Transcript: Well+Being: How We Think with Temple Grandin, Author of “Visual Thinking” – The Washington Post

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MS. STEAD SELLERS: Hello and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer here at The Post.
Today I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Temple Grandin to talk about her new book, “Visual Thinking.” Dr. Grandin, a very warm welcome to Washington Post Live.
DR. GRANDIN: Well, it’s great to be here today.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Thank you for joining us.
And a word to our audience before we begin. Please tweet questions for Dr. Grandin to us @PostLive, using the Twitter handle @PostLive. We’ll look through them and try to pose some of them to Dr. Grandin.
And a first question to you, Dr. Grandin. I’m sitting here with an absolutely dog-eared copy of your new book, “Visual Thinking,” and for our audience members, give us a basic idea of what you mean by visual thinking and how your own thinking about that topic has progressed since you wrote your memoir 25 years ago.
DR. GRANDIN: Well, when I was in my 20s, doing some of my early work with livestock, I thought everybody was a visual thinker. I didn’t know that my thinking was different until I got into my 30s, and that kind of blew my mind to find out that my thinking was different. And I really appreciate if you would put the screen back so I can see you.
I didn’t know that other people didn’t think in words until my 30s. And if you say something to me, like, “Think about a church steeple,” I see specific ones, and they come up as pictures. I was shocked when I asked a speech therapist in my late 30s, “Think about a church steeple,” and all she got was this line of a pointy thing. And that was a shock to me. That was my first inkling that maybe I didn’t think the same way as other people.
So then I just started asking people about how they think, and I discovered that there are visual thinkers like me, object visualizers. Everything is a picture. Everything is a picture. I don’t think in words. Words describe the pictures. Then there’s the visual-spatial pattern thinker–your mathematician, musician–and then, of course, you have people that think in words and then people that think in mixtures.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So Dr. Grandin, I’m so fascinated by the picture of the steeple you brought up, and of course, you’ve been such a pioneer for the people on the autism spectrum. Some are nonverbal, and then we have people who are highly verbal who belong, apparently, on that spectrum. Tell us how visual thinking helps people on the nonverbal end of that spectrum. How can we better understand people who are struggling with verbal communication?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, for me, words narrate the pictures. I’m an associative thinker. I don’t think linear. In fact, when we did this book my co-writer, Betsy, is an absolute verbal thinker. So I write the kind of jumbled rough drafts and she’d smooth it all out. So that’s different kinds of minds working together.
Also, in my work with livestock equipment, I’m going to estimate that about 20 percent of the machinery designers, welders, people who laid out entire factories were either autistic, dyslexic, or ADHD. And some of these barely graduate from high school, started off with just a small welder then grew it into a big business. Another person I worked with, a single community college drafting class started his career, and then he showed one of his drawings to the right person and he was hired.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Grandin, I’m fascinated that you learned this about yourself in your 30s. But you talk in the book so much about the work your mother did with you to help you learn to read, to engage. Your parents were also able to send you off to boarding school, and essentially your mother provided your own special targeted educational approach. Is that something that other kids need, that kind of one-on-one approach?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, I got put into a very good, early intervention program when I was 2 1/2 to 3. It was very similar to the programs we have today. And so that a lot of people are doing today.
Now another thing that Mother did that was extremely important was building up my art skills. It was very obvious that I had art skills, and she broadened it. Instead of having me draw the same horse head over and over again, she said, “Draw the whole horse.” I was given a book on perspective drawings. So my art ability was really encouraged.
We’d take the thing that the kid is good at and build on it. Another child it might be mathematics, and it might be the kind of kid that just looks at the algebra and solves it in their head. Let them do it that way. They don’t think the same way. Now algebra, I had a horrible time with that. I’ve never passed an algebra class, and I think that’s screening an awful lot of kids out.
And then you’ve got people that think entirely in words, and I kind of figured out those three patterns just asking people questions, and then I started researching the scientific literature and I found this magic word: object visualizer. That’s when the searches pull up the studies. If you don’t use that magic key word, they’re hard to fine.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Grandin, there’s a word that jumps out on me as I read your book and it’s “underestimated.” So many people are underestimated because we don’t recognize the gifts that you are describing to us. What can we do to rectify that problem?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, I get asked all the time what I would do to help the schools. One thing that really helped me is in the ’50s all the schools had the hands-on classes. I loved sewing, woodworking, and art, and if I had not had those classes I would’ve hated school.
