One of the characteristics of Temple Grandin’s autistic psyche was “I always hated to be hugged.” In Thinking in Pictures she says she hated the experience because it involved just too much stimulation — overload — a “fight or flight” response. What she craved most was not hugging, but body pressure in a confined space. She used to wrap herself in blankets or wedge her body into small spaces to enjoy the sense of pressure her body craved.
For most people without autism, many of Grandin’s peculiar behaviors are hard to comprehend. Grandin says that while visiting her aunt’s ranch in Arizona, she saw cattle held tightly in a squeeze chute so they would remain inactive while being vaccinated. What surprised her most was the calming effect the gentle squeezing had on the cattle. The pressure definitely calmed them.
Because she longed for this same sensory effect, Grandin built her own human squeeze machine out of plywood panels that would push in against her sides while she lay on her stomach with her head through a halter to anchor it in place. While this may seem grotesque and terrifying to some people, Grandin would often spend 30 or more minutes in her squeeze machine until her anxieties and/or panic attacks could be controlled. It was this gentle bodily comfort that helped her transfer kindness and gentleness to people and animals. She admits her feelings “are much more like the emotions of a child than an adult.”
Author Grandin reveals a lot about the traits of persons with autism. She specifically titled her wonderfully written book Thinking in Pictures because those three words describe her brain’s thinking mechanism. Grandin thinks in pictures. Without them, her life would be turmoil. When her family and educators began relating to her through pictures, Grandin’s superior intellect took flight.
During infancy and continuing until she began to speak and then read, the author remembered ideas, concepts, and thoughts by associating them with pictures. A photograph of a cow told her she saw: cow. But slowly, the association of the letters c-o-w to form the word “cow” eventually let her communicate on a more verbal level, but always, always the pictures remained in her mind — they came first.
Thinking in Pictures tells of Grandin’s love for animals. She says she understands them because, like her, they think in pictures. At an early age, she became concerned with the way cattle were treated on their way to and through slaughterhouses. Her mental pictures gained by touring cattle ranches and meat packing centers tortured her. She watched cattle being driven, sometimes mercilessly, up until their moment of death. Dying to her, including animal slaughter, should be a sacred moment — peaceful, quiet, and respectful of the life taken.
When herded into unfamiliar pens and chutes or dip vats to remove bugs, cows were terrified by strange surroundings and would refuse to move. Often, electric prods were used to jolt them along. By placing herself at a cow’s eye level, Grandin pictured what scared these animals as they were prodded along. Her mind photographed what she found frightening. In one instance, it was a flapping yellow ribbon at one end of a narrow passage that kept these huge beasts from using that walkway.
Eventually, Temple Grandin became not just an advocate for animal rights, but also a sought-after expert, an advisor who would make life in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants much more productive; but what’s more important, so much more humane for both animals and workers.
One of the unforgettable parts of Thinking in Pictures is a chapter titled, “Stairway to Heaven.” As she was leaving a Swift Meat Packing plant, the author began to think of all the changes the company had put in place to eliminate the utter fear and discomfort cows face, not because they know they will die, but because plants and workers did not know how to treat them properly. The Swift Company had followed her advice and made drastic changes in their vast operation. They built pens and chutes designed by Grandin, and followed her operating procedures.
Because of her improvements, she now pictured the Swift plant as the stairway to heaven because these beasts no longer spent frightening hours in terrifying surroundings. Now the animals entered the plant calmly and in comfort. When their end came, it happened instantly while standing at ease in a huge cow-sized squeeze machine similar to the one Grandin had first used on her own body. Now, this meat packing facility became the stairway to heaven for the animals calmly slaughtered each day.
For readers seeking to understand and help a person with autism, Thinking in Pictures is an unforgettable story. Temple Grandin freely exposes her own thinking by comparing it to the way animals think which she believes is through pictures. But her book also discusses other types of autism and provides helpful clues for parents suggesting actions they might try to help their own child.
Her warning at the extreme end of the book is stern. She says that there is no magic medical cure for autism. She wants parents to beware of extravagant cure claims because, in the end, the best cure is to combine every approach that seems to work.