In Touch, at Last
01/09/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
WHENEVER THE WORLD starts to overwhelm her, Temple Grandin retreats to the bedroom of her home in Fort Collins, Colo., and crawls into a device she invented to calm her nerves—a squeeze machine. Since birth, Grandin, 47, has suffered from autism, a brain disorder that can leave its victims in an intense sensory hell. She has experienced the ringing of a phone as "a dentist's drill in my ear," she says, "and when I was a kid, going to church was a nightmare. The petticoats felt like sandpaper." Like any child, she yearned to be hugged, but there was a problem. The sensation of being held was so intense that it hurt.
Grandin's machine helps her tolerate human touch. Once a week she clambers onto the contraption, made of two 4-foot-by-3-foot padded boards hinged together in a V shape. Then she turns on a small air compressor, and the boards exert a gentle pressure along the length of her body. "I get such a feeling of relaxation," says Grandin. "It makes me have nice thoughts."
In some ways, Grandin's triumph is symbolized by her machine; just as she invented it, so has she invented herself. While America's hundreds of thousands of autistics suffer from a neurological impairment so severe that many never speak or respond to normal human contact, Grandin is an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University. "There are only a small number of recovered autistic people," says Dr. Bernard Rimland, director of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego. "She's certainly a star."
Using insights derived from her own illness, which has taught her a great deal about the emotional edginess of isolated creatures, Grandin has made herself one of the world's leading experts on the humane handling of livestock. Over the past two decades, she has built a thriving private consulting business, and nearly one-third of the cattle and hogs in the U.S. and Canada pass through holding pens or restraining chutes that she has designed.
In recent months, Grandin has worked with nutritionists at the Denver Zoo to develop ways of handling animals with hair-trigger flight responses. For the bongo, a skittish antelope known in Sudan as the ghost of the forest, she designed a simple treat dispenser that proved to be an effective lure. "We were racking our brains about what to do, and Temple came up with the perfect solution in 5 minutes," says Wendy Graffam, a wildlife nutritionist. "She sees things from the animal's perspective."
Perhaps most remarkable of all of Grandin's accomplishments is that she has escaped from the mental prison of autism and can tell the world about it. Dustin Hoffman consulted her when he was preparing for his role as an autistic adult in the 1988 film Rain Man. "If Temple had been in sports," Hoffman says, "you would have called what she has done Herculean."
In fact, it is little short of miraculous. As an infant, Grandin clawed at anyone who tried to touch her and often acted out her frustration by throwing her feces. Unable to talk by age 3, she was finally diagnosed as autistic, and a doctor suggested she be institutionalized. Her late father, Boston real estate agent Richard Grandin, and her mother, Eustacia Purves, a writer and actress, instead had her placed in a nursery school for speech-handicapped children.
Though many autistics never talk others, for unknown reasons, break through the language barrier at age 4 or 5 and begin to develop rudimentary social skills. Grandin is one of the few who are able to lead relatively normal lives. "She is a woman of exceptional intelligence," says neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has included a chapter on Grandin in An Anthropologist on Mars, his essay collection to be published next month. "Somehow things work for her, quite why I don't know." The personalized attention Grandin received at a series of private schools probably helped, he believes.
As an adolescent, Grandin says, she was extremely nervous in group situations and endured taunts from kids who called her retarded. But a turning point occurred for her at 15, when she visited her aunt Ann Brecheen's ranch outside Tempe, Ariz. Noticing that cows were very relaxed when placed in a squeeze chute designed for holding them during branding, Grandin tried it and discovered it relieved her nervous tension. So she decided to build a similar device for herself. The result was the original version of her squeeze machine.
Daily sessions in the device helped Grandin, whose IQ has tested at 137, make it through high school and Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, where she graduated in 1970 with a degree in experimental psychology. After working briefly for a feedlot construction company in Phoenix, Grandin soon found herself in great demand as a livestock-equipment designer because of her unique empathy with animals and willingness to get into a chute to examine things from a cow's viewpoint. "Autistic people don't like change or things that are out of place," she says. "Cattle don't either. They are scared of little things: a chain that jiggles, a sparkle of light." Over the years, she has traveled throughout the U.S., as well as to Australia, China and Europe, to design handling facilities for stockyards and meat-processing plants. "It is of the utmost importance to treat animals with respect while they are being processed," she says.
Four years ago, Grandin joined the faculty at Colorado State, armed with a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois. She now lives in a sparsely furnished town house and never wears a dress because the feeling of her limbs rubbing together, she says, remains "unpleasant." Though the squeeze machine and her use of an antidepressant have dramatically eased her hypersensitivity to touch, she still at times feels a lingering anxiety and has few close friends. Her idea of a good time is to stay home and watch Star Trek. Her favorite characters are Data, the android trying to be a man, and his predecessor, Spock, the half Vulcan struggling with human emotions. Like them, Grandin accepts being a perpetual outsider. "You know how some girls get a crush on a guy?" she says. "I've never had that. I know I'm missing something, but I don't have time to think about it. My work is my life." And, she adds, it's not as if her life's work is without emotion. "I can relate to how cattle feel when they get scared," she says. "When I can make them calm, that makes me happy. I guess maybe that's called love."
VICKIE BANE in Fort Collins