Temple Grandin’s amazing
life with autism
Story by Tony Phifer, Photos by John Eisele, Videos by Joe Vasos
Keith Belk, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, travels the globe sharing his knowledge about meat quality and management systems. You might even say he’s something of a celebrity in his field.
Belk, though, chuckles when he thinks about what it’s like to travel with his friend and fellow professor, Temple Grandin. That’s when any notion he might have about being famous disappears.
“The interesting thing about traveling with Temple is it’s kind of like walking through the airport with a rock star,” he said. “When you sit down in the lounge area or something like that, no matter what country we’re in, people are constantly coming up for autographs or wanting to have their pictures taken with her. She’s truly famous.”
Grandin very likely is the most famous person working at CSU. Perhaps ever. After all, how many others can claim to be the subject of an Emmy Award-winning HBO film? Or have made the Time 100 list of the people who most affect our world?
“I’ve literally been in jungles in Brazil and the alleys of Beijing, and many other places most people will never get to see and had people come up to me and ask me if I know Temple Grandin,” Belk said. “That’s an honest-to-God true story.”
Perhaps more remarkable than her fame is how it was achieved. Grandin, you see, is considered one of the world’s renowned experts in two fields: animal welfare and autism. Few people ever achieve her level of expertise and fame in one area, much less two.
Betty Lehman, former executive director of the Autism Society of Colorado, has known Grandin for years and attended her speeches and seminars on numerous occasions. She still marvels at the abilities of this woman who, were it not for her mother’s unceasing dedication, seemed destined to be institutionalized and forgotten at a very early age.
A different level of understanding
Not long ago, workers at the massive JBS feedlot east of Greeley were having trouble moving cattle through one of the Grandin-designed serpentine chutes that are in use throughout the world. Each time cattle approached a particular part of the chute, the leader stopped, causing a massive backup.
Brett Ulrich, assistant general manager of the feedlot, called Grandin and sought her counsel. After Ulrich described the problem, Grandin realized cattle were balking because sunlight was pouring through a hole in the chute.
“Temple had us cover the hole with a piece of cardboard,” Ulrich said, smiling at the memory. “As soon as we did that, the cattle started moving through the chute without any problems.”
Grandin’s uncanny knack for thinking in pictures – a phrase made popular in the HBO film and in one of her many books – has allowed her to connect with animals in ways most people never could. Her unique ability has completely altered the way we view livestock and their right to be treated humanely.
Convincing the livestock industry that her methods would improve production while giving animals proper respect wasn’t easy. Not only were her ideas well outside the norm, they were being presented by a woman in a field dominated by men.
Her persistence and successful innovations finally took hold, however, and currently more than half the cattle in North America are raised and processed in systems designed by Grandin.
You can see Grandin’s influence in a number of areas at the JBS feedlot, including her serpentine, high-walled chutes and other innovations. Just as evident are the humane methods used in handling the animals.
Grandin has trained numerous graduate students and Ph.D. candidates over her 25-year tenure at CSU. Many, like Lily Edwards-Callaway, the director of cattle welfare at JBS, have gone on to work for large cattle operations.
Ruth Woiwode, who will earn her Ph.D. in May, also plans to work in the cattle industry. She said she benefits from Grandin’s influence every time she visits a cattle operation.
“Her impact is felt the moment I walk in the door and introduce myself as one of her grad students,” she said. “These feedlot managers are excited about the opportunity to work with someone being trained by Temple. Her reputation obviously precedes me and has opened a lot of doors for me, allowing me to bring credibility to the table.”
Woiwode, who came to CSU to become a veterinarian before finding her passion working with Grandin, recognizes how fortunate she is to work with a professor considered to be among the world’s most knowledgeable in her field.
“I feel the weight of that every day, even as I’m almost done with my Ph.D.,” she said. “I sometimes still find it hard to believe I’ve had the chance to work with her. The impact she’s had on academia and the industry across the country and around the world is amazing, and I know I’m so fortunate to be her student.”
Hope for the hopeless
Much like Grandin’s mother, Eustacia Cutler, Betty Lehman felt very much alone after her son, Eli, was diagnosed with autism. In both cases, doctors suggested the children should be institutionalized – hidden away from the world.
Lehman found very few options available in Colorado to those with autism. Doctors didn’t know how to treat them, schools didn’t know how to teach them, and insurance companies didn’t pay for care. In addition, her son’s condition was constantly accompanied by the word “never.”
