Health & wellness

Q & A

Expanding her sense of the autistic brain

“Everybody with autism has some degree of sensory problems,” says author Temple Grandin, “but they’re variable, from minor nuisance to being very debilitating.”
Rosalie Winard
“Everybody with autism has some degree of sensory problems,” says author Temple Grandin, “but they’re variable, from minor nuisance to being very debilitating.”

Many people were introduced to autism through the work of Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and longtime translator of the different way people with autism see the world. Last week, Grandin, who also designs humane slaughterhouses, published her seventh autism book, “The Autistic Brain.” She will be speaking at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library, 449 Broadway, on May 16 at 6:30 p.m.

Q. You devote a lot of the book to the sensory problems that plague many people with autism — the unbearableness of some loud sounds, flickering lights, the texture of certain foods, or the feel of clothing.

A. I think it’s difficult for people to imagine where a pair of pants that doesn’t bother them could bother another person so badly that it’s like sandpaper.


Q. Does everyone with autism suffer from these sensory problems?

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A. Everybody with autism has some degree of sensory problems, but they’re variable, from minor nuisance to being very debilitating. I have an auditory processing problem where I have a hard time hearing hard consonant sounds. And touch sensitivity, especially, scratchy clothes. When I was a child I couldn’t stand raw, slimy [food]. I think oysters are the most disgusting thing that ever was.

Q. Can people outgrow these problems?

A. Some of them can be desensitized. Things as simple as printing words on pale colored paper or on a color background can help some individuals [with visual processing problems]. My sound sensitivity now is just a nuisance. The only one I have now that’s still a problem is the clothing sensitivity. I’ve got to buy things that don’t itch.

Q. What could people who don’t have sensory processing problems do to help those with them?


A. If there was one thing I could change out there it would be getting rid of [standard] 60-cycle fluorescent lights.

Q. You wrote “Thinking in Pictures,” in 1996, about the distinct way you see the world. How does your mind process images differently than other people’s?

A. My thinking is associative. In a project meeting [designing a slaughterhouse], they could work me like a 3-D program [long before there was 3-D software]. They’d say, let’s put the rails like this and I’d say nope it won’t work. I could just run it in my mind. I didn’t know that other people couldn’t do it. I started questioning other designers I work with. I found they could visualize the plant layout, see the equipment, but they couldn’t make it move. I can look at the drawing and make it move.

Q. Back then, you believed everyone else with autism thought in pictures, too. In the new book, you add two more ways of seeing the world, which you say are common among people on the spectrum.

A. Another type of thinking is the pattern, mathematical thinker, and then the word thinker. My kind of visual mind has circuits in the brain for “what is something.” A more mathematical mind uses circuits in the brain for the “where is something,” “where are you located in space.” The writing minds keep everything organized. Someone has to explain things.


Q. All people have some of these skills — what’s different about those with autism?

A. Everybody has them to a certain extent. The difference between people with autism is they tend to have one area of skill and another area of extreme deficit. The kid that’s a little math genius in third grade, he’s absolutely horrible in reading. People who tend to favor one system tend to turn off the other system.

Q. You argue in the book that kids on the spectrum should be given jobs starting around age 12 to help build their strengths and make them more employable later on. What should they do?

A. They could be walking dogs, helping buy groceries for an old person, they could work in a farmer’s market, as a tour guide in a museum, fixing computers for people. When I was 8, I was serving guests at my mother’s dinner parties. She was always having me do things like that.

Q. At 65, you’re still keeping a grueling schedule between your autism advocacy, teaching, and your design work. What do you do for fun?

A. I go to the movies. I can’t wait till the new “Star Trek” movie comes out. If I have a mom write to me and say “my kid went to college because of your book” — that really turns me on.

Interview was edited and condensed.
Karen Weintraub can be reached at