As a person with autism, it is easy for me to understand how animals think because my thinking processes are like an animal’s. Autism is a neurological disorder that some people are born with. Scientists who study autism believe that the disorder is caused by immature development of certain brain circuits, and over development of other brain circuits. Autism is a complex disorder that ranges in severity from a mild form (such as mine), to a very serious handicap where the child never learns to talk. The movie Rain Man depicts a man with a fairly severe form of the disorder.
I have no language-based thoughts at all. My thoughts are in pictures, like videotapes in my mind. When I recall something from my memory, I see only pictures. I used to think that everybody thought this way until I started talking to people on how they thought. I learned that there is a whole continuum of thinking styles, from totally visual thinkers like me, to the totally verbal thinkers. Artists, engineers, and good animal trainers are often highly visual thinkers, and accountants, bankers, and people who trade in the futures market tend to be highly verbal thinkers with few pictures in their minds.
Most people use a combination of both verbal and visual skills. Several years ago I devised a little test to find out what style of thinking people use: Access your memory on church steeples. Most people will see a picture in their mind of a generic “generalized” steeple. I only see specific steeples; there is no generalized one. Images of steeples flash through my mind like clicking quickly through a series of slides or pictures on a computer screen. On the other hand, highly verbal thinkers may “see” the words “church steeple,” or will “see” just a simple stick-figure steeple.
A radio station person I talked to once said that she had no pictures at all in her mind. She thought in emotions and words. I have observed that highly verbal people in abstract professions, such as in trading stocks or in sales, often have difficulty understanding animals. Since they only think in words, it is difficult for them to imagine that an animal can think. I have found that really good animal trainers will see more detailed steeple pictures. It is clear to me that visual thinking skills are essential to horse training, but often the visual thinkers do not have the ability to verbalize and explain to other people what it is they “see.”
A horse trainer once said to me, “Animals don’t think, they just make associations.” I responded to that by saying, “If making associations is not thinking, then I would have to conclude that I do not think.” People with autism and animals both think by making visual associations. These associations are like snapshots of events and tend to be very specific. For example, a horse might fear bearded me n when it sees one in the barn, but bearded men might be tolerated in the riding arena. In this situation the horse may only fear bearded men in the barn because he may have had a bad past experience in the barn with a bearded man.
Animals also tend to make place-specific associations. This means that if a horse has bad prior experiences in a barn with skylights, he may fear all barns with skylights but will be fine in barns with solid roofs. This is why it is so important that an animal’s first association with something new is a good first experience.
Years ago a scientist named N. Miller found that if a rat was shocked the first time it entered a new passageway in a maze, it would never enter that passageway again. The same may be true for horses. For example, if a horse falls down in a trailer the first time he loads, he may fear all trailers. However, if he falls down in a two-horse, side-by-side trailer the 25th time he is loaded, he may make a more specific association. Instead of associating all trailers with a painful or frightening experience, he is more likely to fear side-by-side trailers, or fear a certain person associated with the “bad” trailer. He has learned from previous experience that trailers are safe, so he is unlikely to form a generalized trailer fear.
Fear Is the Main Emotion
Fear is the main emotion in autism and it is also the main emotion in prey animals such as horses and cattle. Things that scare horses and cattle also scare children with autism. Any little thing that looks out of place, such as a piece of paper blowing in the wind, may cause fear. Objects that make sudden movements are the most fear-provoking. In the wild, sudden movement is feared because predators make sudden movements.
Similarities and Differences between Animals and AutismThere have been some questions about my view and my statements about animal behavior and autism. There are aspects of animal behavior that are similar to autism and other aspects that are different. There are two parts to animal behavior, they are the cognitive (thinking) part and the affective (emotional) part. In my writings, I have discussed how animal cognition has similarities to autistic savants. One example would be bird migration. An animal’s emotions are different than autism. Emotionally, animals are highly social and not similar to autism. In Animals Make Us Human, Catherine Johnson and I make it very clear that the animal mind has emotions. Animal cognition has similarities to autistic savants, but animal emotions would be similar to normal humans. The work of Jack Panksepp makes this very clear. We reviewed it in Animals Make Us Human.
Both animals and people with autism are also fearful of high-pitched noises. I still have problems with high-pitched noise. A back-up alarm on a garbage truck will cause my heart to race if it awakens me at night. The rumble of thunder has little effect. Prey species animals, such as cattle and horses, have sensitive ears, and loud noise may hurt their ears. When I was a child the sound of the school bell ringing was like a dentist drill in my ear. A loudspeaker system at a horse show may possibly have a similar effect on horses.
People with autism have emotions, but they are simpler and more like the emotions of a vigilant prey species animal. Fear is the main emotion in a prey species animal because it motivates the animal to flee from predators. The fear circuits in an animal’s brain have been mapped by neuroscientists. When an animal forms a fear memory, it is located in the amygdala, which is in the lower, primitive part of the brain. J.E. LeDoux and M. Davis have discovered that fear memories cannot be erased from the brain. This is why it is so important to prevent the formation of fear memories associated with riding, trailering, etc.
