Winter 2017 Bulletin

Educating Students Who Have Different Kinds of Minds

On October 9, 2016, as part of the Academy’s 2016 Induction weekend program, Temple Grandin (Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and a world-renowned autism spokesperson) discussed the education of students who have different kinds of minds, as well as her own upbringing and work experience as a woman with autism. An edited version of her remarks appears below.

Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin is Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016.

Really great to be here! I’ll start out with a little bit about autism. Autism varies from Einstein, who had no language at age three, to a boy who can’t dress himself. Over the years, doctors have kept changing the diagnosis guidelines. It is maybe half science and half doctors squabbling in conference rooms in nice hotels like the Marriot and Hyatt. Nobody’s doing that with the diagnosis of tuberculosis. But with autism, you may have a kid who has normal speech, an awkward, geeky kind of kid, on the very mild end of the spectrum. A child’s brain can be either more thinking-oriented, or it can be more social-emotional. Some of these differences are just normal personality variation. I’ve been out to Silicon Valley. Half of those programmers are on the autism spectrum. At some point you can get enough geeky traits to label it “mild autism.” With too much of the trait, you can get kids who struggle to function and may remain nonverbal. It’s a continuous trait with complicated genetics.

But what I want to talk to you about today is the educational system. I spent a lot of time reading biographies of great innovators who had unconventional educational paths. For example, look at Jane Goodall. I was really shocked to learn that she had a two-year secretarial degree. She was actually hired as a secretary by Dr. Louis Leakey before she started her famous study of chimpanzee social life in Tanzania in 1960. Jane had some difficulty remembering faces, and she liked the solitude of the woods. She went on to obtain her Ph.D. at Cambridge University without a bachelor’s degree! What would happen to Jane in today’s educational system? How about Thomas Edison? He was a hyperactive high school dropout. His teachers labeled him as “addled.” What would happen to a kid like that today? Well Edison patented the light bulb. How about Steven Spielberg? He was rejected from a top film school because he had poor grades. He was bullied throughout school and was dyslexic. What would happen to him today?

How about Elon Musk? He was always different, in a slightly nerdy way, and was severely bullied. You’ll see that bullying is something that keeps coming up. I was bullied in high school. It was terrible! And now they can bully you online, which makes it even worse. But Elon actually grew up in South Africa. He was exposed at an early age to mechanical things in his father’s shop; today, he’s developing rockets for space exploration. He has greatly reduced the cost of rockets through innovations with different kinds of valve seals. And you know what? Even if his Tesla electric car fails, he’s succeeded. He’s begun to change the car industry over to electric. But as a grade-school student today, would Elon get the same opportunities to develop?

Common Denominators of Success for Unique Minds

What were some of the common denominators of the paths these unique minds took? What helped them be successful? To start, they grew up in educated families. Even though Edison dropped out of school, he was in a house full of books, of all different kinds. They also had early exposure to career interests. And they learned how to work hard at an early age, which is a deficiency today with a lot of kids who are quirky and different. These individuals also weren’t overspecialized and they had mentors. I had a science teacher in high school who turned me completely around and got me motivated to study for the first time in my young life.

Jane Goodall was looking at chickens when she was five years old, trying to figure out how they laid their eggs. She was a good high school student, raised in a home full of books. She spent her time reading all about chimpanzees and other animals. Her favorite novels were Dr. Doolittle, Tarzan, and The Jungle Book. In her era in England, girls became secretaries. Dr. Leakey hired her as a secretary, but had it in mind to employ her as a chimpanzee researcher, and he mentored her. The rest is history.

Edison cleanly fit this model. He ran chemistry experiments as a child. He was exposed early to railroads and grain elevators. In fact, he almost drowned in grain at a grain elevator and he burned up the baggage car on a train. That didn’t make the railroad real happy, but he was given the opportunity to make mistakes. He also worked as a newsboy (who would start his own paper) and he became a telegraph operator at age fourteen. He learned how to work.

