systems design|Teaching

Temple Grandin and the Value of Diverse Views

On the second morning of the ABA Dispute Resolution meeting in Denver, attendees were privileged to hear remarks by Prof. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University’s Animal Science Department.  The subject of a fabulous BBC documentary and a recent HBO biopic, Dr. Grandin is broadly recognized as an innovator in handling animals and as a highly achieving and articulate sufferer from autism.  Her presentation covered both topics, with surprising and inspirational relevance for conflict professionals.

“If you take out the social skills stuff, then the brain can develop a lot of other, deeper stuff,” she said early in her program.  Displaying cranial cross-sections, Dr. Grandin explained the physiology of autism and some of the implications that have led to her extraordinary success.  She self-describes as “one of the geeks, the nerds, the artists” who speak not at all as children, are mercilessly bullied when young, and excel as adults in a narrow range of intellectual endeavor — like Albert Einstein.  She distinguished the way she thinks (in pictures) from the way others think (in words) and yet others think (in patterns).  Her way of approaching problems involves sensory awareness and a proclivity to recall and connect specific past pictures, drawing conclusions and deriving narrative from a storehouse of visual rather than verbal experiences.

This strength found its expression working with animals on a farm when Grandin was a young teenager.  “Animals are sensory creatures,” explained Grandin, and language skills can often cover up other perceptual powers.  (The BBC documentary is titled, “The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow.”)  Why are the cattle reluctant to enter the barn?  Grandin sees that there is a flagpole behind the barn entrance sporting a red and white piece of cloth smacking madly in the wind.  What animal would want to go there?  And what human could fail to see the connection?  One that thought like a human (compartmentalizing cows differently from flags) rather than as a cow (no bright, fast-moving objects thank-you-very-much.)

Why did the cattle hesitate halfway through the chute?  Let’s find out, says Grandin, getting in the chute herself.  “You have to see what the animal sees,” she explained.  “If you are a visual thinker you have to experience the problem visually, not by talking about it.”  Dr. Grandin has consulted for meat companies and other process designers around the world, and most of her work consists of correcting design mistakes made by verbal thinkers who “can’t see.”  Grandin encouraged the use of a “squeeze” mechanism at the end of a cattle run because she got in one and felt the calming experience it induces. 


Referring to the current nuclear crisis in Japan, she related the experience of viewing that site well before the catastrophe and thinking, “That is a generator building sited next to a sea wall.  What if that sea wall is breached, or is compromised?  What if water enters the generator building, located right next to the wall?  What if the generator is located low in the building?”  She inquires visually.

Here is where some interesting resonances occured with the work of conflict professionals.  Animals hesitate at light, at glare, at shadows, at mirrors.  Knowing that, what care has been taken to eliminate those things?  Animals want to sense they are going back to the barn.  Why have a straight chute to the slaughter truck when it could be curved?  It’s not that these people are stupid — it’s that they can’t see through the eyes of the animals they are charged with managing, so of course their systems will fail.

In education and in the collaborative professional world, Grandin is a crusader for inclusion of people with different strengths.  She is frequently a member of design teams dominated by verbal thinkers — people who start with a concept and search for data that conforms.  She’s there as a visual thinker — someone who starts with data and teases out a design concept that derives from, or is compelled by, the data.  She is adamant that successful projects need both “top-down” and “bottom-up” thinkers. 

Schools, too, need to reassess the consequences of emphasizing test-capable verbal-oriented skills to the detriment of hands-on skills that involve handling, measuring, cutting, gluing and drawing.  It’s perhaps more prominent in autism, but every person needs to be supported in the strength that she has, not just the skills that the verbal thinkers say are socially valuable.

After the presentation I asked Dr. Grandin for some guidance.  I earn my living sitting in rooms with people who see a problem differently.  The trouble is, I rely on their verbal narrative to give me the information I need to understand the problem.  Two verbal people help my process a lot; a visual or pattern thinker comes across as incoherent, and there is a risk I might dismiss or marginalize her narrative.  Said Grandin, “If you are not understanding what someone is saying to you, or why they are saying it, ask questions.  I sit in meetings with verbal people all the time.  They’re not as stupid as the seem.  Just probe with questions and pretty soon you will understand what they’re trying to say.”

Being willing to go where the cattle are; hoping to see what the cattle see; shedding conceptual and categorical assumptions in favor of what is actually in front of you; asking questions when you don’t follow someone’s narrative… Conflict resolution, anyone?

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