For a horse who has previously been fearful of trailers to overcome his fear, the higher brain centers in the cortex have to send a fear suppression signal to the amygdala. This is called a cortical over-ride, which is a signal that will block the fear memory but does not delete it. If the animal becomes anxious, the old fear memory may pop back up because the cortex stops sending the fear suppression signal.
Fear-based behaviors are complex. Fear can cause a horse to flee or fight. For example, many times when a horse kicks or bites, it is due to fear instead of aggression. In a fear-provoking situation where a horse is prevented from flight, he learns to fight. Dog trainers have learned that punishing a fear-based behavior makes it worse. When a horse rears, kicks, or misbehaves during training, it may make the trainer feel angry. The trainer may mistakenly think that the horse is angry. But the horse is much more likely to be scared. Therefore it is important for trainers to be calm. An angry trainer would be scary to the horse. There are some situations where a horse may be truly aggressive towards people, but rearing, kicking, running off, etc., during handling or riding is much more likely to be fear based.
Similarities and Differences between Animals and Autism
There have been some questions about my views and my statements about animal behavior and autism. There are aspects of animal behavior that are similar to autism and other aspects that are different. There are two components of animal behavior, they are the cognitive (thinking) part and the affective (emotional) part. In my writings I have discussed how animal cognition has similarities to autistic savants. One example would be bird migration. An animal’s emotions are different than autism. Emotionally, animals are highly social and not similar to autism. In Animals Make Us Human, Catherine Johnson and I make it very clear that the animal mind has emotions. Animal cognition has similarities to autistic savants, but animal emotions would be similar to normal humans. The work of Jaak Panksepp makes this very clear. We reviewed it in Animals Make Us Human.
Effects of Genetics
In all animals both genetic factors and experience determine how an individual will behave in a fear-provoking situation. Fearfulness is a stable characteristic of personality and temperament in animals. Animals with high-strung, nervous temperaments are generally more fearful and form stronger fear memories than animals with calm, placid temperaments. For example, research on pigs conducted by Ted Friend and his students at Texas A&M University showed that some pigs will habituate to a forced non-painful procedure and others will become more and more fearful.
Pigs were put in a tank where they had to swim for a short time. This task was initially frightening to all of the pigs and caused their adrenaline level to go up. Adrenaline is secreted in both people and animals when they are scared.
Over a series of swimming trials, some pigs habituated and were no longer scared, but others remained fearful throughout the trials. In the pigs that did not habituate adrenaline stayed elevated, which showed that the pigs were still afraid.
It is likely that horses would respond to different training methods in a similar manner. Horses with calm placid dispositions are more likely to habituate to rough methods of handling and training compared to flighty, excitable animals. The high-strung, spirited horse may be ruined by rough training methods because he becomes so fearful that he fails to learn, or habituate.
On the other hand, an animal with a calm, nonreactive nervous system will probably habituate to a series of non-painful forced training procedures, whereas a flighty, high- strung nervous animal may never habituate. Horses who are constantly swishing their tails when there are no flies present and have their heads up are usually fearful horses. In the wild, horses put their heads up to look for danger.
Effects of Novelty
As a creature of flight, how a horse reacts to novel or unusual situations or new places can be used to access his true temperament. French scientist Robert Dantzer found that sudden novelty shoved into an animal’s face can be very stressful. A horse with a high-strung, fearful nature may be calm and well-mannered when ridden at home. However, his true temperament has been masked because he feels relaxed and safe in a familiar environment. When he is suddenly confronted with the’ new sights and sounds at a horse show he may blow up.
It is the more high-strung and fearful horses who-have the most difficulty in novel situations. At the show there are many unusual sights and sounds, such as balloons and loud public address systems, that are never seen or heard at home. An animal with a nervous temperament is calm when in a familiar environment — he has learned it is safe — but is more likely to panic when suddenly confronted with new things.
The paradoxical thing about novelty is that it can be extremely attractive to an animal when he can voluntarily approach it. A piece of paper lying in the pasture may be approached by a curious horse, but that same piece of paper lying on the riding trail may make the horse shy. People working with horses and other animals need to think more about how the animals’ perceive the situations we put them in.
Grandin, T. and Johnson, C. 2005. Animals in Translation. Scriber, New York.
Grandin, T. and Johnson, C. 2008. Animals Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
Morris, C.L., Grandin, T., Irlbeck, N.A. 2011. Companion animal symposium, environmental enrichment for companion, exotic and laboratory animals. Journal of Animal Science. 89:4227-4238.
Panksepp, J. 1998. Affective Neuroscience. Oxford University Press, New York.
Panksepp, J. 2011. The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have inner lives? Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review. 35:1791-1804.