And Thomas Edison asked questions, constantly. I used to ask lots of questions. My grandfather and grandmother used to live right over there on Memorial Drive, right next to the church, near Harvard Yard. My grandfather, John C. Purves, was the coinventor of the autopilot for airplanes. I asked endless science questions. Why do tides go in and out? Why is grass green? My curiosity met its match.

Elon Musk was a compulsive reader. He loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and he spent long hours at a local bookstore that let him just sit in there and read. Again, exposure to books and to skilled trades, through his father’s engineering projects, drove his curiosity and focused his mind on work, without overspecialization.

Musk also traveled extensively outside of his native South Africa. Some of my very first trips to look at cattle facilities were overseas, and that totally changed my perspective. It’s a big world out there, and Musk started getting to know it at a young age. And at eleven, he got a computer and taught himself programming. He was a hard worker. He sold the code for a video game to a magazine at age twelve. He tried to lease a space to open up a video game store, though he was too young to do that. In his twenties, he did really grubby manual labor and later got an internship at the Bank of Nova Scotia. Musk completed college, and went on to create PayPal. These creative people generally didn’t follow a conventional educational path. These shared experiences are explored more in the books Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist by Dean Keith Simonton and The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner.

Three Different Kinds of Thinking

Our inventors had to have different kinds of minds. Different kinds of minds rely on different kinds of thinking. The three types are: photo-realistic visual thinking, pattern mathematical thinking, and verbal/auditory thinking. I’m a photo-realistic visual thinker. Everything I think about is recalled as a picture. When I was young. I assumed everybody else thought in pictures too. My book The Autistic Brain contains references to scientific studies that provide evidence for different ways of thinking. I struggled with what many photo-realistic visual thinkers struggled with: I absolutely couldn’t do algebra. Didn’t make any sense. I found other opportunities with math, but today, too many smart kids are getting screened out on account of the algebra requirement. Because they can’t do algebra, they aren’t allowed to substitute geometry or statistics, which they’re more likely to understand.

We all suffer when we screen out brilliant visual thinkers. Think about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster: When the earthquake hit, the reactors automatically shut down, powering down the plant. The reactor core still required cooling, though, which required power– except the plant’s backup generators, kept in the basements of the reactor turbines, were flooded by the tsunami that followed the shock. It was completely beyond my imagination how they could let that happen. It’s not my area to design a nuclear reactor, but if I had been drawing up the plans for the concrete work, no emergency equipment would have been located in a non-waterproof basement. I would have looked at the design and visualized the water coming in. All they needed were simple watertight doors. But mathematical thinkers can’t always see the mistake that way.

Mathematical thinking is usually pattern thinking, spatial visualization. Mathematicians, like musicians, tend to think in patterns, not in pictures. The verbal thinker, the person who thinks in words and meanings and who tends to also be an auditory learner, has totally taken over the domain of education. Conventional education today doesn’t value nonverbal forms of thinking, and so some students hit dead ends. Though most so-called normal people are mixtures of these three kinds of thinking.

Parts of our education system today are just crazy. A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a general education third-grade teacher who got in trouble for teaching subtraction using borrowing, the old-fashioned way many of us were taught. I’m not suggesting we throw out some of the new ways of teaching math, but if some of these older or nonstandard methods are more inclusive of other kinds of thinkers, why can’t we teach both? Also within the last month, I met with a whole bunch of college students, and not one of them could find the area of a circle. I design hydraulic and pneumatic equipment. You’ve got to be able to find the area of a circle! So I taught them old fashioned practical math.

My mind works like Google Images. Put in a keyword, I get images. The HBO biopic showed that perfectly. At the Academy’s Friday night program, when I was listening to that wonderful description of the owl and what it ate, I was seeing the mice and bones and all that stuff. It painted me a picture of how the owl lives. Whether you’re building a Cargill plant or a Tyson plant, or you’re building a nuclear reactor, or you’re just making a consumer electronic product, you need all the different kinds of minds. Thomas Edison was not a mathematician. I think he was more likely a photo-realistic visual thinker, and he knew how important this was: “I can always hire some mathematicians, but they can’t hire me,” he said.

