At the Emmy Awards ceremony in August, Temple Grandin took the stage several times as the HBO movie about her life grabbed seven awards.
Dressed in rancher attire with a red scarf and a silver belt buckle, Grandin gave the film's executive producer a long hug.
For someone who started life unable to bear a hug from her parents, the embrace was a sign of how far she's come.
Grandin, now 63, has autism.
The HBO movie, starring Claire Danes, tells how Grandin, a Boston native, defied the predictions of 1950s specialists who said she should be institutionalized. As a 3-year-old she was unable to speak or make eye contact. But she grew up to become a renowned animal scientist who helped create guidelines that have become a standard in the meatpacking industry. For example, she designed curved corrals intended to reduce stress on animals being led to slaughter and has taught workers how to herd animals without excessive electrical prodding.
This week, she will be in Charlotte to speak at a national conference on autism and Asperger's syndrome. (Tickets for her talk are sold out.)
Grandin is also the subject of the title story in "Anthropologist from Mars," a best-selling book by acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks, and of a BBC documentary, "The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow."
Grandin spoke to the Observer by telephone. Here are edited excerpts:
Q. What's your best advice for parents of children with autism?
I can't emphasize enough the importance of early educational intervention... (As a child) I had 20 or 30 hours a week of teachers and people working with me... If you have a kid who is 2 years old or 3 years old and there's no speech, just doing nothing (is) the worst thing you can do...
If you're in a situation where you can't get any services, get some grandmothers, get some students to start working with that kid. Teach them nursery rhymes. Do a lot of one-on-one teaching. Play games with them. Teach them the alphabet. You can't just let them sit in the corner rocking.
Q. Is it realistic to expect most people with autism to accomplish what you have?
Autism is a very big continuum. At the one end you've got somebody that's going to remain nonverbal and have problems... If you work with them and train them, they can do simple things... living skills like dressing themselves, feeding and shopping.
At the other end of the continuum... you get into the mild, Asperger type ... We called them geeks and nerds. They're the ones that might be good at science but they're not very social. And a lot of those people, they run Silicon Valley.
Q. I have read that you don't have emotions. Is that true?
Well, that's not true. I have emotions... but they're not complicated. They're simple. I can be really happy, really angry, really sad. When kids teased me, it hurt a whole lot.
Q. The HBO movie shows how at 16, you visited your aunt's cattle ranch in Arizona and discovered you had a lot in common with animals. Describe how you got the idea to build your own "hug machine."
(When I was little) I couldn't stand to be touched. I wanted the nice feeling of being hugged... but it was sort of like a tidal wave of stimulation... When I got into puberty, I started having horrendous anxiety attacks. My nervous system was looking for danger when there was no danger.
(At the ranch), I watched cattle go into the squeeze chute... It holds cattle still for veterinary work... Some of the cattle just kind of relaxed. So I got in the squeeze chute with the cattle, and I found that pressure calmed me... I invented a device very much like a squeeze chute...
(My mother) wanted to get me out doing different things... A lot of autistic kids don't want to do new stuff... You've got to encourage them.
Q. You're described as a visual thinker. What does that mean?
The movie does a very good job of showing how my mind works in pictures... There's a scene where a whole bunch of shoes come up in rapid succession... That's how I think. Imagine a PowerPoint presentation and you just click through the slides really quick.
Q. You have said you credit autism for your achievements. Can you explain?
I think autism helped me in my work with animals. I'm an extreme visual thinker. Also I think very much in details. Animals think in details, think in pictures, think in audio clips, think in touch sensation. They don't think in language... (A cow) is going to recall a picture of something that's good or bad. A feed truck - that's something good. A certain man wearing a striped shirt is bad because he hit (the cow) in the past. That's how an animal responds to things.
Q. In recent years, many parents have blamed vaccines for causing autism. That theory has been discredited by recent research. What do you think?
There's one study that still hasn't been done. There's a type of autism where the child gets language... can say a few words... and then loses it. There's a regression at about 18 months or 2 years. That subgroup needs to be studied separately. Until that study is done, the book is not closed.
Q. So you think it's possible vaccines could play a role?
I'm leaving that open. That study has to be done. I've brought that up with some of the top experts and they get very silent. That's all I'm going to say about it.
Q. What kind of feedback are you getting from the movie and your books?
People write me e-mails and things like that, and they tell me that they've been encouraged. I had one mother write to me and say "My son went to college because of your book." That makes me really happy.