“I met Temple for the first time when she spoke in Denver” nearly 20 years ago, Lehman recalled. “We (parents of autistic children) were starved to listen to Temple. From then on, whenever I heard the ‘nevers’ – Eli’s never going to speak, Eli’s never going to have friends, he’s never going to graduate from high school – I thought about Temple. The only ‘never’ Temple ever knew is to never give up.”
It’s impossible to measure the impact Grandin has had in the autism community, but to say her influence has been profound would be grossly insufficient. The combination of her books, the HBO movie and her hundreds of speaking engagements around the globe have made her, inarguably, the most famous autistic person in the world.
Grandin said she has to carefully manage her calendar, making time for teaching, livestock welfare and speaking about autism. While she considers her passions equally important, requests to speak about autism “would take over my life if I allowed it,” she said.
As is, her story inspires others to carry the torch forward. Lehman, a single mom facing a life filled with uncertainty following Eli’s diagnosis, began a one-woman crusade to improve the lot of families with autistic children.
During her nine-year stint as executive director of the Autism Society of Colorado she spearheaded 14 state statutes to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families. In her current job as a disability planner, she connects families with available disability services in the state and helps them plan for future care.
“What makes Temple my personal hero is she knows she’s not an anomaly,” Lehman said. “She tells people not to define themselves by autism. She says, ‘Find your passion. Discover what you can do in your life.’
“Because of Temple, I have dedicated my life to making sure people have access and opportunity to achieve the way Temple has achieved.”
Sharing her gifts
When Grandin arrived recently at CSU’s Agricultural Research Development & Education Center (ARDEC) northeast of Fort Collins, she was immediately recognizable in her signature western shirt and kerchief, jeans and cap. This was a field day for her undergraduate students taking the course “Topics in Animal Science: Livestock Behavior and Handling” and the smile on her face let her nearly 60 students know she was excited to get started.
While some other renowned scientists might favor research over teaching, Grandin relishes her time in the classroom. Teachers were some of the most important people in her life, and she loves having the opportunity to carry on that tradition. To her, making a difference in the world is the most important thing anyone can achieve.
“I really like teaching,” she said. “It really turns me on when students are interested in what I’m interested in. I really like it when a student gets it. It makes me very happy when a former student comes up to me and tells me how much my course helped them. Or when someone says they designed one of my corrals and it worked really well. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me really happy.”
Some of the students were unaware of Grandin’s fame when they signed up for the class. On this day, while watching her demonstrate cattle handling as they move through the serpentine chute into a “squeeze” chute, students are mesmerized by her calm but direct teaching methods.
She encourages questions, and several of the students raise their hands, seeking her input about handling cattle or her approval of a drawing of a system to move livestock.
Jennifer Blanke, a junior who has been handling cattle at her family’s ranch near Sydney, Neb., for years, spent 15 minutes with Grandin following class, asking a variety of questions.
“I had heard of Dr. Grandin, and I knew she was a big deal, but I had no idea about some of the amazing things she’s done,” Blanke said. “She’s very nice … funny, too! She’s open and wants us to ask questions.”
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Grandin: She’s so intent on being there for her students that she gives them her personal cell phone number at the beginning of the semester with the instructions to call whenever they have a question.
Think about that – an academic and autistic crusader known world-wide hands out her number to hundreds of her students every year. Can you imagine, say, George Clooney telling a bunch of 20-somethings to call him on his cellphone whenever they have a question? Probably not.
The result of her remarkable dedication to animal science is that hundreds of her students are now out in the world, changing the way the world views livestock production and care. In the same way, a vast number of families who deal with autism now find hope in her story and carry that message so that future generations will continue to seek to unravel the autism puzzle.
And that’s not all. Her impact at CSU will be felt for generations, thanks to her generosity and that of her many supporters. She donated $250,000 to create the Temple Grandin Animal Handling and Education Center in the proposed Gary and Kay Smith Global Food Innovation Center on the main campus. And in her honor, the proposed Temple Grandin Equine Center Program will be built on the foothills campus, housing a new program in equine-assisted therapy and activities.
Despite a schedule – filled with speaking engagements, media interviews and her own research – that most observers find dizzying, the 67-year-old Grandin has no plans to slow down. She loves what she does, so why retire?
“I probably won’t stop until I’m incapacitated,” she said matter-of-factly.
Woiwode, who considers Grandin one of her very best friends, still finds herself in awe of her mentor after nearly five years working closely with her.