Overspecialization May Hinder Creative Problem Solving

I mentioned the danger of overspecialization. At a plant science meeting I was asked, “How can you justify eating meat?” I’ve been learning a little introductory crop science. Two years ago, our animal science department at Colorado State University invited a plant scientist to our cattle meeting. I learned something I didn’t know: that the very best soils in Illinois and Iowa were created by herds of grazing animals. The grazing animal is a part of the land, so they have to have a place on our property or in our diet. We need to start getting the grazing animals back with cropland as part of a crop rotation system.

We’ve all seen overspecialization in medicine. I’m getting older, so I have to complain about my sciatic nerve and a bunch of other problems I’ve got, so I’ll meet with friends to discuss all the stuff going wrong with us. One poor lady, within the last year, had a whole lot of nasty symptoms and went to a lupus specialist at a top medical center. And the lupus specialist did hive biopsies. I’m not kidding. Hive biopsies? Later, when she was down in Mexico, she got a rash, and the old Mexican doctor said: “Well, you just need to take some Benadryl.” It turned out she was allergic to an ingredient in one of her medications. She got rid of the medication, took some Benadryl, and she was fine, no more symptoms. No hive biopsies needed; but the specialist could only see what he knew.

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, once said: “A degree is the first step down a ruinous highway. You don’t want to waste it so you go on to graduate work and doctoral research. You end up a thoroughgoing ignoramus on everything in the world except for one subdivisional sliver of nothing.”

At one of the Induction receptions, somebody told me that robots are going to replace people who fix power lines. I’m thinking, BS! I’ll tell you what robots are going to replace: super-specialized doctors. Artificial intelligence is going to replace our super-specialized areas of knowledge. An AI expert quoted in The Economist noted that an AI system can read x-rays better than a doctor– but it can’t do the doctor’s administrative assistant’s job! That job is much more variable.

Visual Thinkers, AI, and People with Autism are All Bottom-Up Thinkers

Artificial intelligence works from the bottom up. You train the program using specific examples of x-rays showing different types of problems. The program is told which x-rays contain pathology and which ones are normal. The artificial intelligence system then uses this knowledge base to diagnose patients. That is bottom-up thinking, and that’s the same way people with autism think. Verbal thinkers are top-down thinkers, and they tend to overgeneralize. Education has gone crazy on grandiose top-down stuff that just doesn’t work for many kids. A bottom-up thinker works like an epidemiologist. Epidemiologists solve food poisoning cases through observation– what was served, where was the food consumed, where was it prepared, where did the ingredients come from, who else suffered the symptoms– until they can piece together that, for example, the lettuce from a certain grower had E. coli on it. That’s the bottom-up approach. Concepts are formed from specific examples.

I think bottom-up. What would happen to me today? I had no speech until age four. I would probably get into a good childhood early intervention program, which is something they’re doing better now. If you have little kids that are not talking? Once you rule out deafness, you’ve got to do twenty hours a week of one-on-one teaching. I was taught turn-taking with board games, and by practicing taking turns in conversation. I was severely autistic at age three and learned to talk when I was four. I would have been a prime candidate for video game addiction. What little bit of video game playing I’ve done has shown me it is a drug I absolutely cannot touch.

Today I’d also have fewer opportunities for hands-on learning at school, for developing art skills, and for work experience. Many schools have eliminated all the hands-on classes: cooking, art, sewing, and woodworking. This is a horrible mistake. I loved sewing. In fourth grade, I had a wonderful little Singer sewing machine. Loved making things with it! And it taught me skills I later put to work. But kids aren’t making things in school anymore, and they miss the chance to explore and use different skills or ways of working. The millwrights I worked with on my corral projects were really smart people who built, designed, and repaired complicated structures. They took welding in high school and it saved them. I know a guy who is dyslexic, ADHD, bad stutterer, and was a horrible student. In high school, he took welding and he now owns a metal fabrication company. I’ve got to keep some confidentiality so I can’t tell you what he makes. But he is doing fine. Kids today aren’t learning hands-on skills. Hands-on projects are important because they teach practical problem-solving. We’re missing that.

