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Autistic author offers unique look into minds of animals

To Dr. Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University professor well-known for her expertise in both animal science and autism, the way a cow and an autistic person think are not very different. They both think in pictures, not words, Grandin said.

“You want to understand an animal, any animal, you have to get away from language,” she said.

Grandin spoke about her unique understanding of animals May 25 at LaGuardia Community College, at 31-10 Thomson Ave. in Long Island City. The 63-year-old professor, who was diagnosed with autism at 3 and whose life was the subject of a TV movie starring Claire Danes, signed copies of the books she had written and hosted two talks to members of the student body, “Food and Animal Welfare Perspectives” and “Animal Behavior.”

“She’s such an outstanding expert in animal welfare,” said Sue Kopp, professor of the Veterinary Technology Program at LaGuardia.

Kopp said she had long wanted Grandin to visit the school since she had met her two years ago in Nebraska. She said Grandin’s expertise will help students across multiple disciplines deal with problems that affect the world. The work Grandin does in animal welfare, Kopp said, is linked not only to veterinary issues but environmental and health issues.

“It’s important for us here at LaGuardia to try to do that,” Kopp said.

As an autistic person, Grandin said she thinks in pictures and categorizes new experiences based on past ones. She said animals do the same thing, and to understand an animal it is best to try to see things from its point of view.

“What is the animal looking at? What is it doing?” Grandin said as an example.

To illustrate how animals categorize previous experiences, Grandin explained how a “fear memory,” a traumatic experience in the animal’s past, can inform the animal’s present experiences. An animal that was hit by a switch, for example, can also be frightened by any object that is tall and thin. She also explained that livestock see a human on foot and a human on a horse as two different things, and an animal that has been trained to behave a certain way by a human riding on a horse may not act the same way when the human is standing on the ground. Animals are also detail-oriented, and when they are sent into a slaughterhouse they may be scared by things such as chains hanging from walls.

“I’m into details,” she said. “I notice details.”

Grandin said animals have emotions, and the main ones include fear, rage, panic, seeking, lust, caring and play. Mood-altering drugs such as Prozac and neurotransmitters also work on dogs. She described the “seeking” and “fear” emotions as two sides of the same coin. Animals become interested in something new but are frightened if a new thing makes a sudden movement.

Erica Harmon, a veterinary technology student at LaGuardia, called Grandin a role model in making a difference in how animals are treated.

“There are people out there who are making life for animals as humane as possible,” Harmon said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718260-4564.

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