Dr. Temple Grandin, a renowned expert on animal behavior and a newly minted celebrity thanks to an acclaimed HBO biopic on her journey with autism, took some time to field questions during a recent telephone conversation. Grandin is scheduled to appear this week at events in Bakersfield sponsored by the Autism Society Chapter-Kern Autism Network and the Kern County Cattlemen's Association. Both events are sold out, but Grandin's conversation with contributing writer Dianne Hardisty offers a preview of some of the topics she will cover.
It seems the number of diagnosed cases of autism has greatly increased in recent years. Why?
Grandin: The number greatly expanded when they included Asperger's in the diagnosis. Asperger's is a syndrome generally with no speech delay. They may be brilliant, but lacking in social skills, or with behavior problems. In many cases, people with Asperger's are the geeks and nerds you knew in school.
With autism there is delayed speech, lack of socialization, fixations, repetitive behavior. It is considered a spectrum disorder, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
As more people become aware of autism, research about the causes has increased. What do you believe are some of the causes?
Grandin: There is a strong genetic basis. And "environmental insults" now are highly suspected. For example, a higher incidence has been discovered among children living closer to freeways.
Is there a connection between occurrences of autism and childhood vaccines?
Grandin: Research making that connection has been discredited. But there should be a closer evaluation. Typically children with autism have delayed speech. A statistical analysis of existing studies of these children could identify "significant differences of variables" and help identify causes.
But there is another type of autism, where the child "loses language, they regress." These children should be carefully studied to determine when and why they lost language, and if factors such as vaccines and genetic predisposition may be causes.
In the movie about your life and your writings, there seems to be the recurring theme that children with autism are just "different," that they possess strengths that can be used as lifelong building blocks. Is that your belief?
Grandin: There is a spectrum. At one end are severely disabled children, who have contributing medical problems, such as epilepsy. At the other end are the quirky, nerdy, brilliant ones who go on to invent the light bulb or computer systems. The Silicon Valley is filled with these people. There are uneven skills. You build on them. In my case, that was art. And then a teacher directed me to studying science.
If you could give parents just one piece of advice, what would that be?
Grandin: I would have to know the kid's age. But if he is 2 or 3, I would say get him to an effective teacher and have him work intensively, one on one. The earlier you can start, the more progress you can make. And when they are in middle school, begin to think about the kid's strength. What can they do so they can find work?
I notice when you travel to a community, you often combine speaking to cattlemen's groups with speaking to autism associations. You have done so again for your Bakersfield trip. Why?
Grandin: It is the best use of my time. I am still a professor at Colorado State University. I teach, write and do research. I teach courses in livestock behavior and facility design. The American Meat Institute's guidelines for handling and stunning reflect this work.
What is the message you want to deliver to Kern County cattlemen when you meet with them?
Grandin: That animal welfare is important; that they should be educating the public about agriculture.
In the movie about your life and your writings, you "sell" the idea that humane treatment of animals is not only appropriate, it makes business sense. Have cattlemen "bought" that idea?
Grandin: Yes, and auditing is being developed to demonstrate that to the public. This concept also is reflected in the American Meat Institute guidelines.
After you speak in Bakersfield, you will be traveling to Modesto to observe new facilities at egg producer J.S. West. What is the purpose of your visit?
Grandin: I am going to observe the chickens for stress, containment.
J.S. West is embroiled in a controversy over its construction of new cages to comply with Proposition 2, the 2008 ballot proposition. The Humane Society of the United States argues that the company's $3.3 million project falls short of what will be required by Prop. 2 by the 2015 deadline. Are you familiar with the controversy?
Grandin: Yes. J.S. West is live streaming on its website (www.jswest.com) video of hens in their new facility. They have increased the size of the cages. Do the chickens still touch each other? Yes. But even free-range hens touch each other. They flock together. That's what they do.
Animal rights organizations generally consider commercial operations, such as dairies and feedlots, as inhumane "factory farms." What is your response?
Grandin: We need to be communicating with the public. What J.S. West has done with their video lets the public see for itself the conditions and better understand. Many of the big plants are installing (video systems) and audits by third parties, who actually count the times prods are used on animals.
A line repeated often in the movie about you is: "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be." Is that a goal of the work you do as a consultant for meat producers and major restaurant chains?
Grandin: Yes. I am very concerned about animal welfare, and improving conditions in facilities, such as slaughterhouses. In addition to the welfare of the animals, the handling of animals can affect the quality of meat and a company's profits.
You were featured recently during the Golden Globe Awards, where the HBO movie about your life received many awards. What was it like to attend the awards and rub shoulders with Hollywood?
Grandin: It was really a lot about business that night. People were serious about making connections. Sure, there was champagne on the tables. But the people, for the most part, were well-behaved. I've been to cattlemen's conventions that were much wilder. But I thought that guy (host Ricky Gervais) was just dreadful. He said really mean things. He deserves all the criticism he is getting.