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2007 SAMLA Convention
9-11 November 2007
Atlanta, Georgia


Kris Weller
University of California, Santa Cruz

Defining Human: 
Species and Sanity in the Narratives of
Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince-Hughes



Do not cite without permission of the author.

 In recent lectures and a forthcoming paper , Cary Wolfe uses the texts of Temple Grandin to explore an approach to ethics alternative to the liberal justice rights approach usually taken by both activists and scholars concerned about the social status of animals or of humans with disabilities.  The animal rights and disability rights movements have borrowed their terms from the social movements that came before, including civil rights, feminism, and LGBT activism.  Those movements, working within the confines of the justice system to remedy harms conceptualized in terms of discrimination, required their subjects to claim identity with the law's rational and autonomous subject.  Although always inadequate to the task for which it has been employed, and continually critiqued by scholars writing about the limitations of legal models of equality, Wolfe argues, and I agree, that animal studies and disability studies provide us with an opportunity to recognize again the limitations of this notion of the subject, and give us conceptual materials perhaps better suited to reconceptualizing ethical responsibility.

            Wolfe finds particularly promising the work of a few writers who claim an unusual understanding of nonhuman animals because of their own disabilities.  Wolfe cites among them Monty Roberts (the "horse whisperer") and both Temple Grandin and Dawn Prince-Hughes, two writers and scholars with autism diagnoses.  From among these three, Wolfe highlights Grandin's work as instructive toward the goal I share with him of realizing "new lines of empathy, affinity, and respect between different forms of life, both human and non-human."   I find compelling Wolfe's use of Grandin's descriptions of her differences in thinking and in sensory experiences to lay out a grid on which humans and nonhumans of infinite variety can be placed nonhierarchically, but I read Grandin, in writing and otherwise, as keeping tightly intact definitions of the human that underlie oppressions by humans of other animals, both human and not.  I argue that Dawn Prince-Hughes's work, written and otherwise, illustrates modes of living that challenge the liberal subject, bridge the gap between liberal justice and posthumanist perspectives on ethics, and get at a workable understanding of within- and transspecies empathy, affinity, and respect.  By way of a much too succinct introduction to their work and perspectives on animal and disability issues, Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science and teaches at Colorado State University.  She designs slaughterhouses intended to minimize the pain and fear experienced by livestock, and she advocates humane treatment of nonhuman animals.  Dawn Prince-Hughes holds a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary anthropology and has taught at Western Washington University.  Prince-Hughes has worked on behalf of organizations seeking human rights for great apes.  Both women have published as well on issues related to autism.

            Central to Wolfe's use of Grandin's work are two aspects of her self-reports that touch on vision.  The first is that Grandin "thinks in pictures" rather than in words.  Her visualization skills are such that she can design slaughterhouses in her head before transcribing them to paper, and she thinks visually before translating her thoughts into words.  As Grandin explains it, pictures are her first language and English is a second language for her.   For Wolfe, this disrupts the liberal humanist assumption, maintained by many scientists as well as by philosophers, that language is necessary to thought.

            The second aspect of her visuality is her extreme visual sensitivity to such things as light, movement, and things out of place.  Grandin credits this sensitivity with enabling her to see as a cow sees, to recognize light patterns or objects that would go unnoticed by neurotypical humans but are a source of discomfort and fear for cows.  Grandin uses this visual knowledge to minimize potentially disturbing elements in the slaughterhouses she designs.

            This double nature of her visuality enables Grandin to argue persuasively that animals, human and otherwise, who do not use language nonetheless think and should be treated humanely.  Wolfe follows her logic and uses her descriptions, importantly and with assistance from Derrida, to demote vision from its position at the top of the hierarchy of senses in humanist thought.  Vision, Wolfe writes, "loose[d] from its indexical relation to the human, to reason and the representational mastery of space itself" becomes part of the "generalized animal sensorium as 'merely' the equal of the dog's sense of smell or the horse's sense of touch…"   Grandin's accounts thus allow Wolfe to make the case that language and space-mastering vision, even together, are inadequate to justify exclusive ethical standing to humans.  Human modes of thinking and of sensing are just one way among many of filtering and making sense of the world, and any basis on which to claim exceptional status for humans is lost.

