CROOKSTON, Minn. - When Temple Grandin was 14, her parents divorced and her mother remarried, leading Grandin from Boston to an Arizona ranch and her first exposure to cattle.

From that modest beginning, Grandin - who is autistic and as a child was written off by some as brain-damaged and destined to be institutionalized - has gone on to a remarkable career that includes revamping livestock handling facilities in North America and serving as a spokesperson for people with autism.

She’s gratified that her work has helped to improve how livestock is treated at handling facilities.

“When I first started in the ’70s, handling was awful. And it was awful throughout the ‘80s. (But) things have got a whole lot better,” said Grandin, 71, a designer of livestock handling facilities, frequent public speaker and part-time professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

Grandin spoke Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 at the University of Minnesota Crookston.

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Three measures of Grandin’s impact on the world: her life was featured in an award-winning 2010 film; she was named to the 2010 Times 100, an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world; and she has worked with a number of major companies, including McDonald’s, to make livestock handling and slaughter more humane.

Different people define “humane” in different ways. Grandin, asked by Agweek how she defines it, said she does so in “a more functional manner … keeping the fear/stress level low as possible and the animals remaining calm.”

In her career, she developed an objective scoring system for assessing handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants.

“I can define what good handling is, which would maintain an adequate level of animal welfare,” she said.

Careers, practical world

Though Grandin talked primarily about livestock, she gave her views on a number of other subjects, too.

One of her concerns is that too many young Americans lack opportunities to participate in activities that give them exposure to future careers, she said

“You can’t get interested in things you’re not exposed to,” she said.

Grandin mentioned that Patrick Stewart, the actor who played Capt. Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” became interested in acting after he appeared in a school play at age 12.

Grandin also is concerned that “a lot of kids in the city are totally disconnected from the world of the practical.” One example: “I’ve got kids coming into my livestock handling class who have never used a ruler of any kind,” limiting their ability to do a scale drawing, a useful tool in livestock handling design, she said.

“When you get removed from the practical, you get into the abstract about things being perfect,” she said. “You can make slaughterhouses really good, but you can’t make them perfect.”

Autism refers to a broad range of conditions that include challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, according to the Autism Speaks website.

Grandin emphasized that the abilities of people with autism vary greatly, and that people with it need the opportunity to make the most of those abilities.

In her visit with University of Minnesota Crookston students, she emphasized practical, effective ways of handling livestock more efficiently and that “good stockmanship” (often defined as the art or science of handling livestock properly) is financially prudent.

Grandin has written many books and articles, and been featured in a number of videos, promoting good livestock handling. For more information, visit www.grandin.com.

Maggie Mills, a University of Minnesota Crookston senior, said she enjoyed listening to Grandin and learning from her.

“She’s very inspirational and knows so much about livestock,” said Mills, a Lake City native who’s majoring in communication and minoring in animal science.