Instead of getting out and learning to work, fully verbal, quirky kids who are different get diagnosed with autism, ADHD, or some other condition, because you need a diagnosis now to get special educational services in school. This puts some families and kids in a handicap mentality, where they believe they can’t work. Some moms overprotect their kids and they have difficulty letting go and allowing their kids to get out and learn basic life skills. My mother knew how to stretch me and get me doing new things, starting out with being a hostess at her dinner parties at age seven. I saw a thirteen-year-old kid the other day, fully verbal, looked like a young man who should be on his way to Silicon Valley, but he had never even gone shopping on his own. He had never gone into a store, bought something, checked it out, and brought back the change and receipt. I was doing that at age seven. I tell parents and teachers: “Don’t chuck ’em into the deep end of the pool, but you gotta stretch ’em just outside their comfort zone.”

Helping Different Kinds of Minds to Learn

When I get a chance to try out all the new brain scanning equipment, I do. It’s fun to play around with state-of-the-art equipment. But I have parents ask me all the time: “Do I need to get my kid’s brain scanned?” No– you don’t need a scan because both the kid’s areas of strength and learning problems will show up in the classroom. And you can respond to what shows up, and work with those strengths. I’ve got a big visual-thinking circuit, and when I was in third grade, my ability to draw showed up. My mother encouraged me to draw lots of different things, to take what I was interested in and expand on it. Does your kid like trains? That’s a real common one. Let’s read about trains. Let’s do mathematics with trains. Physics with trains. Broaden it out. Use that specialized interest to motivate learning.

But I grew up in a different time. What helped me in my childhood journey? First, an educated family. Mother read books to us. We were brought up to have an absolute love of books and literature. She’d read us parts of Dickens, and she’d skip the boring parts. She always nurtured my interest and ability in art. I spent hours drawing and making kites and helicopters. And you know what? I recently tried to recreate one of those kites and it wasn’t easy! I’ve got to experiment some more to get it to fly. Sometimes it takes trying to replicate things as a grownup to see the challenges you could take on as a kid. The kites also taught me that I could make mistakes, and I could learn from them. A lot of kids today, they’re scared to death to make a mistake. They’ll destroy work that’s not absolutely perfect. A lot of my kites didn’t work. When they didn’t fly, I just had to try something else. I moved on and tried again.

My favorite book as a child was about famous inventors. I loved reading about Thomas Edison and the light bulb, Elias Howe and his sewing machine, Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, and the inventors of the first mechanical reapers. I also loved Black Beauty, both the grownup version that mother read to us and my childhood version.

But how did a girl who lived outside of Boston, with a grandfather who lived on Memorial Drive, looking out on the Charles River, get into cattle? Mother remarried when I was fourteen. That brought a ranch into the family. I was attending the Hampshire Country School, a boarding school, and my mother wanted me to get out and try some new things so I wouldn’t become too set in my ways. At age fifteen I went out to the ranch. I was afraid to go at first. But she gave me a choice: I could go for a week, or I could go all summer– not going was not gonna be one of the choices! She knew just how hard to push me. And I ended up loving it. On the ranch Aunt Ann helped me learn to build gates, to drive, and to type. And I could apply some of what I learned at the Hampshire School.

When I was away at the Hampshire School, I did very little studying. I learned carpentry; I learned roofing; I learned riding and horse barn management, all kinds of things like that. The headmaster realized I was learning how to work. But I did well in two subjects: biology and writing. I learned how to write because in fourth grade, the teachers marked-up my work in red pen; they copyedited it. That’s not the practice today, but that’s how I learned to write. Some kids learn diagramming sentences. That’s not for me.

My work experience was varied; I didn’t overspecialize. I got a sewing job in the neighborhood at age thirteen that allowed me to save some money and buy a few really ugly striped shirts that my mother hated and I loved– she’d “lose” them in the laundry. I cleaned horse stalls at fifteen, did roofing at sixteen. And I’m not suggesting roofing to parents of autistic children today. I’m suggesting learning how to shop. I’m suggesting maybe editing some video at the church office just down the street. Simple, harmless stuff– but real.

