Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism

Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism

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Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is a gifted animal scientist who has designed one third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States. She also lectures widely on autism—because Temple Grandin is autistic, a woman who thinks, feels, and experiences the world in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us.

In this unprecedented book, Grandin delivers a report from the country of autism. Writing from the dual perspectives of a scientist and an autistic person, she tells us how that country is experienced by its inhabitants and how she managed to breach its boundaries to function in the outside world. What emerges in Thinking in Pictures is the document of an extraordinary human being, one who, in gracefully and lucidly bridging the gulf between her condition and our own, sheds light on the riddle of our common identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307275653
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/10/2006
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 73,301
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois, and has designed one third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the United States, and many in other countries. She is currently an associate professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and a frequent lecturer at autism meetings throughout the country. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

Thinking in Pictures

By Temple Grandin With A Foreword by Oliver Sacks

Random House

Temple Grandin With A Foreword by Oliver Sacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0307275655

Chapter One

Chapter 1


Thinking in Pictures

Autism and Visual Thought

I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.

Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination. During my career I have designed all kinds of equipment, ranging from corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter. I have worked for many major livestock companies. In fact, one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment I have designed. Some of the people I've worked for don't even know that their systems were designed by someone with autism. I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it.

One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills. When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different. In fact, I did not realize the full extent of the differences until very recently. At meetings and at work I started asking other people detailed questions about how they accessed information from their memories. From their answers I learned that my visualization skills far exceeded those of most other people.

I credit my visualization abilities with helping me understand the animals I work with. Early in my career I used a camera to help give me the animals' perspective as they walked through a chute for their veterinary treatment. I would kneel down and take pictures through the chute from the cow's eye level. Using the photos, I was able to figure out which things scared the cattle, such as shadows and bright spots of sunlight. Back then I used black-and-white film, because twenty years ago scientists believed that cattle lacked color vision. Today, research has shown that cattle can see colors, but the photos provided the unique advantage of seeing the world through a cow's viewpoint. They helped me figure out why the animals refused to go in one chute but willingly walked through another.

Every design problem I've ever solved started with my ability to visualize and see the world in pictures. I started designing things as a child, when I was always experimenting with new kinds of kites and model airplanes. In elementary school I made a helicopter out of a broken balsa-wood airplane. When I wound up the propeller, the helicopter flew straight up about a hundred feet. I also made bird-shaped paper kites, which I flew behind my bike. The kites were cut out from a single sheet of heavy drawing paper and flown with thread. I experimented with different ways of bending the wings to increase flying performance. Bending the tips of the wings up made the kite fly higher. Thirty years later, this same design started appearing on commercial aircraft.

Now, in my work, before I attempt any construction, I test-run the equipment in my imagination. I visualize my designs being used in every possible situation, with different sizes and breeds of cattle and in different weather conditions. Doing this enables me to correct mistakes prior to construction. Today, everyone is excited about the new virtual reality computer systems in which the user wears special goggles and is fully immersed in video game action. To me, these systems are like crude cartoons. My imagination works like the computer graphics programs that created the lifelike dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. When I do an equipment simulation in my imagination or work on an engineering problem, it is like seeing it on a videotape in my mind. I can view it from any angle, placing myself above or below the equipment and rotating it at the same time. I don't need a fancy graphics program that can produce three-dimensional design simulations. I can do it better and faster in my head.

I create new images all the time by taking many little parts of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together. I have video memories of every item I've ever worked with--steel gates, fences, latches, concrete walls, and so forth. To create new designs, I retrieve bits and pieces from my memory and combine them into a new whole. My design ability keeps improving as I add more visual images to my library. I add videolike images from either actual experiences or translations of written information into pictures. I can visualize the operation of such things as squeeze chutes, truck loading ramps, and all different types of livestock equipment. The more I actually work with cattle and operate equipment, the stronger my visual memories become.

I first used my video library in one of my early livestock design projects, creating a dip vat and cattle-handling facility for John Wayne's Red River feed yard in Arizona. A dip vat is a long, narrow, seven-foot-deep swimming pool through which cattle move in single file. It is filled with pesticide to rid the animals of ticks, lice, and other external parasites. In 1978, existing dip vat designs were very poor. The animals often panicked because they were forced to slide into the vat down a steep, slick concrete decline. They would refuse to jump into the vat, and sometimes they would flip over backward and drown. The engineers who designed the slide never thought about why the cattle became so frightened.

