Bookmarks Issue: 

Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

A-AnimalsinTranslationGrandin, an animal behavior expert who designs humane slaughter systems, relates to animals in unique ways. She theorizes that she processes information like animals with similarly less powerful frontal lobes because she is autistic. Grandin thinks in detailed images and experiences greater intuition, more concrete emotions, and a heightened sense of fear. For Grandin, autism allows her to "translate ‘animal talk’ into plain English." Combining findings from neurology, evolutionary biology, and cognitive psychology, the authors contend that animals really do think and react in sophisticated ways. All animals are equal, and some animals may be more equal than others. But all have intelligent, conscious, and emotional lives.
Scribner. 368 pages. $25. ISBN: 0743247698

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"At once hilarious (a parrot who loses patience with his trainer), fascinating (a horse with a phobia of black hats), and just plain weird (rapist roosters, sadistic killer whales), Animals is one of those rare books that elicits a ‘wow’ on almost every page." Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"You may agree with Grandin’s implicit belief that comparing autistic people to animals is high praise, or you may worry that the analogy may not help these vulnerable, sometimes heartbreaking people." Polly Morrice

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While the book at times is repetitive and occasionally makes points using anecdotal evidence, it remains entertaining and insightful." Verna Noel Jones

Critical Summary

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, debunked common assumptions about autism in Thinking in Pictures (1995). In her latest book, she sheds new light on animal behavior. Comparing an autistic person’s frontal lobes (which can receive mixed messages from the brain) to animals’ less developed ones, Grandin argues that autism can help us understand animals’ more defined actions. She offers funny, thought-provoking insights into their conduct—Mozart’s pet starling inspired his music; some dogs sense people’s oncoming seizures. A thoughtful, concluding "troubleshooting" guide to animal behavior contains useful advice. A few poorly edited, repetitive chapters, not to mention the controversial brain research cited, irked some critics. Overall, however, readers will leave Animals with greater understanding of why Fluffy feels—and acts—the way he does.

Supplemental Reading

An Anthropologist on Mars Seven Paradoxical Tales | Oliver Sacks (1995): Grandin first came to the broader public’s attention with Sacks’s profile of her in The New Yorker, included here. Sacks also profiles a blind man given back his sight, a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, and others.