Well, today a lot of those classes have been taken out. People that I worked with that were very autistic but never diagnosed, they owned metal fabrication shops. It was a single welding class. Or they grew up working on cars. That was their background. And the visual thinkers are good at art, photography, working with animals, and mechanics. Mechanics and art together.
And then you had this visual-spatial pattern thinker. That’s not me. And some of them are on the autism spectrum–mathematics, computer programming. They think in patterns. And then you’ve got some autistic people that are verbal thinkers.
And what you tend to have in autism is extreme–an extreme object visualizer, an extreme mathematician–where many, many people are mixtures of the different kinds of thinking. And I’m worried that these extreme thinkers are getting screened out. Like if a parent gets locked into the label of autism that they don’t think to teach their 8-year-old that is super good in math, computer programming, even though they were computer programmers.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: One of the anecdotes that jumped out at me, it’s a little one. It was about the sidewalk field trip. And maybe you can describe again the importance of these tactile, hands-on observational experiences in school.
DR. GRANDIN: Well, they didn’t have any money for field trips at this school so they took the kids out to the sidewalk to learn about parking meters and parking tickets, and turned the most mundane thing into education. On some of my slides I have a picture of a 3-year-old having a great time studying water going through a drain that came off the roof of our building, another really mundane thing that a dad was facilitating. And the kids took the leaves out of the drain, and then he ran around on the other side of the metal plate to watch the water come out, and he was having a fabulous time, again with another mundane thing. And kids just aren’t doing enough of these kinds of experiences.
The other thing that helped me in the ’50s is manners were taught in a much more systematic way. When I went to my speech therapy school they taught me speech, they taught me how to wait and take turns at games, and they taught me skills. And then I also had a lot of problems in high school with bullying. The worst part of my life. I got kicked out of a regular school. I went to a special boarding school. You know what they did with me? They put me to work running a horse barn. I had nine stalls to clean every day, horses to put in and out. I didn’t do any studying but I got really good at running a horse barn and cleaning stalls.
And what I learned from that is I learned how to work, and a big problem today is a lot of kids are not learning working skills. They are not the same skills, and this is where we’re having a problem making the transition from school to work. Because I know people that had small shops, big shops. They’d be playing video games in the basement today instead of building things. We actually have a huge skill loss that I’m very concerned about.
Right now, if you want to poultry processing plant you’ve got to get the equipment from Holland. We’re not making it anymore. We’re paying a price for taking shop class out 20 years ago.
Another thing we’re paying a price for is a lot of big companies shut down in-house engineering departments, and that made money in the short run because they could contract the work out. Now it’s coming back to bite them right now. We have a huge shortage of shops, and the shops that are left are ripping people off and gouging right now.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: One of the issues you raise is about neurodiversity, and of course we’ve got a much bigger understanding of the range of different ways of thinking that people have. Is it all to do with the difference between verbal thinking and visual thinking, or are there other ways that minds work that we’re yet to discover and understand?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, I’ll tell you, Howard Gardner talked about different types of minds, but he also has things in there like kinesthetic, and I was not good at sports. I was too klutzy.
But when it comes to thinking you’ve got the visual thinker like me, that visualizes art, photography, animals, and mechanics. Then you’ve got your mathematical minds, your computer programmers, your chemists, mathematicians, physicists, and they’re good at music because that’s also patterns.
I tried computer programming. Bill Gates and I had access to the exact same computer. He could do it; I had to drop the class. But I was exposed. It’s so important to expose kids to things. So that’s the mathematical mind.
So there’s actually three. There’s the picture mind, the mathematical pattern mind, and then the word mind, and then there’s the mixtures. And people that have a neurodiverse label tend to be good at one thing and terrible at something else. And we need to have a lot more emphasis on building up the skill that can turn into a career. Because some of the most fun stuff I ever did in my life was we’d sit around in the shop and we’d figure out how to build things. Then we used to complain about how stupid the suits is.
Now at the time that we were doing all that talk, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I didn’t realize that people that have upper management jobs are verbal thinkers, so they tend to overgeneralize. But a lot of startup corporations find that when they get to be a certain size, they’re going to have to hire a verbal thinker because they’re going to need that just to run the business. And with some of the people I worked with, one was married and the spouse actually ran the business side–payroll, all that kind of stuff that you have to do.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Grandin, I’d like to ask you one of the questions that’s come in already over Twitter. This one comes from Catherine Gulsvig Wood, and Catherine says, “A number of companies are now hiring neurodiverse people. How would you suggest the neurotypical people–alongside whom the neuroatypical will work–be trained on how to adapt to better include someone who is (say) autistic?” Good question.