            To this point in his analysis, I am with Wolfe, but then his reliance on Grandin begins to undermine his argument.  Grandin bases her claim to empathy with cows not just on visual but on tactile similarities.  As a young woman, Grandin observed cows becoming still when they were contained in the cattle chute (a restraining device used during vaccinations and branding) on her aunt's ranch.  Interpreting their stillness as calm, Grandin asked her aunt to close her in the chute, and found that a few moments of panic were followed by wave of relaxation that left her with a sense of calm she had rarely experienced.  As Wolfe notes, "The magnitude of the experience for Grandin is hard to exaggerate" ; she credits it with dampening her sensory overload to an extent that enabled her to begin to interact with other humans with less distress.  Grandin built herself what she calls a "squeeze machine," and uses it as a source of "physical comfort" in order "to get the feeling of love and kindness" that enables her to feel warmth toward other humans.

            Wolfe moves too quickly from a discussion of Grandin's squeeze machine and its relationship to the body boundary problems often experienced by autistics to her description of her experience of working the restraining machinery she installed in a "humane" slaughterhouse she designed.  While it is indeed remarkable that Grandin had both the insight and the technical prowess as a teenager to build a machine that replicates for her the sense of calm most humans get from being held by other humans, the identity she claims with cows based on their shared subjection to squeeze chutes must be questioned.  There are at least two problems here.  Although Grandin, and Wolfe as he follows her, goes to great lengths to explain the visuality of cows based on their evolutionary history as a prey species, she does not suggest that what she observed as the calm of cows in the squeeze chute might actually be not the type of calm they might feel when, as social creatures, they are surrounded by others they know, but something else, perhaps a manifestation of the prey animal tendency to "play dead" when attempts to escape from a predator has proved futile.   The second, related issue is that Grandin's ability to relate to cows ends at one of the points where her ability to relate to neurotypical humans ends:  the social detachment that is a symptom of her autism makes it unlikely that she can see or feel her way into any fear of or pain at the loss of each other that cows might feel in the process of being farmed and slaughtered.  Her notion of humane treatment, therefore, cannot encompass such social considerations.  Although she writes that her observation of cattle led her to realize "that they remain calmer when they can touch each other," this realization is one she must observe because she does not or cannot feel it.

            Wolfe skips over these gaps in Grandin's narrative to discuss her description of operating machinery at a slaughterhouse in terms of autistic difficulties with body boundaries.  Wolfe quotes Grandin:

Through the machine, I reached out and held the animal.  When I held his head in the yoke, I imagined placing my hands on his forehead and under his chin and gently easing him into position.  …  [T]he parts of the apparatus that held the animal felt as if they were an extension of my own body…  I was able to look at each animal, to hold him gently and make him as comfortable as possible during the last moments of his life…  A new door had opened.  It felt like walking on water.

Wolfe reads this passage as illustrating "disability becom[ing] the positive, indeed enabling condition for a powerful experience by Grandin that crosses not only the lines of species difference, but also of the organic and inorganic, the biological and mechanical, as well."  He describes this passage as dramatizing the kind of "category meltdowns identified canonically in Donna Haraway's 'Cyborg Manifesto,' disability here positively makes a mess of the conceptual and ontological coordinates that Grandin's own rendering of the passage surely reinstates rhetorically on another level."
           I am arguing that this reinstatement of too-familiar conceptual and ontological coordinates takes place in this passage and throughout Grandin's texts at levels much deeper than the rhetorical, and that, far from making a mess of them, Grandin reinforces the categories that enable the oppressions that rights discourses based on humanist models of justice inadequately attempt to address.

            Toward the end of his analysis, Wolfe criticizes disability studies texts compiled in a special issue of PMLA for failing to consider the intersection of disability with the axis of inequality represented by the human-animal divide.  As a case in point, Wolfe describes a paper in which an advertisement featuring a blonde model with a service dog at her side is lauded as an example of positive change in mass culture because it forces the viewer to reconsider desirability.  Wolfe notes, correctly, I think, that the perspective taken by the paper's author reconstitutes disability "at the expense of doing to non-human 'differents' what 'normates' have traditionally done to the disabled" – the disabled model's subjectivity is claimed by figuring the dog as a tool for her independence.  Wolfe asks, importantly, "wouldn't we do better to imagine this example as an irreducibly different and unique form of subjectivity – neither homo sapiens nor canis familiaris, neither 'disabled' nor 'normal,' but something else altogether, a shared trans-species being-in-the-world constituted by complex relations of trust, respect, dependence, and communication?"   In another example, Wolfe laments, again, I think correctly, the PMLA volume's editors' claim that "'after years of being probed and studied, disabled people have begun themselves to probe and study,'" transitioning from "objects of study [to] knowledge producers.''