I was saved by finite math courses, especially statistics and probability. In 1967, algebra wasn’t required for college. So with the help of my mother, who talked to the dean, I was accepted to Franklin Pierce College, which was only two years old at the time up in Rindge, New Hampshire. I was now motivated to study because I wanted to become a scientist. After I failed my first math quiz, wonderful Mr. Dion, a brand new math teacher, tutored me. (Back in those days, help to avoid failing a course was called getting tutored.) With a ton of work, I managed to get a B, as in beautiful, both semesters I took finite math. I entered college on probation and graduated second in my class.

What I really loved in college was animal behavior. I was lucky that a retired professor– and I think he was from Harvard, Dr. Tom Evans– came in twice a week to teach classical ethology. This was during the time of B. F. Skinner and the belief that operant conditioning explained everything. In Dr. Evans’s class, I learned that animals have a lot of hardwired instinctual behavior. In another class, we could get into experimental psychology and optical illusions, which spoke to my interests.

Starting My Business

Yes, I was weird. So how did I start a business designing corrals? The meat industry had no academic barrier of entry; it was full of quirky people who had taken welding class or drafting class in school, and who were now building and designing things. I found a place there. How did I impress potential clients? By showing a portfolio of my work. I sold my work by showing off my drawings (Figure 1). When I would show people my drawings, they’d go, “You did that?” Couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have the money to advertise in farm magazines, but I’d write about my designs in articles for them. I also had a very nice brochure (Figure 2). They’re how I sold Cargill on my designs. I sent Bill Fielding, the head of Cargill, the brochure, that drawing of my design, and a bunch of my photographs and articles. As a result, I eventually designed a front-end of every Cargill beef plant in the United States and Canada.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Early Drawing of a Cattle Corral Grandin Livestock Handling Systems Brochure
Figure 1 Figure 2

When I was young, I thought I could fix everything with engineering. If I could just build a perfect thing, it would all be fine. Then, in 1996, I was hired by the USDA to survey handling and stunning practices in beef and pork slaughter plants. I found that only 30 percent of the plants could shoot 95 percent of cattle dead on the first shot. You know why they were so bad? Busted equipment! Broken equipment. This is a management problem, a people problem; you can only fix half the problems with engineering.

In 1999, I was hired by the McDonald’s Corporation to teach their food safety auditors how to audit animal welfare at slaughter plants. I developed a very simple scoring system using five simple, measurable outcome variables that were like traffic rules. They were 1) percentage of cattle stunned with a captive bolt on the first shot; 2) how many fell down during handling; 3) how many were mooing their heads off during handling, 4) how many you put the electric prodder on; and 5) they have to be 100 percent dead before you cut anything off. We went in there and first made them fix all the broken equipment– the busted side adjusters on my center track restrainer, broken hydraulics on my center track restrainer, and so on. Then we had them install nonslip flooring. We also worked with lighting: cattle don’t like the dark, but if you put a light up in the right place, they’ll go toward it. Out of the seventy-five pork and beef plants audited, only three had to build an expensive new front-end. With everybody else, we fixed the simple things: made repairs, installed lighting, put up a solid panel so the cattle didn’t see people walking by. With these changes the plants very quickly and very dramatically improved their numbers (Figure 3). The average first-shot stunning score in 2015 is about 99.7 percent. They can’t get any better than that. And the one they miss, they immediately re-shoot it, because you automatically fail the audit if you hang the cow on the line alive. They needed these simple five-outcome scores to improve, not vague instructions to “handle cattle properly.”

