What Cows Can Teach Us About Autism

Temple Grandin used her ability to “think like a cow” to design a device to relieve her own anxiety. [Photo: Rain Man's Rainbow by Steve Jurvetson, License: CC BY 2.0]

Temple Grandin used her ability to “think like a cow” to design a device to relieve her own anxiety.
[Photo: Rain Man’s Rainbow by Steve Jurvetson, License: CC BY 2.0]

Temple Grandin was an overly sensitive child who garbled her words and struggled to be understood. Frustrated by her inability to communicate, Grandin would throw tantrums and even throw her feces at the wall. Whenever she heard a high-pitched noise, anything from the bathroom vent fans to the brakes of a car, she responded to the bombardment with tears and shrieks. As she grew older, her hypersensitivity became worse, and she experienced increased anxiety attacks.

Imagine how you felt when you did something that was anxiety provoking, maybe your first public speech or first game of soccer. Now imagine feeling so anxious all the time. That’s how Temple Grandin, who has a mild case of autism, felt growing up. Today, she has her PhD in Animal Science, is an assistant professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, and is an international business woman specializing in livestock equipment design. She has not only overcome her personal challenges, but has also provided the world with greater understanding of autism.

Cows react like people with autism to various types of stimuli. [Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

Cows react like people with autism to various types of stimuli.
[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

What is Autism?
Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by deficiencies in social interaction and verbal communication. This syndrome can be defined as the impairment of one or more senses resulting from immature brain development. Each year, autism affects 1 in 88 children in America, four times more males than females (“What is autism?” 2014). Because of extreme differences in the severity of the syndrome, autism is considered a “spectrum disorder.” Given this large range of impairment, understanding and treating autism is an immense challenge.

Looking at Cows Differently
Temple Grandin found relief from some of the debilitating symptoms of autism by observing Bos taurus, more commonly known as a cow. Forced to think outside the box, she developed the “hug machine,” which proved to be an effective, if non-traditional treatment, for her anxiety.

Temple Grandin invented the “hug machine” based on a contraption that compresses dairy cows to release their anxiety and increase milk production. [Photo: Hug Machine - Temple Grandin (Edited), [License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0]

Temple Grandin invented the “hug machine” based on a contraption that compresses dairy cows to release their anxiety and increase milk production.
[Photo: Hug Machine – Temple Grandin (Edited), [License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0]

One day at her Aunt Polly’s ranch, she observed agitated cows being squeezed with slight pressure by a contraption called a compressing machine. To her surprise, the application of deep pressure instantly calmed the cows down. Investigating further, she found that cows respond differently to altered levels of pressure. A slight touch on the cow’s side would immediately provoke and agitate it, whereas the firm brush of a farmer would soothe it. The cows’ high sensitivity to stimuli was reminiscent of the reactions of children with autism in similar situations. Intrigued, Grandin developed a crude form of the squeeze machine to test whether the pressure alleviated her own symptoms. Miraculously, she felt a gush of relief as her body was compressed, reducing her anxiety within seconds (Edelson, 2014). Grandin realized that there were clear behavioral similarities between cows and children with autism. The squeeze machine was the first step not only in finding a bridge that connected cows and autism in humans, but also in encouraging others to look at autism differently when searching for ways to treat the symptoms.

Cows helped researchers realize that autistic children have low levels of oxytocin which contributes to their social anxiety and stress [Photo: Cow by S. Cook, License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Cows helped researchers realize that autistic children have low levels of oxytocin which contributes to their social anxiety and stress
[Photo: Cow by S. Cook, License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Oxytocin: Another Human/Cow Connection
Researchers have found that the stress level of a cow impacts its lactation process. The hormone oxytocin, which is excreted from a gland at the base of the cow’s brain, regulates its stress response. Oxytocin causes muscle cells to contract squeezing milk into the milk ducts within the udder and moving it towards the teat. However, if a cow is agitated, it “may have a disrupted oxytocin release,” which can cause inconsistent milk letdown (“Cow Behavior and Milk Letdown,” 2014). Scientists expanded their research on oxytocin to study its significance in human behavior. They found that this hormone is used in social recognition, bonding, and establishing trust. To determine if oxytocin plays a significant role in autism, scientists conducted a study on blood oxytocin levels in autistic children. They concluded that low levels of oxytocin could lead to social dysfunction and behavioral problems. (“Plasma Oxytocin Levels in Children,” 2014).

A team at Yale University analyzed the effects of a new oxytocin nasal spray on social functioning of autistic children. They reported that the medication facilitated social functioning. Other experiments using animal models have shown that the medication promotes social behavior and bonding. With a little help from a few run-of-the-mill dairy cows, the role of oxytocin in social behaviors and anxiety is now paving the way towards new treatments for autism.

In Brief:

  • Autism is a “spectrum disorder” requiring individualized therapies.
  • Much has been learned from studying cows that translates into better understanding of autism and even some non-traditional treatments.
  • Temple Grandin adapted a box to control cattle to soothe herself.
  • Studies in cows led to the discovery that children with autism have very low oxytocin levels.
  • So far, therapies designed to increase oxytocin levels have been successful in stimulating targeted brain regions that affect social behavior.

This article was written by cYw23. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

cYw23

Author: cYw23

Hello and welcome to the cYw blog! Researching has been an important part of my life, from analyzing the effect of meditation on teen students to breast cancer algorithms. I love every topic and find myself exploring it in depth. Going to a STEM vocational school, I have had the opportunity to work in both engineering and mathematics, but it is biology that interests me the most. Having the chance to learn more about autism and ways we can develop more effective treatments is an opportunity that has allowed me to combine both my interests and passions. Outside of research, I love debating and participate in Junior Statesmen of America, NJ Model Congress, and Future Business Leaders of America.

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1 Comment

  1. I studied Temple Grandin’s work in grad school. She really has such a wonderful grasp of animal behavior. The oxytocin connection is very interesting! Great article – keep up the great work!!

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