The first thing I did when I arrived at the feedlot was to put myself inside the cattle's heads and look out through their eyes. Because their eyes are on the sides of their heads, cattle have wide-angle vision, so it was like walking through the facility with a wide-angle video camera. I had spent the past six years studying how cattle see their world and watching thousands move through different facilities all over Arizona, and it was immediately obvious to me why they were scared. Those cattle must have felt as if they were being forced to jump down an airplane escape slide into the ocean.

Cattle are frightened by high contrasts of light and dark as well as by people and objects that move suddenly. I've seen cattle that were handled in two identical facilities easily walk through one and balk in the other. The only difference between the two facilities was their orientation to the sun. The cattle refused to move through the chute where the sun cast harsh shadows across it. Until I made this observation, nobody in the feedlot industry had been able to explain why one veterinary facility worked better than the other. It was a matter of observing the small details that made a big difference. To me, the dip vat problem was even more obvious.

My first step in designing a better system was collecting all the published information on existing dip vats. Before doing anything else, I always check out what is considered state-of-the-art so I don't waste time reinventing the wheel. Then I turned to livestock publications, which usually have very limited information, and my library of video memories, all of which contained bad designs. From experience with other types of equipment, such as unloading ramps for trucks, I had learned that cattle willingly walk down a ramp that has cleats to provide secure, nonslip footing. Sliding causes them to panic and back up. The challenge was to design an entrance that would encourage the cattle to walk in voluntarily and plunge into the water, which was deep enough to submerge them completely, so that all the bugs, including those that collect in their ears, would be eliminated.

I started running three-dimensional visual simulations in my imagination. I experimented with different entrance designs and made the cattle walk through them in my imagination. Three images merged to form the final design: a memory of a dip vat in Yuma, Arizona, a portable vat I had seen in a magazine, and an entrance ramp I had seen on a restraint device at the Swift meat-packing plant in Tolleson, Arizona. The new dip vat entrance ramp was a modified version of the ramp I had seen there. My design contained three features that had never been used before: an entrance that would not scare the animals, an improved chemical filtration system, and the use of animal behavior principles to prevent the cattle from becoming overexcited when they left the vat.

The first thing I did was convert the ramp from steel to concrete. The final design had a concrete ramp on a twenty-five-degree downward angle. Deep grooves in the concrete provided secure footing. The ramp appeared to enter the water gradually, but in reality it abruptly dropped away below the water's surface. The animals could not see the drop-off because the dip chemicals colored the water. When they stepped out over the water, they quietly fell in, because their center of gravity had passed the point of no return.

Before the vat was built, I tested the entrance design many times in my imagination. Many of the cowboys at the feedlot were skeptical and did not believe my design would work. After it was constructed, they modified it behind my back, because they were sure it was wrong. A metal sheet was installed over the nonslip ramp, converting it back to an old-fashioned slide entrance. The first day they used it, two cattle drowned because they panicked and flipped over backward.

When I saw the metal sheet, I made the cowboys take it out. They were flabbergasted when they saw that the ramp now worked perfectly. Each calf stepped out over the steep drop-off and quietly plopped into the water. I fondly refer to this design as "cattle walking on water."

Over the years, I have observed that many ranchers and cattle feeders think that the only way to induce animals to enter handling facilities is to force them in. The owners and managers of feedlots sometimes have a hard time comprehending that if devices such as dip vats and restraint chutes are properly designed, cattle will voluntarily enter them. I can imagine the sensations the animals would feel. If I had a calf's body and hooves, I would be very scared to step on a slippery metal ramp.

There were still problems I had to resolve after the animals left the dip vat. The platform where they exit is usually divided into two pens so that cattle can dry on one side while the other side is being filled. No one understood why the animals coming out of the dip vat would sometimes become excited, but I figured it was because they wanted to follow their drier buddies, not unlike children divided from their classmates on a playground. I installed a solid fence between the two pens to prevent the animals on one side from seeing the animals on the other side. It was a very simple solution, and it amazed me that nobody had ever thought of it before.

The system I designed for filtering and cleaning the cattle hair and other gook out of the dip vat was based on a swimming pool filtration system. My imagination scanned two specific swimming pool filters that I had operated, one on my Aunt Brecheen's ranch in Arizona and one at our home. To prevent water from splashing out of the dip vat, I copied the concrete coping overhang used on swimming pools. That idea, like many of my best designs, came to me very clearly just before I drifted off to sleep at night.