DR. GRANDIN: Well, they need to get rid of the regular interview process. It just doesn’t work. Because the way I sold jobs is I showed off my drawings. I would hold up my drawings–and I’m going to try to get it in focus here, and I’m having a hard time doing that. I would simply show off my work. But showing off my work to the HR Department doesn’t work because they’re looking more at social skills. I’ve got to show up to the Engineering Department as somebody who is going to appreciate that work.
And so there needs to be a situation where the people can come in and maybe do some computer programming. Microsoft, companies like that, that have reached out to give the person time to come in and show what they can do.
Some companies do a better job than others, and I’ve done a lot of talks to businesses. And the first thing I explain to businesses is that we need the skills, and we need the skills really badly because we’re losing skills. There are things we are not making anymore. For example, the structural glass walls in the Apple mothership building came from Italy and Germany. We are losing skills. And so I tell business people, “You need the skills of neurodiverse people.”
And what I have found, the companies that are doing the best at this have a lot of input from all different departments in the company, high, vice president-level input. I’ve also seen programs where they had a great program in a company and their high-up management person suddenly had to leave, for example, for a health problem. Then the program deteriorated. But I’m also seeing some companies where the disability community actually forms a silo in the corporation. That doesn’t work.
The most effective programs have high-level executives outside of the disability community that take a super interest in this. And, of course, Silicon Valley, for years, has had the mathematical thinkers running the companies. I mean, Steve Jobs was probably autistic, you know, and he grew up tinkering around in the next-door neighbor’s garage. We need the skills. And some companies do lip service. I’m not going to name companies that have done a bad job. Tech industry has done a good job of reaching out.
There are some people in the banking industry that have done a good job of reaching out because the verbal kind of autistic, that can memorize all the lists, actually can be really good at selling cars but also selling specialized financial products because they have knowledge of these products. And I did a very interesting seminar with a bank, and they had two or three autistic salesmen for financial products. That’s not my kind of mind. My kind of mind is going to be over in the shop, building and designing things.
But let’s go back to the food processing plant. I’ve seen a very interesting division of labor in engineering. The visual thinkers do the clever engineering, like packaging equipment, all the mechanically clever equipment. The mathematical engineers do boilers and refrigeration, make sure the roof doesn’t fall down. And you have to have both, and realize that you have to have both.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: You speak so convincingly about the trials of these individual companies and how they’re putting the country at a competitive disadvantage, but are there countries that are doing particularly well on this? Are there countries who are bringing in and taking advantage of spatial thinkers and visual thinkers in a way to enhance their economies?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, one of the mistakes we’ve made is taking out the hands-on classes out of the schools because then the kid doesn’t have a chance to find out if they like welding. I’m a big believer in exposure. I was exposed to musical instruments. I never could play the little flute but I got exposed. Kids need to get exposed to a whole bunch of different stuff, and then you might find a kinesthetic kid, and that’s not come down usually on the autism spectrum, that’s really good at sports. Well, they wouldn’t know if they weren’t exposed. But you’re not going to get good at musical instruments if you’re not exposed to them. My art ability had to be developed.
In Germany and Holland, a kid can go the tech route. That’s the reason why they’re still making equipment that we’re not making. But the first step that companies have to realize is that people think differently.
Also, we’ve got to change some of the things at corporations. There are some accommodations. Writing can be a problem. LED lights flickering. One of the things I cannot deal with is long strings of verbal information. I cannot remember that sequence. I need to make a pilot’s checklist. I need to be able to do that. Some individuals might need some rest periods. There are some accommodations but they are not difficult to do.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: The pandemic has created this seismic shift in how we work and how we think about work. Do you see this as a moment when we could shift and make employment more accommodating and also take advantage of the skills of visual thinkers?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, a lot of design work can be done remotely, but the kind of design work I do I have to get out in the field. There is some going into the office I think is required. When I started getting back out in the field again after a year of lockdown, I realized just how important that is. You can do a lot of stuff over the internet, but not everything. And as a designer, I’ve got to get out in the field and look at stuff. You learn stuff doing that. And a lot of programming can be done remotely.
