Photo and story by Alaina Staggs
Distinguished lecturer Dr. Temple Grandin delivered a talk Monday night to a sold-out crowd inside MTSU’s Tucker Theatre.
The lecture, “Understanding Animal Behavior and Autism, 2nd Edition,” was chosen specifically for the university and its agriculture program, and replaced the previously scheduled lecture by Grandin. The theatre has a capacity of over 830 and sold out almost immediately as tickets for the event went on sale in September.
Dr. Chaney Mosley, a professor within the MTSU School of Agriculture, and Sally Milsap, MT Teach program coordinator, welcomed the audience to the event. Mosley detailed that planning for the lecture began in 2018 and expressed his anticipation that the lecture would have a large impact on a variety of students and faculty associated with the university.
Lindsey Parsley, an MT Teach student and secretary of the Collegiate FFA Chapter, had high hopes for the lecture and its influence on the university. Parsley called the lecture a “great honor” for the university and hoped that Grandin’s words could influence others to become more passionate about animal agriculture.
Grandin, an animal behaviorist and professor at Colorado State University, is considered a revolutionary in stockmanship and animal handling. Her unique approach to low-stress and fear-free stockmanship earned her a place among other visionaries in the livestock industry. She is also well-known for her work in both neurology and psychology, as well as special needs advocacy.
Grandin was diagnosed with autism at the early age of two. Born in urban Massachusetts, her love of animals and livestock began after being sent to a boarding school with a horse facility on site. Grandin worked there in the barns mucking stalls and tending to the horses each day. At the age of 15, Grandin was sent to live on an aunt’s ranch.
Though she originally intended to study psychology, Grandin’s interactions with animals during her childhood helped shape her path to become an animal advocate. While in college, she developed a device known as the “Hug Box” which simulated a squeeze chute used in cattle handling. This deep-pressure device helps calm individuals who are sensitive to overstimulation such as autistic children. This device is still commonly used across the country in various therapy programs.
In her adult life, Grandin worked in a variety of trade settings. She found herself on construction sites, in factories, and on various livestock facilities. Grandin emphasized that her unique disposition allowed her to see things differently from “other kinds of thinkers”. She described situations in which she helped engineers and other professionals come up with practical solutions to problems that their mathematical or analytical styles of thinking might have overlooked.
Grandin placed great emphasis on exposing children at an early age to a variety of things. Illustrating this with tales of her childhood experiences with livestock, “children do what they are exposed to.” She expressed her high regard for tradespeople and vocational skills. Grandin is a proponent for vocational education and spends a large portion of her time advocating for hands-on experiences that keep children learning. Grandin also expressed disdain for the virtual world that children are now swept up in and emphasized her desire to see children move away from what could be described as excessive screen-time.
Grandin spoke heavily upon the connections between autistic minds and the animal brain. Describing herself as one who “thinks in pictures,” Grandin reminded the audience that animals too process stimuli visually. Both livestock and autistic children are visual thinkers and new or unfamiliar stimuli can cause unwanted surprises. Grandin relates that reducing the “surprise factor” for both autistic children and animals can improve handling greatly.
The talk illustrated various studies that Grandin worked on to prove that animals felt emotions such as fear and contentment. Her approach to fear-free, low-stress animal handling has since been adopted in veterinary clinics and livestock facilities across the country.
Grandin’s visit was sponsored by the School of Agriculture, Department of Elementary and Special Education, MT Teach Program, Distinguished Lecture Committee, and the MTSU Collegiate FFA Chapter.
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