ACA Blog

Amy Johnson
May 13, 2010

People with Autism and Animals Have Similar Mental Processes

Temple Grandin has a PhD in animal science, is an associate professor at Colorado State University, is a bestselling author and is autistic. She is an animal behavior expert who has spent most of her life designing humane equipment used in slaughter houses to keep the livestock from experiencing intense fear. Inflicting fear, she says, is the worst thing we can do to animals or people.

Fear is a primal emotion and is the one most prevalent in autism, it is also most prevalent in prey animals such as horses and cattle. In animals, fear is reflected in screams, hypervigilance, running away or freezing. Children with autism respond similarly to fear-instillers such as items that are out of place or make sudden movements, which Grandin adds, are the most frightening. For her, excessive sounds and smells will activate her fear center resulting in anxiety and panic attacks. She says for others, it might be flashing fluorescent lights, the feedback of a microphone, the ringer of a cell phone, etc.

The average person tends to be less detail-oriented than those with autism and animals, causing them to miss out on subtleties of those fear-inducers. She takes this to the slaughterhouses and views the surroundings from, say, the cows perspective. She noticed that when giving vaccinations, some cows willingly walked into the chute and others didnt. She investigated by approaching the chute from the cows angle and noticed that some feared their shadows or a light reflecting off a metallic piece somewhere in the distance. She had those items removed and the fear disappeared, leaving the cows to enter the chute willingly.

Animals and those who are autistic also share similarities in sensory based thinking rather than processing linguistically. Memories would be created through smells, touches, sight, etc. and put into categories. An example of this would be birds who use their senses for migratory purposes, squirrels who utilize sensory stimulation to identify where every acorn is buried or individuals with autism who can memorize an entire map of streets of a major city. Because this type of sensory based thinking does not necessarily allow for linguistic processing, animals would have no other option that to think in pictures. Words do not come into play for her; rather all of her thoughts are pictorials or movies that play in her head. Finally, she notes that humans seem to need, and thrive on, the proximity of animals. In the process of becoming human we gave up something primal and being around animals helps us get a measure of that back.

For more information on this subject, read Temple Grandins Thinking in Pictures or Animals in Translation.


Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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