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Temple Grandin's insights into Autism, Animals and Affection

Professor Temple Grandin says her autism helps her get into the heads of other animals.

Like many people, I was intrigued by autistic professor Temple Grandin after reading the essay Oliver Sacks wrote about her in his collection, "An Anthropologist on Mars." Grandin studies animal science at  Colorado State University and is the author of several books about herself, about autism, and about the minds of animals. Among her many achievements has been the design of a more humane system for slaughtering cattle.

She's giving a talk Tuesday at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Sorry to say it's sold out, but we can watch it through streaming here, starting at 6:30 pm. Here's what the Academy says:

A professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, Grandin was diagnosed with autism as a child. Using her unusual ability to "think in pictures," she has led groundbreaking research on how animals process their experiences and surroundings and is an outspoken animal welfare advocate. In her talk entitled, "All Kinds of Minds," Grandin will discuss how people process information differently and why the world needs all kinds of minds. She'll also talk about the differences in the way animals think. Visual thinkers, mathematical thinkers, and word thinkers abound in the human population, while animals, lacking verbal language, think in sensory ways.

Grandin has written that she has recently developed the ability to enjoy being hugged by other people. In his essay, Oliver Sacks describes how she constructed a "squeeze machine" to hug her, but apparently now she's given it up.

I'd love to know whether she enjoys affection with a companion animal. Thinking about her, I realized that many of us probably give and receive most of our physical affection from non-human animals. When I see my neighbors, I say hi to them and I pet their dogs. If I petted the neighbors and said hi to the dogs, people would think I had lost my mind.

Most of us go through a lot of ritual hugging and kissing as a form of greeting, but genuine affection can be fraught with sexual innuendo, especially in America. That all changes if the touching involves a cat or a dog.  Why is this? Is it an artifact of our culture, or is it related to the way these animals need to communicate with us?

My formerly feral cat Higgs would appreciate Temple Grandin's struggle to learn to be hugged by people. For the first several months living with me, Higgs spent most of his time hiding in a walk-in closet. I'd read enough about feral cats to accept that this situation might never change.  But slowly, in baby steps, he went from antisocial to accepting of affection to demanding of it. Now he craves being touched more urgently than he craves food, and he's very fond of food.

Higgs changed me too, since I'd never had a cat, never really understood their appeal, and took him in mostly out of guilt. But it's hard to avoid becoming a cat lover when one greets you at the door and follows you around the house saying "mraa mwraaw murble moo?" which seems to mean "Would you mind petting me?"