But let’s look at something like video conferencing. Zoom took over because the interface was easy. Now that’s the job for my kind of mind, think interface, the mathematician then programs it. Because the mathematician often wants to put too many bells and whistles on it. And I have the example in there of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Wozniak wants to put all these expansion slots and stuff on the computer, and it makes it too complicated, and Steve Jobs said, “No. I don’t want all that extra stuff.” Because making it simple, simple and pretty, people used his computers.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Grandin, you’ve become a pioneer and sort of hero for the autism community. What is the biggest concern that people from that community, or their family members, raise with you now going ahead?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, the big concern I see is making the transition to adulthood, and the problem we have is the autism label was changed in 2013, so you’ve got such a broad range. I mean, there are individuals on the spectrum that will always have to live in a supervised living situation, and then there are others that are running businesses. Elon Musk is on the spectrum. You’ve got this huge spectrum.
And I see problems with parents not letting go. I’m seeing too many young adults aren’t learning things like shopping and laundry, just basic stuff that I was taught, where they kind of get stuck on the label. And I look at things sort of like construction projects. I want to see the individual get an interesting career, come out really good. Because the most fun stuff I ever did in my life was sitting around and we’re figuring out how to build stuff. Some of the most fun stuff that I ever did, figuring out how to make some mechanical device work, then talking about it endlessly.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: I’d love to ask you about your early work in the cattle industry and was there an epiphany, was there a moment when you realized you had special skills that could help that industry work more effectively and also help the animals that were going through it?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, I didn’t know my thinking was different. For over 10 years of my career I didn’t know, because people thought I was crazy to be looking at what cattle were looking at, like shadows or a coat on a fence. I didn’t know that other people thought more verbally. I did not know that.
And one of the big barriers I had when I started out in the ’70s, being a woman–that was actually a much bigger barrier than autism ever was–and there’s a scene in that movie where they put bull testicles on my vehicle. That actually did happen. And the people that were the worst to me were the middle managers. It wasn’t the big owners. It wasn’t the guys working out in the field. It was middle management. That’s where most of my trouble was.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Tell me more about that, about the problem of being a woman in that very male-dominated industry? Because you had these two issues, right, a woman in a male-dominated industry and also dealing with autism with middle managers who, I’m guessing, were verbal people giving commands and arranging how things went.
DR. GRANDIN: There also were good people. I had a great science teacher. The superintendent of the Swift plant, Norb, was wonderful. There were good people that helped me. Jim Uhl, a contractor who had seen my drawings.
The other thing I was good at doing is figuring out the worst opportunity. There’s a very important scene in the movie where I get the card from the editor of the “Farmer-Ranchman,” because I realized if I wrote for that magazine, it would help my career. It was just luck that he was at this small cattle event. But I took advantage of that. A lot of people don’t see these doors to opportunity. And I got the card and I started writing for that magazine, and that got me a press pass into, I think, very expensive national meetings, and I then got the card of the editors of the national magazines, and I wrote about my projects.
You see, I took advantage of the opportunity, and a lot of people don’t see those opportunities. And that helped me out.
You getting any more questions?
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Yes. In your book you talk about the problem of screen time, and we’ve talked already today about the importance of kids spending time out doing things, using their hands, learning how to work. We now live in such a visually saturated society with images everywhere on social media. Is that a plus or a negative to kids who are visual thinkers?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, I think we’ve got to get out, involved in some stuff in the real world because what I’m seeing, I’m seeing too many kids getting addicted to video games, and they’re not getting wonderful video game jobs. If they were going to wonderful careers in that I would be fine with that.
But then I’m seeing problems with skill shortage. We no longer make the state-of-the-art electronic chip-making machine or electronic chips that come from Holland. And when you take the covers off that machine there’s plenty of stuff for us people that don’t know algebra to make on that machine.
And we need the neurodiverse skills. These skills are needed. And when I first started out, cattle-handling facilities, the way I sold it was financial. I couldn’t sell it just being nice to cattle. I sold it, well, I can take out one labor, one person. I’ll reduce your injuries and workmen’s comp claims. That’s how I had to sell the equipment. In the beginning, I couldn’t sell it any other way.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: I’d love to ask you a little bit more about imagery because it’s so central to how we tell stories in a newsroom now. It’s central to Snapchat, all the social media. Are we oversaturated with those kinds of images, from graphic novels, as I said, to how we tell stories in a newspaper? Are they an advantage for visual thinkers or are we overdoing it?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, actually I hate graphic novels, and it was in The New York Times. And the reason why I hate them is I don’t like switching back and forth between the word bubble and the pictures. Now if I’m reading a scientific article or just something I will look at the graphs and the diagrams, I will look at the pictures, and then I look at the text. But I’m not constantly switching back and forth, you see, because my attention shift is slow.
