How Temple Grandin Overcame Challenges With Autism

June 27, 2017

Her mother prayed for good news as she sent 3-year old Grandin to a speech therapist.

Diagnosed with autism, Temple was thought to be incapable of learning how to speak. In the 1950s, that meant institutionalization all of her life. That is, unless she could prove she was capable of learning in school.

Her parents tried everything, and speech therapy was her last hope of a good life.

Somehow, against all odds, young Temple started to make progress. It was slow, but Temple was able to speak well enough to be enrolled in school.

This was a huge win for Temple, but still her future still seemed limited. She struggled throughout her entire school life because she simply did not think the way “normal” children did.

She could not think in terms of words, only pictures. She could not understand basic human emotions or interactions. This inability to relate to her peers, or be understood by her teachers, alienated Temple.

She became extremely anxious and lonely. And although she avoided institutionalization, it appeared Temple would never be successful in mainstream society. She was just too different. [1]


That started to change when Temple spent a summer on a farm with her aunt. There, Temple interacted with her aunt’s cattle and realized the deep connection she felt for them.

For some reason, she felt an empathy for them that she couldn’t feel for other people.

Then Temple spotted a machine known as the “squeeze chute” which holds cattle tightly while they are examined, marked, or given veterinary treatment. Like all children, Temple wanted to be hugged to help her feel safe and secure.

However, she could not stand having another person hug her. She felt like she had no control in the situation, so it would cause her to panic.

But when she saw the squeeze chute, she felt like it could give her the sensation she was looking for all of her life - without losing control. So she used the squeeze chute on herself and instantly felt a sense of calm come over her.

All of her anxious feelings melted away and she finally felt safe.

Immediately, she wanted to create a machine that would give her the same sensation she felt in the squeeze chute. So when she got back from Arizona, Temple got straight to work in her other great passion in life – building things. [2]


She was so excited about this that she would spend hours researching machine design without any boredom. Because she was so focused on her goal of building the squeezing mechanism, she overcame her weakness of understanding things in words!

Eventually, she built a makeshift squeeze chute that she would use to calm her anxiety through the social awkwardness of her adolescents.

After completion, Temple’s curiosity only increased. She wanted to know why the machine impacted her so positively. So she became obsessed with how touch and pressure affect autistic children.

Still an outcast, she had ample time alone for research and studying. Although reading through textbooks took her longer than normal children, it provided a great platform to practice learning through books.

This helped her immensely as she progressed through high school.Temple wasn't a stellar student by any means, but with each passing year, her options grew.

After years of passionate research and remarkable improvements in her learning ability, Temple went to University - eventually graduating with a Master's in animal science.


When she entered the working world, Temple became more than just an autism success story, she became the greatest innovator in her field.

She started working on feedlots, which were horrible in the 1970s.

Workers didn't take the animals’ thoughts or emotions into account at all. They were only focused on forcing the cattle to move along the assembly line - leading to group panic, injuries and even death.

Given her empathy for cattle, Temple felt their emotions at every step of the process.

She felt their fear, she felt their pain, and she felt their feelings of panic. They were living in a place that was completely foreign to all of their natural instincts, so they didn't know how to react.

So Temple obsessed over each point and ensured that the cattle’s psychological state was always in tact. She literally went through the entire production process as if she were the cow, then made changes based on what the cow sees and feels.

She deliberately kept frightening or confusing things out of their line of vision.

She ensured they would be able to keep their footing at all times.

And made sure there would never be a bottle neck that would cause group panic.

The men in the feedlots laughed at her crazy ideas of "cattle psychology", but Temple was used to ridicule at that point. Then when her design was done, they were blown away when the cattle moved flawlessly through the feedlot.

No injuries, no deaths, no panic, and no forcing the cattle to move. It was perfect.

Thus, Temple went from having no brighter future than working on an assembly line, to being one of the greatest assembly line innovators since Henry Ford.

Today, she is a world renowned author, speaker, and one of the greatest inspirations for autistic children everywhere who now know that success is possible for them.


Temple Grandin truly is a hero. She was born with a disorder that stopped thousands of other children from having a good life, and thousands more from even having the right to their own freedom.

Yet, she not only had a good life, she made the world a better place for animals and autistic children everywhere.

So what can we learn from her?


So often there is a temptation to blame your bad results on bad luck.

You're not talented....

You're not smart...

You just don't have the willpower...

Then you go about life angry, feeling like you have no control over your circumstances. But in all likelihood, whatever your bad luck is, it is not nearly as bad as Temple's bad luck of being born with severe autism in the 1950s!

Yet, today she lives as a true inspiration in our society because of her bad luck!

At the age of 5, she had already spent 20 hours/week in speech therapy accomplishing a goal that many thought was impossible. She didn't have to hear "nothing is impossible" from parents and teachers, she knew from experience!

Before high school, she had already discovered her life's passion - building things, and working with animals. She didn't have to hear "follow your dreams", she was already following them!

Then she developed the willpower to research and study because she was isolated from her friends and had ample time alone to follow her passions. [3]

Whatever your "bad luck" is, find a way to turn it around. Find a way for it to help you develop into the person you truly want to be.


Throughout her life, Temple embraced the things she was great at.

She embraced the fact that she thought in pictures, focusing her life's work on design.

She embraced her empathy for animals, getting her degree in animal science.

She embraced her passion for autism, researching everything she could about it.

However, she also realized that she needed to improve her weaknesses.

If she hadn't built a device to overcome her anxiety, she never would have made it through the bullying in high school. If she hadn't overcome her inability to learn in words, she never would have gone to college.

Embrace those things you can do better than everyone else, but also do not ignore the things you need to work on. Sometimes it will not matter how good you are in one area if you are not good enough in another.


Think about how painful and boring it would be for you to read a textbook about machine design for the next 6 hours. Now think about how boring and painful it would be if you were autistic and couldn't process words properly!

Yet, Temple did that regularly.

She was so passionate about animals, building things, and learning how pressure affected autistic children, that she could summon the willpower to endure that frustration for hours every single day.

Next, think of the boldness it would take a shy, autistic woman to come into a male-dominated cattle feedlot and tell them that they have been doing almost everything wrong!

But she summoned the willpower to do it because she had a truly inspiring purpose. A purpose that she worked toward her entire life. And one that she was never going to stop pursuing. [4]

Whatever your goal, dream, desire, you must find the passion behind it and remind yourself of it. Don't focus on the boring, painful, or scary work you must to do today, focus on why you are doing it. And remind yourself that it is worth it.


You are not imprisoned by your circumstances. No matter what family you were born into, no matter what genes you were given, and no matter what strengths or weaknesses you have, you always have control over decisions and actions.

Temple's story proves that you can be given bad luck and turn it into great results. She proves that embracing your strengths is powerful - as long as you have the willpower to work on your weaknesses. And that your passion is the strongest willpower you have.

Luck happens - both good and bad. But you are not defined by your luck. You are defined by your choices, and the willpower you need to make those choices a reality.

Submitted by Colin Robertson. To read more and find out about his Kickstarter book, read here


1. Grandin, T. (2006). Thinking in pictures: And other reports from my life with autism. Vintage; Reissue edition.

2. Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York: Viking.

3. Muraven, M., Baumeister, R., & Tice, D. (1999). Longitudinal Improvement of Self-Regulation Through Practice: Building Self- Control Strength Through Repeated Exercise. The Journal of Social Psychology, 446-457.

4. McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Avery.

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