Temple Grandin is something of a rock star, thanks to the unlikely combination of her autism and Hollywood’s magic.
Grandin, 65, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, came to Bozeman on Tuesday to talk with students and the public about her work in making the treatment of livestock more humane and about autism.
Demand for tickets was so high, her appearance was moved from the Museum of the Rockies to the larger Willson Auditorium.
Grandin became famous in 2010 when actress Claire Danes portrayed her in an award-winning HBO television film.
Accompanied by a small entourage of fascinated MSU students, Grandin talked with reporters Tuesday afternoon. Glenn Duff, MSU animal and range sciences department head, said they were very pleased that Grandin could visit.
She wore one of her trademark embroidered cowgirl shirts and a vest covered with pins from dozens of cattle, pork and livestock producers she has visited around the world. She talked about her remarkable life and her autism.
“Autism is a very big spectrum,” Grandin said, speaking in her distinctive, no-nonsense style. Autism, she said, ranges from people with severe handicaps to high-functioning people like Einstein, Steve Jobs and Mozart. “Half the geeks in the Silicon Valley are on the spectrum.”
It’s important that autistic children learn to talk, she said. If a child isn’t talking by age 3, they need therapy 20 hours a week. Parents should find what their children are good at and develop those strengths. She was always good at art.
“I’m a totally visual thinker,” Grandin said. She thinks in concrete images and specifics, not vague concepts. “Give me a keyword. I’m like Google. I work just like Google.”
It’s crucial, she said, that autistic kids learn basic social skills, especially manners, how to shake hands and how to work at a job every day. She had many jobs growing up, including sewing, cleaning horse stalls and carpentry.
Today she hears from parents and teachers worried about autistic kids who spend 10 hours a day playing video games alone in their rooms.
“That’s just ridiculous,” she said. “It’s important not to turn into video-game recluses in their rooms. Limit it to one hour a day.”
Growing up in the 1950s, Grandin said she benefitted from a structured upbringing. Her mother and principal laid down an ironclad rule that if she had a temper tantrum, she couldn’t watch TV that night.
High school was “a disaster,” she said. At a large girls school, she was teased and threw a book at a girl who taunted her. She was sent to a boarding school, where she fared better and developed the goal of becoming a scientist.
Grandin, a pioneer and advocate for low-stress handling of livestock, said McDonald’s hired her in 1999 to audit meatpacking plants that supplied the giant hamburger chain. She developed a scoring system, tracking the stunning of cattle, how many cows were “mooing their heads off,” how many fell down, and how many times an electric prodder was used. Thanks to that, she said, “I saw more change than in 25 years.”
The HBO movie “Temple Grandin” changed her life, making it a lot busier.
“I thought they did a fabulous job,” she said. “Claire Danes became me in the ‘60s.”
Attending Hollywood award shows with Danes “was like a bigger, fancier version of AMI,” Grandin said, explaining that stands for “American Meat Institute.”
An acute observer of behavior, Grandin said at the Emmys, “It was a business function. Nobody got drunk. They were too busy looking for the next job.”
It makes her happy, she said, when somebody tells her they built a corral using her methods, or tells her their child made it through school because of reading one of her books. Grandin said she gets letters from kids who are struggling in school, who write that the movie really inspired them.
Gail Schontzler can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2633.