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Authors: Temple Grandin,Richard Panek

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The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (37 page)

BOOK: The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum
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Probably about half of all the wolves were pacers when they first got to the pens, but some of them were in worse shape than others. Luna and her pen mate were both pacing. The pen mate, though, would respond to changes in the environment. When you walked into the pen she’d look up and see you, or if a truck drove by she’d stop and look at it. If you stood in front of her while she was pacing, she’d notice you were there and take another path.

Luna was completely out of it. She was a beautiful wolf, with a gorgeous coat, and her mouth was in the relaxed “smile” position. But she acted the way some young autistic children do; she was in her own little world. You’d walk into the pen and she wouldn’t be aware that you were there, and she didn’t react to trucks driving by. She had paced so much she’d worn a path into the ground.

There was a log by Luna’s path, so I sat down on it with my student Lily and we put our toes on the edge of Luna’s path in the ground. Luna just paced by our toes like they weren’t even there.

Then I stretched my leg out across her path. Luna jumped over my leg, but not in a normal way. She dropped her toes the way I’ve seen autistic kids do and scuffed them on my leg as she went over.

I don’t know why toe dropping happens, but my own shoes were always scuffed on the top of the toe when I was a child. No other children had scuffs on top of their shoes, just me. Being autistic, I had a lot of stereotypies, too.

Next I put my other leg out, and she did the same thing. She put her toes down and scuffed them on my legs when she jumped over.

Then Lily put one leg out and the same thing happened. Luna jumped over all three of our legs without acting like they were there, and she scuffed her toes. Lily put her other leg out, so now there were four legs in the path. Luna jumped and scuffed again.

I wanted to see if there was any way to get Luna to notice that there were two human beings blocking her path, so I put my hand out about eight inches above my leg, like a low wall. Luna jumped the “wall” very badly, bashed her foot on my hand, and kept on going as if Lily and I weren’t there. I raised my hand to eighteen inches above my leg, and this time Luna smashed into my hand with her chest and scuffed all four of our legs with her toes. The shelter lady told me that another woman who worked there had stood in front of Luna once, blocking her path, and Luna knocked her over. Ran right over her. Luna was like a robot, or a wolf zombie. She just kept pacing back and forth, back and forth, and nothing could catch her attention or change her path.


A Shock


When I first started writing this book, I thought that you could use stereotypies as a test of animal welfare. If a captive animal is stereotyping, that means it is suffering. The reason I thought this is that I’ve spent a lot of time around high-strung, nervous horses that have more stereotypies than calm horses. Also, I had stereotypies myself when I was little, and I had a lot of problems then. Repetitive behavior calmed me down when my overly sensitive nervous system was bombarded by sounds that hurt my ears.

But just a few weeks after I started to read the most recent research on stereotypies and barren environments, I found a group of studies on mink stereotypies that blew my mind. Farmed minks are high-activity animals that live in horrible, small cages. Anyone would expect them to have a lot of stereotypies, living in that tiny space, but 25 percent of the minks in the study—all breeding females—didn’t have any stereotypies at all. They were not living in a good environment, but they didn’t have stereotypies and they were breeding well.

That part didn’t surprise me because there is a huge variability in stereotypies between different individual animals. I saw that with my pigs. The shock came when I read the results for the 75 percent of minks that
stereotyping. It was the opposite of everything I had always believed. The 75 percent of minks that had stereotypies were calmer and less fearful than the 25 percent that didn’t.
They weren’t out of it like Luna, either. When the experimenters pushed a stick a little way inside their cage, the stereotyping minks explored it, but the rest of the minks either attacked the stick violently or ran away. An animal that explores a novel object put inside its cage has better welfare than an animal that is terrified or enraged. The stereotyping minks had better welfare than the minks that didn’t have stereotypies.

When I first read this, I was like Bill Greenough with the pig results—“Oh, s***! Oh, s***!” All I could keep thinking about was, “How do I reconcile these minks with everything else I know?” I was also freaked out because I knew there would be some people who would use the studies to say it’s acceptable to keep minks in these horrible cages because the stereotyping minks are calm.

Then I went through all the new research on stereotypies and realized my mistake. I was used to seeing stereotypies in high-fear Arab horses and autistic children. So I associated all stereo-typies with fear and anxiety. But the most recent research on stereotypies showed me that wasn’t the whole story. Yes, stereo-typies are abnormal, but you can’t automatically assume that an animal that is stereotyping has poor welfare right at that moment or that an animal that is not stereotyping has good welfare. An animal that is stereotyping might have better welfare than an animal that isn’t. Abnormal repetitive behavior means one of three things:

  • The animal is suffering now.
  • The animal was suffering sometime in the past but isn’t suffering now. A barren environment caused my pigs to start doing stereotypies. I think this caused extra, abnormal dendrites to grow. Even when the pigs were moved to a better environment, stereotypies tended to persist thanks to those extra dendrites.
  • The animal’s current welfare may not be great, but the animal is in better shape than other animals in the same barren facility that aren’t stereotyping. A stereotyping animal in a bad environment may be soothing or stimulating itself, whereas the nonstereotyping animal may have just given up and become totally withdrawn and depressed. In a bad environment, the pacing animals have better welfare.