Being autistic, I don't naturally assimilate information that most people take for granted. Instead, I store information in my head as if it were on a CD-ROM disc. When I recall something I have learned, I replay the video in my imagination. The videos in my memory are always specific; for example, I remember handling cattle at the veterinary chute at Producer's Feedlot or McElhaney Cattle Company. I remember exactly how the animals behaved in that specific situation and how the chutes and other equipment were built. The exact construction of steel fenceposts and pipe rails in each case is also part of my visual memory. I can run these images over and over and study them to solve design problems.

If I let my mind wander, the video jumps in a kind of free association from fence construction to a particular welding shop where I've seen posts being cut and Old John, the welder, making gates. If I continue thinking about Old John welding a gate, the video image changes to a series of short scenes of building gates on several projects I've worked on. Each video memory triggers another in this associative fashion, and my daydreams may wander far from the design problem. The next image may be of having a good time listening to John and the construction crew tell war stories, such as the time the backhoe dug into a nest of rattlesnakes and the machine was abandoned for two weeks because everybody was afraid to go near it.

This process of association is a good example of how my mind can wander off the subject. People with more severe autism have difficulty stopping endless associations. I am able to stop them and get my mind back on track. When I find my mind wandering too far away from a design problem I am trying to solve, I just tell myself to get back to the problem.

Interviews with autistic adults who have good speech and are able to articulate their thought processes indicate that most of them also think in visual images. More severely impaired people, who can speak but are unable to explain how they think, have highly associational thought patterns. Charles Hart, the author of Without Reason, a book about his autistic son and brother, sums up his son's thinking in one sentence: "Ted's thought processes aren't logical, they're associational." This explains Ted's statement "I'm not afraid of planes. That's why they fly so high." In his mind, planes fly high because he is not afraid of them; he combines two pieces of information, that planes fly high and that he is not afraid of heights.

Another indicator of visual thinking as the primary method of processing information is the remarkable ability many autistic people exhibit in solving jigsaw puzzles, finding their way around a city, or memorizing enormous amounts of information at a glance.


Excerpted from Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin With A Foreword by Oliver Sacks Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Oliver Sacks

1. Thinking in Pictures: Autism and Visual Thought

2. The Great Continuum: Diagnosing Autism

3. The Squeeze Machine: Sensory Problems in Autism

4. Learning Empathy: Emotion and Autism

5. The Ways of the World: Developing Autistic Talent

6. Believer in Biochemistry: Medications and New Treatments

7. Dating Data: Autism and Relationships

8. A Cow's Eye View: Connecting with Animals

9. Artists and Accountants: An Understanding of Animal Thought

10. Einstein's Second Cousin: The Link Between Autism and Genius

11. Stairway to Heaven: Religion and Belief

What People are Saying About This

Deborah Tannen

A uniquely fascinating view not just of autism but of animal - and human - thinking and feeling, [providing] insights that can only be called wisdom.
— Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand

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Thinking in Pictures 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 63 reviews.
jwa90010 More than 1 year ago
This book is on my list of best books I've ever read. Why? Because someone with a gift has written about autism from the inside out. Temple Grandin has helped me understand autism and Asperger's Syndrome in a way that writers and doctors without it cannot. More. She has simultaneously helped me understand animal thinking better. She has made me more sympathetic to the plight of animals in our care. And because of her gift has made it possible for me to have empathy for all other beings, human and otherwise. This is an original book. One of kind. She has managed to give it a balanced viewpoint. Both as a friend of animals and as a meat eater. It is not necessary to cause the animals who provide us sustenance unnecessary pain and suffering. She has proven this. The book is enligtening and touching. I recommend this book to ALL readers. Especially those who have friends or family members who have any of the autistic spectrum tendencies. You'll be able to understand your loved ones better. And especially to meat eaters. Be aware, be conscious eaters. Become more active in animal welfare, including farm animals. And be respectful of what they give us. Read this book.
Linda-Carol More than 1 year ago
The author presents her life experiences of living with autism in a straight forward manner that is educational and insightful. She includes reflections from her childhood that help the reader to better understand her view of other children, relationships between people, her educational process, her family, and the animals in her life.
There is a photograph in the text of the author as a pre-adolescent in a squeeze box that she designed and built. She had witnessed how cattle became calm when they were squeezed in a cattle chute as they received injections. She applied this concept as a possibility for reducing anxiety in people. In the appendix there is a manufacturer listed who makes and sells the squeeze box.
She refers to her many accomplishments without attempting to call attention to herself as being very gifted. Her drawings are amazing in her depiction of architectural designs that limit the pain and suffering of animals in the livestock industry.
She also explains the processes of the limbic system as it relates to God and religious thought.
I found this account of how Temple Grandin interacts with her world to be inspiring.

