Do Animals Typically Think Like Autistic Savants?
Temple Grandin says they do and autism helps her better connect with them.
Posted Aug 14, 2013
"In her new book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Grandin examines the surprising similarities between an animal’s mind and an autistic mind—her own. 'Autistic people,' she writes, 'are closer to animals than normal people are.' This may sound like a cruel judgment, the sort of thing a cold-hearted clinician would say, but it isn’t. It’s an acute observation, all the more important because it comes from an autistic person. Her autism, Grandin suggests, puts her somewhere between normal human mentality and animal mentality, not as a matter of IQ but as a matter of perception and emotion. Being closer to animals isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, that’s what makes Grandin such an uncanny translator of animal behavior."
Over the past few years and at a recent meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, a good number of people have asked me to address Dr. Temple Grandin's claim that nonhuman animals (animals) typically behave like autistic humans. She also claims that autism helps her understand and empathize with animals, who supposedly think in pictures, better than non-autistic humans. I often wonder about these claims because I know numerous non-autistic people who very deeply care about other animals based on shared feelings - deep empathy - and who use these feelings to work selflessly on their behalf. This is not to say Dr. Grandin does not connect with other animals, but rather I'm not convinced she does so more deeply than many others.
I could only find one study that rigorously addressed the question, "Do Animals Think like Autistic Savants?", and the results do not support Dr. Grandin's claim. An international and interdisciplinary group of renowned scientists, Giorgio Vallortigara, Allan Snyder, Gisela Kaplan, Patrick Bateson, Nicola Clayton, and Lesley Rogers, reviewed data stemming studies of the neurobiology and cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals and concluded, "we disagree with the claim that animals are similar to autistic savants." Their entire essay is available online and interested readers are able to read the details if they choose. A concise and useful summary is also provided here. In another review of this study, University of New England (Australia) animal behavior and neurobiology expert Professor Lesley Rogers notes, "You may find some animals are autistic but it's not characteristic of animals in general." (my emphasis)
There also is a response from Dr. Grandin in the above essay. She notes, "Since animals do not have verbal language, they have to store memories as pictures, sounds, or other sensory impressions. Sensory-based information by its very nature is more detailed than word-based memories. As a person with autism, all my thoughts are in photo-realistic pictures. I can search my own brain, like using Google, for images. As I read about the cognition experiments, I saw the birds performing in my imagination like a virtual reality computer system. The main similarity between animal thought and my thought is the lack of verbal language." I don't fully understand Dr. Grandin's conclusion because she obviously does not lack verbal language. I and countless others have heard her give talks at a wide variety of venues and I have talked with her about the plight of food animals on a number of occasions.
While it is true that other animals do not have human-like verbal language, there is increasing evidence that many animals do, in fact, have very sophisticated systems of communication that share numerous characteristics of what we call language. [Please see "Dr. Dolittle To the Rescue: Animals Do Indeed Have Language", a review of the groundbreaking research by esteemed scientist, Con Slobodchikoff, at Northern Arizona University (and others), whose long-term and detailed studies of prairie dogs provide compelling data that these wonderful rodents, as well as many other animals, do have language and have a lot to say to one another.]
While I was writing this essay I was informed of another recently published paper called "Best way to kill lab animals sought". A version of this title for farm animals could easily be, "Best way to kill food animals sought." While there surely are better and worse ways to kill nonhuman (and human) animals, it's important to consider why we are doing this in the first place.
Do Animals Typically Behave as Autistic Humans?
There's no evidence that nonhuman animals typically behave as autistic humans. However, from time to time, there are reports of wild animals behaving as if they're suffering from psychological disorders, including autism, that are not typical of their own or other species. And, since I wrote my earlier essay, there are many reports of animals suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Usually the observations are based on captive and companion animals but during a long-term field project on the behavior of coyotes living in the Grand Teton National Park outside of Jackson, Wyoming, I did observe a coyote pup who behaved as if he might be autistic. I also noted that because wild animals don't get the medical care to which our companion animals are privy, those who suffer from extreme and debilitating psychological disorders most likely die, as do those who suffer serious physical injuries and illness. So, my guess is yes, wild animals can indeed suffer from PTSD and other psychological disorders under natural conditions and that as time goes on we will learn more about the extent of these maladies. I strongly encourage field workers to report instances of psychological trauma. Evolutionary continuity supports the idea that nonhumans, like humans, do suffer from psychological disorders.
I've revisited Dr. Grandin's claim because like many others I've been thinking about it for a while and also because of some recent studies on animal cognition and discussions about how their brains work very similarly to our own. To be fair, and as I was recently reminded of this by a world-renowned animal activist, Dr. Grandin has indeed made a positive difference in the lives of some food animals as they trod along what she calls the "stairway to heaven" on the way to their unnecessary and horrific death (see also). However, the percentage of animals who are helped is infinitesimally small compared to the vast number of these sentient beings who wind up on the end of a fork.
And, let's face it, no animal who winds up in the factory farm production line has a "good" or even "moderately good" life, one we would allow our dogs or cats to experience. In fact, their lives are marked by constant fear, terror, and anxiety. So, "a slightly better life" isn't really "good enough", and as she continues her important work I'd like to see Dr. Grandin encourage people to stop eating factory farmed animals and call attention to the fact that none of the ways in which they're currently treated, including how they're bred, reared, and transported to slaughterhouses, even borders on what should be acceptable and called "sufficiently humane". "Humane slaughter" allows for interminable pain, suffering, and death and simply must be stopped. Dr. Grandin has chosen not to use her deep empathy to end the suffering of food animals, and her inconsistencies also are noted here.
We must change our ways, phase out the use and wanton and rampant abuse of other animals, and really use what we know from detailed scientific research (see, for example, "Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings" and "A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending"), namely that other animals are sentient and feeling creatures, they suffer greatly at our hands, and that each and every one of us can do something to end that suffering right now.
Furthermore, careful observations in the case of nonhumans, who never will be able to tell us verbally what they're thinking and feeling, show clearly that they are smart and sentient and care very much what happens to them, their families, and their friends. Absent verbal language, other animals plainly tell us what they need and what they want and what they are thinking and feeling, and we need to listen carefully to them. Like us, they want to live in peace and safety, and it is not asking too much of us to make this a reality for the billions of other animals who suffer each year because of what we choose to do to them.
Vallortigara G, Snyder A, Kaplan G, Bateson P, Clayton NS, et al. (2008) Are Animals Autistic Savants. PLoS Biol 6(2): e42. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060042