I would put Luna the wolf in the second category. Luna had good living conditions at the shelter, but she still had some of the worst stereotypies I’ve ever seen in a canine. I think stereo-typies can have different motivators that are based on the core emotions. Fear may be the driver in some cases, but the minks were probably motivated by the SEEKING system. Since there is nothing to seek in a barren cage, they paced. When I replayed the memories of my childhood stereotypies, I realized that they were initially motivated by fear so I could escape from sounds that hurt my ears. I studied all the reflections on grains of sand that I dribbled through my hand, and I shut out the world around me. My SEEKING system had now kicked in, and I studied details that most people would ignore.

The reason Luna’s pacing was so extreme is probably that she was born and raised in captivity. That’s one of the most interesting findings from the research on animal stereotypies: wild-caught adult animals—animals that were born and grew up in the wild before being captured—have fewer stereotypies than animals raised in captivity.
Most people would think that animals captured in the wild and put in a zoo would be pacing or bar biting like crazy because it’s horribly stressful to remove wild animals from their natural habitat and transport them to zoos, and it should never be done. But it’s the other way around. Animals born in captivity have more stereotypies than animals born in the wild.

The reason wild-caught animals stereotype less than animals born and raised in captivity is probably that wild-caught animals were living in a rich, natural environment when they were young and their brains were developing. Many animals born in captivity were raised in barren environments like the Romanian orphans. Luna was probably a deprived animal with a scar on her brain that caused her pacing to be worse.

That explains the pet tiger I saw in Texas. The big predators living in zoos are known for doing a huge amount of pacing, and almost all of these animals were born in captivity. It’s good that they were born inside zoos because it’s horribly stressful for a wild animal to be captured and put in a zoo. But lions and tigers that grow up inside zoos often pace their enclosures for hours and hours.

The tiger I saw was born in captivity, but he didn’t have any stereotypies at all. That’s probably because his captive environment was highly stimulating. The tiger was raised by two ranchers who found him at an emu auction when he was a baby. The wife saw the tiger and said, “I’m taking him home.” This was an eight-week-old male tiger cub.

They took the tiger cub home, and he lived in their house with them like a pet, becoming house-trained just like a dog. He would stand at the door to go out to go to the bathroom. The couple also owned a mature Labrador retriever who was immediately dominant over the baby tiger. After the tiger had lived with them and the Labrador for a while, they got a St. Bernard who was also dominant over the tiger. A house with two humans and two dominant dogs isn’t a natural environment for a tiger cub, but it’s not a deprived, barren environment, either. In the wild, tiger cubs live with their mamas and their brothers and sisters for a year while they learn how to hunt. The two dogs were the pet tiger’s brothers and the ranchers were probably his parents. The tiger baby was growing up in an enriched social and physical environment.

When he reached the age of one and a half, the ranchers moved him out of the house and into a cage outside, about sixteen feet wide by fifty feet long, and he’s been there ever since. They never let him roam outside the cage, but there’s a little door big enough for his head to come out and they pet him and feed him. They don’t have the dogs anymore, so he’s pretty much alone.

That tiger has no stereotypies: no fur pulling, no paw biting, and no pacing. The only thing wrong with him is that he’s a little paunchy because when he was young they overfed him, so now that he’s lost weight his skin hangs down. But that’s all.

The tiger has tons of cattle to look at in the pasture across the way from his enclosure, and he looks at them constantly. He gets really excited when the cattle are rotated to different pastures. If little kids visit the ranch, he also likes to look at them. He looks at small children in a really scary way—he looks at the kids the same way he looks at the cattle. That’s because he wasn’t raised with kids, just with grownup people and dogs. So, to him, the little person and the big person are not the same thing.

I’ve been doing a lot of consulting work with zoos since
Animals in Translation
came out, so I’ve seen a lot of big cats in captivity. This tiger looks fine to me, and if you took his cortisol levels I bet they’d be normal. (Cortisol is a stress hormone.) His current environment seems to be OK for him, but the most important thing is that he had an enriched social and physical environment when he was a cub. There is something neuroprotective—protective of the brain—about early stimulation.

To improve welfare in captive-born animals, people need to give them enriched environments both as babies and throughout adult life. It’s much better to prevent stereotypies from developing in the first place, instead of trying to treat them once they’ve started. Once stereotypies do develop, you should try to reduce them, even in the case of scar-on-the-brain-type stereo-typies. An animal like Luna may not be suffering, but the constant stereotyping itself interferes with an animal’s quality of life and her nervous system is operating in a totally abnormal manner. If I had been allowed to do stereotypies all day, I would have never become a professor and I would have missed many wonderful experiences. The people who ran Luna’s shelter did manage to get her stereotypies down somewhat by moving her to a different pen away from the food preparation area. The sight of food was probably making her stereotypies worse because it constantly stimulated her SEEKING system.


Everyone who is responsible for animals—farmers, ranchers, zookeepers, and pet owners—needs a set of simple, reliable guidelines for creating good mental welfare that can be applied to any animal in any situation, and the best guidelines we have are the core emotion systems in the brain. The rule is simple: Don’t stimulate RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC if you can help it, and do stimulate SEEKING and also PLAY.
Provide environments that will keep the animal occupied and prevent the development of stereotypies.

In the rest of the book I’m going to tell you what I know about how you can do that.

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BOOK: The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum
5.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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