But we need to be getting kids out working on real things. We’ve got water systems falling apart, electrical wires falling out and causing fires. There’s all kinds of practical problems we need to be solving, and visual thinkers are really good at that, because I don’t overgeneralize. Okay, let’s say a power plant got frozen. Well, I want to know what froze and then how hard would it be to fix it. I find stuff like that extremely interesting, and we need people interested in that sort of stuff. You can have all the computers in the world but if you can’t power them, it doesn’t work very well. Maybe you need to put solar panels on your roof and have a battery. But still, that’s a real thing. That’s not an abstract thing.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Grandin, I want to read to you a sentence from your book that jumped out to me. You write, “Math geeks are often bullied or shunned. It’s only when the geeks become brilliant coders, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, and rocket scientists that we appreciate the way they see the world.”
What needs to happen to change that? That’s a seismic shift. We all know the kid who was bullied at school but then goes on to some level of brilliance afterwards. How do we recognize and help those kids earlier on?
DR. GRANDIN: One of the things that helped me was friends who shared interests. You know, get the kid into a computer programming club or a robotics club, you know, like where on a robotics team I’ll work on designing a robot and somebody else will program it. That’s two different kinds of minds working together. But some of these kids just have to be gotten out of these situations, and I think a lot of them need to get into the workforce just as quickly as possible, and get them out doing things.
No, teenage years, absolutely the worst part of my life, and a lot of people that I worked with got bullied in school, and they were the odd kid. And you’re not going to make me hyper-social. Don’t try to make me something that I’m not. But what I want to do is develop skills.
And the other thing is a lot of nonverbals, people who don’t speak, can learn to type independently, and they have more skills than you think they do. They often get underestimated and they get frustrated because they can’t communicate. And then people don’t listen to them when they should be listening to them. A lot of nonverbal people are underestimated. Got to have ways to communicate.
There’s been a lot of controversy about ADA and things like that. You’ve got work with little kids, get language going, but then, you know, you’re taking a little person that’s fully verbal, that ADA stuff needs to be just phased out. They’re past that. And we’ve got to be sure that in education we’re not causing sensory overload. That can be a real problem.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Right. I’d love to ask you one last question before we close. Every time I’ve mentioned to somebody I’m having the opportunity to speak with you they’ve been excited and had questions. And I spoke yesterday with an ENT surgeon who said, “I wish I were a visual thinker.” He said, “I’d be able to solve so many problems.” And I said, “Do you think you would be where you are now if you were truly a visual thinker?”
What hope is there for somebody like that, very smart guy, to learn visual thinking? Is it inherent or can somebody learn visual thinking later in life?
DR. GRANDIN: I think you can somewhat learn it, but I think the extreme visual thinkers, the extreme mathematicians, I think it’s genetic, especially in the extremes. And I’m concerned that visual thinkers like me, that maybe should be surgeons, get screened out because we can’t do algebra. And if you’re doing knee surgery or shoulders surgery, you don’t need algebra for that. See, that’s something that a visual thinker would be good at.
Also in the book, “Visual Thinking,” I talked with a doctor that was very frustrating training interns to sew up cuts because they’d never used scissors, and that makes it hard to teach them how to set up cuts.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Grandin, this has been a fascinating conversation. I would like one last question, if I may, and just a quick one. What do you want your legacy to be? In a word, how do you want to be remembered, as a hero for autism, as a best-selling author, as the heroine of a film?
DR. GRANDIN: Well, I get asked, I’m in my 70s now, and so what I want to do is I want to help the kids that are neurodiverse, they have different kinds of minds–autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, or whatever–to get into satisfying jobs where they can make a positive difference. That’s the thing I feel I need to be doing now, as somebody who has had a long career and is now in their 70s. And it makes me really happy when little kids write to me that I’ve inspired them to go into a great career.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Dr. Temple Grandin, thank you so much for finishing with that very inspiring message, and thank you for joining us.
DR. GRANDIN: Great to be here.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Thank you also to our audience. As you know, you can find more programming at Check there. You can sign up for future programs, and thank you for joining us today for that great conversation. I’m Frances Stead Sellers.
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