Figure 3

Figure 3
Results of Five-Outcome Assessments

Different Kinds of Minds Complement Each Other

Let’s look at who does what in heavy commercial construction. There are the draftsmen, who usually get stuck in the basement service corridor with all the cable trays. They don’t get enough respect. They aren’t degreed engineers, but they lay out the whole plant, including all the complicated conveyor systems. In an airport, they’d lay out all the baggage conveyors. The millwrights, the weird guys in the shop, invent all the really intricate, interesting mechanical engineering equipment. The new stuff. And the degreed engineers, they’ll do the more abstract work: boilers, refrigeration, steam pipes, soil compaction, roof truss calculation. But the thing is, you need the whole team. The roles complement each other, and you can’t get the job done without each type of person on the team. So we’ve got to see to it that all kinds of thinkers can learn how to work, and learn the skills they need to succeed at work. Plant managers right now are going crazy because they can’t find industrial mechanics. The trucking companies are going nuts because they can’t get diesel mechanics. You think robots are gonna fix all these trucks? That’s nonsense. Artificial intelligence might be able to diagnose some of the problems, but the industry needs these people. Don’t underestimate what diesel mechanics can do. I’ve worked with a bunch of talented skilled trades people. Pretty sure most are on the autism spectrum or dyslexic.

Science fields are dominated by the more verbal and mathematical thinkers. You need that thinking to run a controlled experiment. But observation, the strength of visual thinkers, is a key part of science, too. Look at astronomy, which has always relied on the observation powers of the naked eye or observation through instruments. Look at epidemiology, which tends to begin with anecdotal reports. What Jane Goodall did was observation. At five years old, she went out to the neighbor’s henhouse to figure out how the chickens laid their eggs. Observation doesn’t get enough credit, but you’d struggle in the sciences without it.

Learning how my visual thinking is different and the ways it contributes in group projects has been an interesting journey. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I didn’t understand that other people didn’t think in pictures the way I did. I didn’t understand that they couldn’t see the visual mistakes like I could. But when I learned how my visual thinking was different from verbal thinking, it gave me insight into how different people’s brains approach problem-solving.

The first step of good collaboration in science or on any project is recognizing that there are different kinds of thinkers. I worked with a lady named Camille King, a fabulous dog behavior specialist. She observed that dogs get gray hair the same way that presidents do, and that it’s the anxious, impulsive stressed dogs that got gray. We had a great statistician, our mathematical thinker. My part of the work was figuring out which photographs we should use for judging the different degrees of gray. There had to be clear categories of graying dog muzzles for us to get interobserver reliability. I did the methods part of the experiment and Camille did hours of work collecting data on many dogs. But we needed different kinds of minds to complete the research. One more example: iPhones. Steve Jobs was an artist. You don’t need a Ph.D. in engineering to operate the phone because an artistic visual thinker designed the easy-to-use interface. The engineers just had to make the insides work. You needed both approaches to build a good phone.

Sadly our education system is screening out kids who think in different ways. So the right people might not be there to work on tomorrow’s projects. There’s two million people right now that have no electrical power because of Hurricane Matthew, and it’s a lot of quirky, different guys who are gonna go out there after the storm and put those wires back up. Utilities are hiring right now. We can’t afford to screen out students with unique skills who might succeed in these roles, or even reshape an industry. The world needs all kinds of minds.

© 2017 by Temple Grandin



Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Edison, His Life and Inventions (Auckland, New Zealand: The Floating Press, 2010).

Temple Grandin, “Double Rail (Center Track) Restrainer for Livestock Handling,” Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research 41 (4) (1988): 327– 338.

Temple Grandin, “Objective Scoring of Animal Handling and Stunning Practices in Slaughter Plants,” Journal of the American Veterinary Material Association 212 (1998): 36– 39.

Temple Grandin, “Transferring Results of Behavioral Research to Industry to Improve Animal Welfare on the Farm, Ranch, and Slaughter Plant,” Applied Animal Behavior Science 81 (2003): 215– 228.

Meg Green, Jane Goodall: A Biography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005).

Camille King, Thomas J. Smith, Temple Grandin, and Peter Borchelt, “Anxiety and Impulsivity: Factors Associated with Premature Graying in Young Dogs,” Applied Animal Behavior Science (in press),

Dale Peterson, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Helped Redefine Man (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (New York: Eco Press, 2015).

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