These criticisms are valid, but they apply to Grandin's texts as well as to those collected in PLMA.  In her observations of cows and her limitations of their experiences to what she can imagine, Grandin is the disabled person who herself probes and studies, the producer of knowledge otherwise inaccessible to neurotypical humans.  And, regardless of the extent to which she is able to merge with machinery in a slaughterhouse, there is nowhere in Grandin's writing the sort of "shared trans-species being-in-the-world constituted by complex relations of trust, respect, dependence, and communication" Wolfe requests.  Grandin may relate to cows in their visual sensitivities and abilities to feel pain and fear, but they begin and remain in her work undifferentiated members of a single prey species, maintained by humans and prepackaged for human consumption.  In Grandin's words, "People feed, shelter, and breed cattle and hogs, and in return the animals provide food and clothing."  These, to Grandin, are the terms of an "ancient contract," and she describes the relationship as symbiotic and mutually beneficial, comparing it to the relationship between ants and aphids.  What humans owe to animals is always and only humane treatment.  While undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it does nothing to mess up liberal humanist coordinates.

Likewise, Grandin's intervention into disability issues.  Grandin's original book, Emergence:  Labeled Autistic, forced the neurotypical human world to rethink its preconceptions about people with autism, but only within the framework that equates ethical standing with rationality, autonomy, and agency.  In fact, throughout her work, Grandin figures herself as a pure example of those values.  In her autobiographical texts, Grandin narrates herself as all but self-made.  And, as with her melding with the machine in the slaughterhouse example Wolfe cites, Grandin's descriptions of her memory as computer-like and of her visual thinking abilities as superior to anything the digital world has to offer follow and keep intact accepted ideas of the value of rationality and human supremacy in that realm.  Perhaps most detrimental to the cause of rethinking ethics, Grandin's insistence on her own autonomy is itself a refusal of messy questions about interdependent subjectivities.

Grandin writes,

All my life I have been an observer, and I have always felt like someone who watches from the outside.  …  Even today, personal relationships are something I don't really understand.  And I still consider sex to be the biggest, most important "sin of the system"…  It has caused the downfall of many reputations and careers.  From reading books and talking to people at conventions, I have learned that the autistic people who adapt most successfully in personal relationships either choose celibacy or marry a person with similar disabilities.  …  Marriages work out best when two people with autism marry or when a person with autism marries a handicapped or eccentric spouse.  The two partners get together because they have similar interests, not because of physical attraction. …  I've remained celibate because doing so helps me to avoid the many complicated social situations that are too difficult for me to handle.

In this passage, disabled and nondisabled humans remain separate, socially and categorically, and the anti-miscegenation message is clear.  Grandin offers something to the system as-is, through her unusual engineering abilities and her willingness to participate in, to justify, and to make more palatable human dominion over the "natural" world, and she promises not to ask for anything in return by pledging to remain outside "the community of reasonable beings" for all but the most useful professional purposes.  I want to contrast these representative points in Grandin's work with excerpts from Dawn Prince-Hughes's texts that I think make the case that Prince-Hughes does precisely the work Wolfe asks of Grandin. 

I'll introduce Prince-Hughes by quoting Wolfe:

And then there is the case of Dawn Prince-Hughes, a sufferer of the form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome, who claims that her disability enabled her to have an unusually keen understanding of the nuances of the social interactions and communications of a group of zoo gorillas.  And…this was crucial for the evolution of her own self-understanding, enabling her to move from being "a wild thing out of context," living on the margins of society, to completing a Ph.D. in anthropology, and eventually to becoming an author and editor.  Gorillas, she says, "taught me how to be civilized."

"Civilized," though, in Prince-Hughes's work is not a statement of value, but a description of the way humans are expected to interact with one another – not necessarily how things should be, but behavior that is required for participation and inclusion.  Likewise, "wild" for Prince-Hughes is not a point on a developmental continuum between childhood and normal adulthood or on an evolutionary scale with humans at the top as it seems to be for Grandin, but a different place, a different set of connected dots on the same set of coordinates we all, human and otherwise, inhabit.
In contrast to Grandin's observation of a cow in a cattle chute, this is Prince-Hughes's description of how and what she learned from her gorilla teachers:

In many ways, large and small, I saw the best and worst of myself in the gorillas.  But they had accomplished what I had not:  the ability to remain open and communicate with others of their kind in ways that made them feel whole.  The gorillas had an ability to empathize and to see value in others' desires for safety and happiness.  This reciprocity of feeling and favor underpins' the gorillas' relationships, as it does for those of humans.  It is constantly communicated by those who will listen.  I watched carefully and learned.

