Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Animal Translation

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 53:6-7) transports me to a an industrial sheep slaughterhouse, where Temple Grandin is working to design more humane ways to get the animals to slaughter, without the torturous use of electric prods and similar restraints. Dr. Grandin, who teaches animal science at the University of Colorado, is famous not only for completely revolutionizing the cattle and sheep and pig and poultry industries to make them more humane (winning awards from PETA in the process), she has translated her findings and discoveries into the human world of autism. Temple Grandin is a high functioning autistic person, and her autism enables her to see things things that animals perceive, but generally go unnoticed by neuro-typical animal handlers. She literally gets in the chutes and stalls and finds what it is that causes trauma for the animals. These discoveries led to an entire redesign of the cattle chutes and sheep races, so that the animals willingly travel to their deaths untraumatized. Among her many publications, the book Animals in Translation shows the similarities between the sensory perceptions of animals and people with autism. These discoveries led to her designing the squeeze machine, aka hug box, for autistic children, a calming device that allows them to be cocooned in a safe environment. Cocooning is a typical stress-relieving behavior for autistic persons, and the squeeze machine provides the kind of deep pressure stimulation that simulates the experience of being in a cocoon, where anxiety is minimized.

I wonder if the prophet Isaiah had some of Temple Grandin’s understanding of animal behavior and its translations to human behavior. In his famous description of the suffering servant, he uses sheep as a metaphor for the human condition, with most of the sheep feeling the tension and trauma of being lost, but one member of the flock, a lamb, is able to travel the sheep race toward sacrificial slaughter with no fear, no anxiety. It makes me wonder if this suffering servant that Isaiah described wasn’t perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum, highly sensitized to the surrounding world with it sights and sounds. If so, this lamb must have somehow found a squeezing device, a cocoon, enabling it to surrender to its fate and walk to its death unafraid. When I think of Jesus’ life and the parallels the gospel writers drew to the suffering servant, I imagine that he did have a cocoon around him, a cocoon of God’s love, of grace, of mercy. His prayer life must have given him that sense of surrounded protection, that deep pressure stimulation of peace that gave him the confidence to walk into the Valley of Kidron and face his captors without any resistance. Behold the Lamb of God, John wrote.

I currently have the privilege and honor and challenge of spending some quality time on a regular basis with an autistic 16 year old boy, and I am learning a great deal from my interactions with him. He, as Temple Grandin would have predicted, finds ways to cocoon when he is stressed and anxious. If he is wearing a hooded jacket, you can tell when some sensory awareness is irritating, by the way he flips that hood up and squeezes the jacket around him. I’ve also learned from him that I, too, need some occasional cocooning. The normal frustrations that come with not always knowing how to provide for his needs in a way he can accept has certainly driven me deeper into the cocoon of centering prayer, where I experience the calming effects of the deep pressure of grace and love surrounding me. As I work with this young man, I hope that I can help him continue to discover and strengthen his awareness of this kind of spiritual squeeze box as well, a  hoodie of hope where he will know the deepest truths about him, that he is beloved and graced, enabling him to walk through life without trauma and fear.

How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.



  • October 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    One year as I was teaching grade 2, the principal brought a new pupil to my classroom–on my birthday, too! The 7-year old boy David was semi-autistic. I considered him my birthday gift and grew to love him. Thank goodness I had a class which worked well together. If David did something inappropriate and I had to remind him, he became so very sensitive and dragged his desk to the rear of the classroom–sort of like withdrawing into a cocoon. I told the children to “let him be.” Eventually he would come out of his cocoon and rejoin the class. His mom to me that he would not allow her to hug him when she put him to bed at night. Yet, on a class field trip, he sat next to me on the bus. On the way home, he was so tired that he placed his head in my lap and went to sleep. He was so bright in so many areas and was like an encyclopedia, yet could not comprehend what he read. I often wonder about David today and hope he is able to function in this world.

    Comment by Janet Davies

  • October 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for sharing that story and that hope, Janet. It’s interesting that Temple Gradin talks about how autistic people often do not like human hugs, but need that hug sensation from the squeeze machine or a body sock.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

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