Whenever autism is portrayed in the popular media, seasoned parent advocates become leery, skeptical. After 13 years on the journey, I've learned repeatedly that in the end, It's All Good. No matter how inaccurate, offensive or off-the-mark the coverage, it means one more person (times many) hears about autism. That's when those of us who go about living with the disorder, advocating for people on the spectrum, trying to make the world a better place for our differently abled, carry on as we always do. Aiming to live and tell our story authentically with as much grace as we can muster (and sometimes we can't and don't,) meanwhile "creating awareness, education, working toward positive change."*
It took "a parent"–Emily Gerson Saines–to justly create HBO's special on the most famous person with autism. Temple Grandin, the movie, premieres this Sat., February 6. Nine-years in the making, Saines did it right. Sensitively. Creatively. Temple was portrayed as Temple. A certifiably gifted woman with high functioning autism who is undoubtedly odd, but not the freak so many during her childhood and young adulthood thought. And in doing Grandin justice, Saines gave just exposure to the rest of us and our truth: autism is odd, enigmatic, awkward. In most every way. But also a gift in it's different-ness. If we are open to seeing beyond the barriers and obstacles–as we neurologically typical people, or "typies," might define them–there lies a gift of their being in our world.
A few in Grandin's life recognized that gift. One, her boarding school science teacher–played by David Strathairn–who remained her mentor throughout her college, graduate, postgraduate and early career years, as she became an expert in animal husbandry and began to design what would amount to half of the humane cattle handling facilities in North America. The others included her aunt, on whose Arizona cattle ranch Grandin first built her famous squeeze-calming machine. And then, her aristocratic, fiercely determined mother. Both are depicted beautifully by veteran actresses, Catherine O'Hara and Julia Ormond, respectively. Grandin is expertly portrayed by Claire Danes, who mastered the autist's strange gait and other awkward body language; plus her loud, odd speech cadence, complete with the long "i's," which betray Grandin's northeastern roots.
Some of the approximate two-hour movie's plot was fictionalized. The drama was based on Grandin's first two books about her life: Emergence and Thinking in Pictures, both which I read more than a decade ago. Some details I could not remember from the books I've read by, and from the lectures I've heard from, and personal conversations I've had with Grandin over the years at conferences and autism-related events. I do not recall the depth of cruelty she suffered at every turn. From the psychiatrist who told her mother Grandin was autistic and then added the popular interpretation of the time, the 50s: infantile schizophrenia, and further insult, blamed the mother's coldness as the cause and deemed institutionalization as the only treatment. (Grandin's mother, Eustace Cutler, who refused institutionalization, writes about these personal horrors in her book.) Grandin ended up in a boarding school for high school because constant taunts prompted her to slug a student. The bullying, ostracizing and catcalls would continue throughout boarding school, college and on the cattle lots where her brilliance was mocked by her sexist peers and the majority of her supervisors. Even while the press began to cover her work.
The film's well-penned slogan: "Autism Gave Her a Vision. She Gave It a Voice." More than a decade after Grandin spoke up and re-engineered cattle handling equipment (for vaccinations and eventual slaughter) for more humane treatment, she began to give voice to autism. And while her work with animals is extremely significant, perhaps her even greater contribution was helping others understand her and the now more than 750,000 people in the United States, alone, living with autism.
Anyone who has seen and heard Grandin speak more than once is amazed to witness what the movie gives testament to: her ability to learn and adapt to a neurotypical world. From year to year, her voice softens, her engagement with individuals and audience deepens, her sense of self and humor broadens.
"Temple Grandin," the movie, is an enthralling look at an amazing woman who has overcome great odds in her life. The eccentricity of a different thinking mind gave a brutish industry a better way to conduct itself. Her autism could see how to engineer the cattle handling equipment and also how the animals with hyper-sensitivities kin to her own autistic ones reacted with the facilities. While Grandin may only represent a small portion of the autism population, with advances, others are joining her ranks to live successful and productive lives within society. And for those who don't master those ranks that society deems most valuable, with her own life, through her books and lectures, Grandin gives us the gift of a road map to understand, guide and help our children become their personal best.
*"creating awareness, education, working toward positive change"–my personal autism-advocacy life motto.