Gorilla people in captivity are forced – by living out of context, with other primates in charge of their needs and fates – to make the extra effort to communicate on our terms each day.  I knew what it was like to long for silent communication, to need a private place to rest when the din would not cease and a sanctuary when the world would not conform to meaning.

It is no surprise then that I saw both sides of myself in the gorillas.  We shared behaviors born both of our natural, archaic awareness as highly permeable beings, and also as reactions to the strain of a forced way of being.

            Prince-Hughes recounts a specific interaction with Congo, the silverback male gorilla in the group she studied, when she went to the zoo one evening after a difficult day, and the effect of the interaction on her understanding of herself and the ways of living available to her:

[Congo] saw in me what I could never see in others – he could read my emotions from my expression.  He rushed over and searched my face intently. …  [He] moved toward me, put his massive shoulder against the window, and motioned with his hand for me to lay my head there.  I let my head fall softly on the place where his shoulder had been offered and cried silently.  …  I felt sad.  I felt guilty.  Why should this person, taken from his murdered mother, abused as a baby, living in a prison of my own kind's making, care about my pain?  …  Congo…a man of sacrifice and ferocity, showing his care and his invisible strength in a jail built by those he loved, inspired me to open up and extend my heart to the world around me.  I would no longer allow the great permeability of my spirit to lead me to seek smaller and smaller shelters; I would let myself bleed out into the world and let it into me.  I would be among people, no matter what the pain.  And though it was painful, thought it meant fighting a losing battle for the gorillas, though it meant that my way of being a scientist would be rejected by most, I would turn my prison into a temple.  I would reach out, I would share my pain and the pain of others.

Prince-Hughes here and throughout her work, through her use of language and through modeling behavior that challenges the way humans are allowed to think about nonhumans and about each other, requires the willing reader to confront inherited notions of both disability and animality.  For Prince-Hughes, her identification with nonhumans does not stop, as it does for Grandin, at the perceptual, but extends to social experience, and specifically the social experience of physical and categorical capture and containment.  Here is the "irreducibly different and unique form of subjectivity – neither [human] nor [gorilla], neither 'disabled' nor 'normal,' but something else altogether, a shared trans-species being-in-the-world constituted by complex relations of trust, respect, dependence, and communication" that Wolfe wants.  But it is difficult to accept because it is not philosophical, but communicated in discomfiting language that asks the reader to suspend one's resistance to referring to a gorilla as a "person" or as a "man," to work past easy dismissals on grounds of anthropomorphism to see that Prince-Hughes writes of transspecies relations without blurring species lines, and to bear witness to her and her gorilla friends' suffering.  The questions of ethical and political responsibility of importance to Wolfe are front and center in Prince-Hughes's texts in this way, forcing a reckoning with a different register of fear and pain than Grandin will allow, alongside a recognition of the fact that the notion of the human to which Grandin clings is a cause of this pain for both nonhumans and humans alike.

Prince-Hughes's writing works similarly in forcing a reconfiguration of notions of disability by refusing the distancing that Grandin pledges.  Prince-Hughes discusses her difficulties with human touch and with sexuality related to her autism, but she claims a sexuality identity nonetheless, and describes the discrimination she has faced both as a lesbian and as a disabled person because of her desires to be a parent.  In her book Expecting Teryk, written to her son before his birth, she writes,

Using the same science that will make you possible, Grant [the author of the 1916 text The Passing of the Great Race] came to the conclusion that the best of humanity was being corrupted by the raw stuff generating the birth of the poor, of the mentally defective, of homosexualists, of those different.  …  Though many people would find these sentiments awful to contemplate now, the ideas are still offered.  … [Some] people would rather I had never been born than see me a parent.

Autonomy is a fiction here, and science and rationality are not valuable outside the context of their use, as they are in Grandin's writing.  Prince-Hughes illustrates the connection between how she and nonhumans are viewed when rationality is the attribute most valued, writing, again addressing her unborn son, "This part of my brain [the limbic system], they say may be underdeveloped, or perhaps it is overdeveloped.  The truth of this depends greatly on whether you believe what experts say about people like me or what I tell you about myself.  For me it is enough to know that I cry when researchers say that autistic people lack empathy and then say in the next paragraph that they need to do more experiments on animals to find out why."

