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The world needs thinkers who process and see the world differently. That’s how we innovate.
Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and autism spokesperson, drove home this point during her keynote speech at the Illinois Farm Bureau Young Leader Conference in East Peoria.
“One of my big concerns today is we’ve got kids growing up totally removed from the world of the practical,” she said, adding she’s spent much time studying the different ways people think, breaking it down into four categories: visual, verbal, mathematical and auditory.
Grandin classified herself as a visual thinker, meaning she thinks in pictures.
“When I first started my work with cattle back in the ‘70s, I was in my 20s and I thought everybody thought in pictures the same way I think,” Grandin said. “Now when you recognize that different kinds of thinkers have different approaches to problem solving, then you can figure out how to work together in complementary ways.”
Thinking visually drove how Grandin studied cattle at her aunt’s Arizona farm as a teenager.
“I would get in the chute and was seeing what the cattle were seeing,” she said.
That curiosity into animal behavior led to some of her most innovative designs, including restraining systems for livestock.
And her introduction to livestock at her aunt’s farm emphasizes her point about the need to expose children to different experiences, regardless of how their mind works.
Grandin, who wasn’t able to talk until she was about 4 and was later diagnosed with autism, has grown into the livestock consultant, professor and autism spokesperson she is today because of her freedom to “experience stuff.” She credits her mother for opening those doors, specifically in the area of art, as well as a couple teachers who believed in her abilities.
But that’s not to say school wasn’t difficult for Grandin.
“The only places I wasn’t bullied were with the horses, electronics and bottle rockets,” she said.
These days, as she focuses on the different kinds of thinkers, she has a building fear that many children on the autism spectrum are not developing the learning skills needed to succeed and innovate.
“Get them away from the video games,” she said. “They need exposure.”
She pointed to keeping art, music, woodworking, auto shop and creative writing in school curriculums — a push that would need to happen one school at a time.
And if you find success? Write about it, she encouraged, noting when she was starting out, visiting ranches and meat-processing plants, she wrote about her findings in agriculture publications.
Today, most of the large processing plants use Grandin’s center track restrainer system design. Talking with FarmWeek and RFD Radio Network following her speech on Jan. 22, Grandin looked back to when she was first marketing those designs to large plants.
“I found that selling equipment to large packing plants was a lot easier than getting the operating done correctly,” she said. “People always want the thing more than the management.”
That’s where her writing elevated her ideas and how she was able to market her designs to the largest packing plants in the nation.
Grandin, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, now lives in Colorado and is a professor at Colorado State University. She said the pandemic has limited her ability to visit packing plants and ranches, which turned her attention to the future of the cattle industry.
She was intrigued by an agronomist’s talk to her university’s animal science department.
“We’ve got to start getting the crops and cattle together; we’ve got to start doing much better grazing management,” she said.
Asked what’s next for her, Grandin circled back to exposing children with autism, dyslexia and ADHD to different experiences.
“There’s all kinds of stuff we can innovate that will be more sustainable,” she said. “What it’s going to require is going across disciplines, and that’s hard for people to do and I don’t care what field it’s in, whether it’s electronic chips or glass-making or whatever, it is going across disciplines.
“And there’s a connection between the future of farming and ag, and what’s going on in the schools and special ed departments. We need those minds that are different to solve a lot of problems in the future.”
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.