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Temple Grandin discusses the importance of neurodiversity in her new book

A headshot of Temple Grandin, a woman with short gray hair.

Temple Grandin is a renowned researcher who studies animal behavior and the humane handling of livestock. She is also a well-known advocate for autistic people. Recently, she has shifted her focus to the concept of visual thinking.

Grandin says she realized her way of visual thinking was not the norm through her research with cattle. At Arizona State University Grandin was studying cattle behavior and wondered why cattle would hesitate while walking through the chutes. She got inside the pen with them, trying to see for herself why they were stopping.

“When I first started looking at what cattle are seeing, back in the 70s, people thought that was kind of crazy. And at that time, I did not know that other people thought in words,” said Grandin.

Grandin’s newest book, "Visual Thinking," came out in October; it seeks to elucidate different types of thinking and the value visual thinkers bring to society. She uses examples and summarizes research studies that have compared the variety of ways humans process information. She says verbal thinking is generally favored in today’s world. It emphasizes words and language as the initial thought process. In contrast, visual thinking puts pictures before the words, visualizing solutions and situations in pictures prior to articulation.

“I take a sense of — as a visual thinker, I take a very practical approach,” Grandin said of her own approach to problem solving.

Grandin not only draws from her own experiences and research as a visual thinker in a world dominated by verbal thinkers, but those of distinguished engineers, scientists, artists and inventors. She delves into the lives and careers of household names to observe the role of different thinking strategies in given careers. People like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Maya Lin and Alan Turing.

A plethora of examples of collaborations between different types of thinkers to accomplish impressive feats, provides evidence for an imperative need to place greater value on neurodiversity in society. That includes innovation, research and influential companies across the world.

In her book, Grandin discusses two different types of visual thinkers: object visualizers and spatial visualizers. Object visualizers tend to think in pictures and are often strong artists, architects and inventors. The latter on the other hand, are better at extracting information and seeing patterns; they are often engineers and mathematicians. Both types of visual thinking are essential to creating and problem solving.

“We really need all the different kinds of minds,” Grandin said on the importance of including many different thinkers in projects.

While research has come a long way in discerning the diverse ways of thinking, Grandin is concerned that current schooling and treatment of those often labeled as ‘neurodivergent’ is preventing children from growing into their strengths and contributing to modern infrastructure.

“And I'm getting worried about especially my type of visualizer getting screened out, because you can't do some of the higher math. The thing is, you need my kinds of minds,” said Grandin.

Fostering kids who are often thrown into special ed, encouraging learning and catering towards strengths leads to very different futures for those children.

According to Grandin, it’s important to encourage an environment that cultivates growth, curiosity and hands-on learning to all children, but particularly those often labeled as ‘special needs.’ Grandin was not diagnosed with autism until later in life, and her own childhood was filled with learning opportunities that pushed her to follow her interests and find her strengths.

“Mother would say go outside and play. We'd make up our own games, I'd go throw sticks on in Brooklyn and run on the other side of the bridge and watch them come out. You know, just seeing how things work and just getting outside and doing stuff,” Grandin said.

Grandin makes clear that understanding different ways of thinking and that other people process life in different ways is pivotal to problem solving. Individuals exist on this continuum of thinking strategies, some favoring visual thinking much more than verbal. Grandin makes the case that the importance of neurodiversity and fostering a productive learning environment from an early age, can benefit society from awareness and inclusion of differing thinking strategies.

Find a copy of her book at local bookstores near you.

Erin Lewis is a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a PhD Candidate in the biology department at Utah State University. She is passionate about fostering curiosity and communicating science to the public. At USU she studies how anthropogenic disturbances are impacting wildlife, particularly the effects of tourism-induced dietary shifts in endangered Bahamian Rock Iguana populations. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting and getting outside with her dog, Hazel.