I was 21/2 years old when I began to show symptoms of autism: not talking, repetitious behavior and tantrums. Not being able to communicate in words was a great frustration, so l screamed. Loud, high-pitched noises hurt my ears like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve. I would shut out the hurtful stimuli by rocking or staring at sand dribbling through my fingers. As a child, I was like an animal with no instincts to guide me. I was always observing, trying to work out the best ways to behave, yet I never fit in. When other students swooned over the Beatles, I called their reaction an ISP–interesting sociological phenomenon. I wanted to participate but did not know how. I had a few friends who were interested in the same things, such as skiing and riding horses. But friendship always revolved around what I did rather than who I was.
Even today personal relationships are something I don’t really understand. I still consider sex to be the biggest, most important “sin of the system,” to use my old high school term. From reading books and talking to people at conventions, I have learned that autistic people who adapt most successfully in personal relationships either choose celibacy or marry someone with similar disabilities.
Early education and speech therapy pulled me out of the autistic world. Like many autistics, I think in pictures. My artistic abilities became evident when I was in first and second grade, and they were encouraged. I had a good eye for color and painted watercolors of the beach.
But words are like a foreign language to me. I translate them into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a videotape in my head. When I was a child, I believed that everybody thought in pictures. Not until I went to college did I realize that some people are completely verbal and think only in words. On one of my earliest jobs, I thought the other engineer was stupid because he could not “see” his mistakes on his drawings. Now I understand his problem was a lack of visual thinking and not stupidity.
Autistics have trouble learning things that cannot be thought about in pictures. The easiest words for an autistic child to learn are nouns because they relate directly to pictures. Spatial words such as over and under had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory. Even now, when I hear the word under by itself, I automatically picture myself getting under the cafeteria tables at school during an air-raid drill, a common occurrence on the East Coast in the early 1950s.
Teachers who work with autistic children need to understand associative thought patterns. But visual thinking is more than just associations. Concepts can also be formed visually. When I was little, I had to figure out that small dogs were not cats. After looking at both large and small dogs, I realized that they all had the same nose. This was a common visual feature of all the dogs but none of the cats.
I credit my visualization abilities with helping me understand the animals I work with. One of my early livestock design projects was to create a dip-vat and cattle-handling facility for a feed yard in Arizona. A dip vat is a long, narrow, 7-ft.-deep swimming pool through which cattle move in single file. It is filled with pesticide to rid the animals of ticks, lice and other external parasites. In 1978 dip-vat designs were very poor. The animals often panicked because they were forced into the vat down a steep, slick decline. They would refuse to jump into the vat and would sometimes flip over backward and drown.
The first thing I did when I arrived at the feedlot was put myself inside a cow’s head and see with its eyes. Because their eyes are on the sides of their head, cattle have wide-angle vision. Those cattle must have felt as if they were being forced to jump down an airplane-escape slide into the ocean. One of my first steps was to convert the ramp from steel to concrete. If I had a calf’s body and hooves, I would be very scared to step on a slippery metal ramp. The final design had a concrete ramp at a 25o downward angle. Deep grooves in the concrete provided secure footing. The ramp appeared to enter the water gradually, but in reality it abruptly dropped away below the water’s surface. The animals could not see the drop-off because the dip chemicals colored the water. When they stepped out over the water, they quietly fell in because their center of gravity had passed the point of no return.
Owners and managers of feedlots sometimes have a hard time comprehending that if devices such as dip vats and restraint chutes are properly designed, cattle will voluntarily enter them. Because I think in pictures, I assume cattle do too. I can imagine the sensations the animals feel. Today half the cattle in the U.S. are handled in equipment I have designed.