Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
In my journey to understand the new creature in my life this is one of the books that really made a difference. Ranger would highly recommend this book.
Temple Grandin is a noted animal behaviorist and a person with autism. During her long professional career working with animals she's had ample opportunity to observe them. Grandin's observations lead her to the conclusion that animals process the information their senses provide much like an autistic person does. The subtitle of the book captures that thesis very well "Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior."
Most people have a verbal narrative that runs in the background of their brain providing descriptive labeling for things being experienced. "I bumped my leg on the coffee table and it hurt." Many of those with autism and, in Grandin's thesis, animals don't have a verbal narrative. Instead, for them there is a silent movie that records experiences. In my short example above where I would have the narrative Grandin would have a movie of herself bumping her leg on the specific coffee table and of herself experiencing pain as a result. She argues that the way animals experience the world has a lot in common with the way autistic people experience the world. Where my internal narrative allows me to fudge a lot of details or ignore information that doesn't fit in the narrative autistic people and animals have no such luxury, for them all details are recorded. This is why it is often so difficult for most people to figure out what is spooking an animal. The coat hung on the fence post for example isn't important in the narrative and people don't see it but to a cow or horse that coat is something new in the environment and possibly a threat. To an autistic person the coat on the fence post is an observed detail that is part of the whole picture.
For a person with autism or an animal, generalizing is very difficult. I see a brown truck of a certain shape and shade and immediately identify it as being a UPS truck no matter what angle I'm seeing it from or what it is doing. For an animal or someone with autism this generalization is absent. Because Grandin does such a great job of explaining how a mind that interprets the world through pictures rather than narrative handles information I'm a much more mindful partner for Ranger and Finna. Ranger has seen UPS trucks in our neighborhood a lot. He's viewed them from the front, from the back and both sides. He's seen them driving past him both forwards and backward and driving toward him and to me he should recognize and understand that UPS trucks are not a threat as long as we were on the side of the road. Yet early in our relationship as we were walking home there was a UPS truck backing down the street and Ranger freaked out. I'd already seen, labeled and dismissed the truck so I was very startled by his reaction. Fortunately, I'd read Grandin's book and could look at it through his eyes. He'd never seen a UPS truck behave in that fashion and it was frightening, he wasn't able to generalize the other behaviors he'd seen from UPS trucks to the current behavior. Because I knew what was going on I was able to calm him and help him through the initial fright.