gezza More than 1 year ago
I have a major interest in Temple Grandin, and books on Autism/Asperger's, because I have a 5 year old daughter with Asperger's. Nevertheless, Thinking in Pictures is a well written book without that bias. This book is NOT about Temple's life - you need to read Emergence to get the story, and it is well worth reading, but ten years later Temple's writing style has improved amazingly. I keep thinking that the movie on Temple's life would have had more influence from Emergence than Thinking in Pictures, but this book has all the publicity associated with it - go figure. This book is in many ways technical - what it really is about is Grandin's understanding of what autism is, and how autistic people deal with it, and how 'normals' should deal with it. It is well founded in latest findings in psychology, and has a fresh perspective in terms of Grandin's immense experience in animal behavior. She does use examples drawn from her life, which does, in a way, provide a form of autobiography, but as stated above, it is not the point of this work of non-fiction. I can honestly say that I have a more synthesized, cohesive understanding of my daughter's condition reading this book, than all other books put together. An excellent read, but if you are after an autobiography, you will be disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anyone interested in understanding what it feels like to have autism will enjoy this book. Ms. Grandin writes with honesty.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always known I was different. Even with a successful executive career spanning 40 years, I struggled with social skills, could not comprehend some "normal" situations, literally covered my ears when the noise level got too loud, hated fluorescent lighting which actually hurt my eyes, jumped at unexpected noise, had a touch of dyslexia and had to struggle to stay focused. At age 15 I was diagnosed as clinically depressed and over a period of 45 years participated in therapy and was put on several different anti-depressants. I had given up my hope of ever feeling normal and settled for feeling okay. At the age of 60 two things changed. My therapist of 2 years changed my diagnosis to bi-polar disorder, which effected a change of medication. For the past 18 months I finally feel normal. But now because of this wonderful book I understand that I was genetically at risk for depression, and know that I have been a high-functioning Aspie and still am! Thank you Temple for sharing your knowledge.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have a 4 year old autistic Granddaughter. I have been reading and trying to absorb everything about autism since her diagnosis two years ago. (I am a Registered Nurse)...This is the first bit of information that totally makes sense to me. After reading the book I bought two more copies for other family members. Miss Grandin explains why there is a pause between auditory and visual information passing through the brain. Since giving Victoria ample time to answer questions her answers are quite amazing. She is gifted in music and the book will help us encourage her. Now I am reading Animals in Translation. I thank Miss Grandin for giving us this information and I thank B&N for supplying the books.
dajgourley More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be good and enlightening for those with Autism, it gave me a better understanding of how their lives are so different. It took me four days to read and found it very helpful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Temple Grandin is a high functioning autistic that is gifted in working with animals and is talented in designing livestock handling facilities within the United States. The reason she is so exceptional in her work is because she has a unique ability to view situations from the livestock’s point of view. In this educational book about her life, she expresses her experiences from remarkable points of view, much like how she describes cattle going through handling facilities.  From this book I have gained insight about how it feels to be autistic, to experience autism without actually being on the spectrum. Grandin also provides actuate information on symptoms, signs, and diagnosis of autism which helps the reader fully grasp the spectrum. I really enjoyed being able to be put in her shoes and feeling what it is like growing up with autism. My favorite passage in the book is actually right at the beginning where she describes that words are life a second language to her, that she thinks in full motion picture videos which she can rotate and manipulate in her mind. It opened my eyes and showed me that people do indeed think differently; we don’t all think in words and understand things the best when thinking in words. This book is a must read for anyone wanting to understand autism better, especially parents, teachers, or anyone else who works closely with those on the spectrum. She provides educational insight on how autism spectrum disorder is detected and diagnosed which is mainly helpful to those readers who aren’t closely linked to someone with autism. Without a doubt, I would recommend this to absolutely anyone interested in learning about autism spectrum disorder, it was a great read!
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asha_loon More than 1 year ago
I have always wanted to have a glimpse of how my son thinks. Temple Grandin's book offers some personal input and explanations as to why autistic people do certain things and why. She offers advice on how to handle situations and emphasizes on the importance of engaging your child or friend or family member into developing talents with preexisting hobbies to ensure a productive adult life. I have only two negative comments. I found myself bored and feeling like I was back in my college Pharmacology class during the Medications chapters. Also Temple tends to repeat herself about certain topics. Of course, I had to keep reminding myself that the author IS autistic and she cannot help it since repetition is a common thing.
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