In her forthcoming book, Passing as Human:  How I Discovered that No One is Normal, Prince-Hughes rejects the label of autism altogether, not so much, I think, as a description of characteristics that others might recognize so that they may properly adapt their own behavior to create an environment inclusive of people with differences, but as a category she is willing to inhabit in the same defining way Grandin seems to inhabit it.  Although Prince-Hughes has insisted on being regarded as more than her disability all along, writing in Songs of the Gorilla Nation, for example, that her story like those of other people on the spectrum can be considered descriptions of "cultures of one," Passing as Human is perhaps her most forceful statement on the subject.  It is a wide-reaching recognition of the variety to be found among human animals, a celebration of "freaks" – people marginalized because of disability or other marks of difference – both those who have been able to make their way into and through "civilized" society, and those who remain on the margins.  Regarding the usual contours of humanist ethics, Prince-Hughes writes:

We decide who is black with white spots, who is white with black spots; we decide who is human and who is animal.  This is the real history of the human circus, a human history of suspended judgment.  These are the passed sentences of past sentences.  The law of who gets to be us.

During the question and answer period after a lecture presentation of Wolfe's paper, Wolfe summarizes an argument he makes elsewhere about the difference between ethics in a liberal justice framework and ethics from a poststructuralist perspective.  Wolfe explains that, within the former, "ethics means coming up with a set of rules for conduct that are ethical precisely because you apply them in all instances in the face of very powerful forces that might lead you to abandon your principles," whereas, for the latter, such a "moral formula is unethical because it relieves you from the ethical duty to consider action in specifically articulated pragmatic instances for which there is no formula."   Wolfe puts Grandin's texts to good use in making a case for the possibility and promise of a poststructuralist (and, in Wolfe's words, posthumanist) ethics, but that is his work, not Grandin's.  Prince-Hughes, on the other hand, takes us all the way there, refusing to answer the questions for us, but insisting that we ask them.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008).  A webcast of a lecture presentation of this paper is available at

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 2.

Temple Grandin, interviewed in Errol Morris, First Person, "Stairway to Heaven:  A Story About Temple Grandin" (1998).

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 12.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 15.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (1995), 91.

Because of Grandin's use of personal experience with nonhumans, I feel justified in offering one of my own.  My old cat Blue, who lived to be 20, disliked going to the vet.  She would struggle in my arms on the way to the office, offer one long, loud yowl of protest when I opened the office door, then settle in my lap in what looked like the picture of calm, and everyone at her doctors' offices expressed surprise that she could be so relaxed.  But she was "not herself" at those times, and she certainly wasn't relaxed.  Perhaps she was simply resigned, or, as I and others who knew her well used to say, she would go to her "happy place" in times of extreme stress.  Whatever the case, what looked like calm was something else, and leads me to suspect that what looks like the calm of cows in cattle chutes is something else as well.  As a cat, Blue was a member of a predator species, albeit a more or less domesticated one.  For a more scientific discussion of the strategic functions of playing dead in prey species, see Susan Millius, Science News, "Why Play Dead?  Rethinking What Used to Be Obvious," Oct. 28, 2006, available at (last accessed Oct. 31, 2007).

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures (1995), 179.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 16-17.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 17.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 28.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 22-23.

Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures:  My Life with Autism (Expanded Edition) (2006), 153-154.

Wolfe citing Kant.  Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 2.

Cary Wolfe, "Learning from Temple Grandin, or, animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject," forthcoming in New Formations, Hugh Dunkerley and Wendy Wheeler, eds. (2008), 3, citing Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation:  My Journey Through Autism (2004).

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation:  My Journey Through Autism (2004), 120-121.

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation:  My Journey Through Autism (2004), 130.

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Expecting Teryk:  An Exceptional Path to Parenthood (2005), 10.

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Expecting Teryk:  An Exceptional Path to Parenthood (2005), 142.

Dawn Prince-Hughes, Passing as Human:  How I Discovered that No One is Normal, manuscript, 102.

Transcribed, probably imperfectly, from the webcast at (last accessed Oct. 31, 2007).  These ideas are developed in Wolfe's book, Animal Rites:  American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003).



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