language cues. She also began to speak out about her autism, helping people to understand the workings of the autistic mind and even the benefits of certain autistic traits.

Temple is now one of the world’s most respected animal science professors. Machinery and structures designed by her are used to process half the nation’s meat animals. And her openness about her autism brings daily inspiration to autistic children and their parents.

Temple’s story is inspirational in and of itself, but Montgomery’s book maximizes the impact. She doesn’t mince words when describing the challenges Temple faced: the turmoil in her young brain, the bullying she endured in traditional school, the resistance from ranchers and professors and industrial designers who didn’t think a woman could contribute anything worthwhile to “their” field. It’s easier to appreciate what a person like Temple has accomplished, what a trailblazer she is, when you know where she started and what she’s faced along the road.

Montgomery is also very straightforward about autism, not just its characteristics and challenges but also its benefits. Temple always says that she’s thankful to be autistic, that she wouldn’t shed her autism if she had the opportunity. And Montgomery’s book helps readers understand why.

For instance, Montgomery draws a clear connection between autism traits like thinking in pictures and Temple’s dramatic impact on the welfare of animals. With Temple’s help, Montgomery also offers very practical suggestions for activities that bring out the best in autistic children, activities that will put their brains’ unique behavior to good use.

For anyone seeking to understand autism, for autistic children wondering if there’s a place for them in the world, or for any child who just feels “different” and needs more hope for the future, this is indeed an inspiring book.

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