Temple Grandin on the power of different minds

Honorary degree recipient offers advice to grads

- May 12, 2015

Temple Grandin speaks at the Faculty of Agriculture's convocation ceremony Friday. (Nick Pearce photo)
Temple Grandin speaks at the Faculty of Agriculture's convocation ceremony Friday. (Nick Pearce photo)

Even when she’s the one being honoured, Temple Grandin can’t help but partake in a bit of fashion watching at a graduation ceremony — footwear, in particular.

“There were some good turquoise Nikes up there,” she said, speaking to some of the shoe choices of new grads on Dal’s Agricultural Campus Friday. “Maybe those were the ‘best in shoe’ for this one.”

Dr. Grandin couldn’t spend all her time sneaker sighting, however, as she had business to attend to: sharing words of advice for the Faculty of Agriculture’s Class of 2015. The renowned animal scientist, who may be the world’s most recognized person with autism, was present to receive an honorary doctorate from Dalhousie.

The Dalhousie honorary degree adds to a long list of achievements for the person whom Time magazine named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010, the same year she was the subject an award-winning HBO biopic. Dr. Grandin’s work in animal welfare has had a dramatic impact around the world: today, half the cattle in Canada and the United States are handled with equipment she designed to minimize their confusion and fear. The professor of animal science at Colorado State University enjoys a thriving business as a consultant and has been tireless in her efforts to inform and educate people about autism and the human mind.

Attacking root causes

Alan Pinder, chair of Senate, described in his introductory remarks how Dr. Grandin turned the childhood pain of being different into a life of profound purpose, changing the face of animal welfare and giving hope and inspiration to millions of people and families living with autism spectrum diagnoses.

“Dr. Grandin has taught us by example that, as she says, ‘The world needs different kinds of minds to work together,’” said Dr. Pinder.

Indeed, that was the theme of Dr. Grandin’s speech — but first, she wanted to add to some of the themes that came up in President Florizone’s remarks, speaking to the value of learning from mistakes.

“In 1980, I was really young, and I thought I could fix everything with design engineering,” she said. “If I could just design the right thing, I would fix every problem.”

That year she had a wake-up call when a conveyer meant to improve pigs’ mobility at a plant in Cincinnati turned out to be “an absolute, total, crashing failure.” It turned out the issue with the pigs wasn’t technological, but physical: a genetic defect in livestock from a particular producer. The whole contraption had to be removed and destroyed.  

“This taught me an extremely hard lesson in root causes of problems,” she explained. “Do not treat symptoms of problems; treat root causes. For a fraction of the cost we could have given that farm new boars that would have solved the problem.”

Communicating and complementing

And the only way people can truly solve such problems, she believes, is by breaking down silos — not only between disciplines, but also between different types of thinkers.

For example, Dr. Grandin is a visual thinker. “That helped in my work with cattle because I noticed they get scared of little distractions that most people don’t see, like a sunbeam, a hose on the ground. When you’re a visual thinker, you’re a bottom-up thinker.”

In this sense, Dr. Grandin’s autism has been an asset, and she’s not alone in that. (She explained that Albert Einstein would likely be diagnosed as on the spectrum today.) For her, specialized minds of all stripes — mathematical thinkers, verbal or word-based thinkers, etc. — all have important roles to play in solving society’s problems, but only if they figure out how to work with one another.

“When you understand that different people think different, you can communicate and complement one another… we’ve got to work on communicating different kinds of minds, and in the end, we have to find root causes of problems.”

Dr. Grandin was the first of 10 individuals who are being presented with honorary doctorates from Dalhousie at this year’s Spring Convocation, which resumes May 25 in Halifax. Learn more about this year’s honorary degree recipients.


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