HBO’s Temple Grandin: A Review


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.

0 Responses to HBO’s Temple Grandin: A Review

  1. My copy is a press copy and it warns me not to even share it with “The Fiance.” Well, not specifically, but he’d be considered a third party. And then you know I have this genetic autism literal thing going on….I assume folks will be able to purchase a copy. I bet Future Horizons might carry it if they could or NC Autism Society in their bookstore(go to their link through Autism Society of Middle Tennessee and they get credit for your purchase.) You can purchase HBO in time for the show. Have a viewing party with friends who have HBO? Or, try Comcast On Demand. I have not used it but I think it can be used for such purposes. I saw where NYC had a special viewing as did the North Carolina Autism Society….Thanks for visiting, Belinda!

  2. I’m kinda (totally) sad that I JUST found you! What a wonderful blog… thank you so much. My friend Tammy is in the Bwood Camera Club, saw your book, told me about it, etc so on and so forth. I too have written a book (a tad different but about autism nonetheless)and am truly inspired by what you have done, even if I am a tad offended that we weren’t invited to be in the book… ha ha I am kidding! Keep it up lady, I hope someday I can meet you…I live in Spring Hill. Have you been to either of the TN Walk Now for Autism events? I was last year’s chair and worked pretty heavily on the previous year as well….

  3. Thank you for stopping by, April, and for promoting my book, blog and HBO Temple Grandin blog post.

    Regarding the movie, I’ve been in communications, including newspaper and magazine for 30 years, so I simply used my press credentials. As for the book, the families chosen were those who had some relationship to our local autism society and I had a real juggling act striving for as much diversity as possible. We’d love to channel all that passion into ASMT, our long-established grassroots organization that helps families on the ground locally.

    I think you were also on, where I am the special needs forum moderator and also one of the four site moderators. (Tennessean’s social media site.) So, I have at least interacted on your threads. Thank you again for stopping by and for the promotion.

    I’m at Blissdom blogging conference for three days now, so I’m just now getting this. Thank you, again.

  4. I did not see the HBO movie, but in conjunction, Terri Gross/Fresh Air on NPR reran a 1998 interview with Temple Grandin that was Mesmerizing. And you are correct==it is all good–any attention further understanding of autism in its many faces and voices.

  5. Hello, Cassandra & Nancy! I’m pleased you found my post, Cassandra. I went searching for it in Google last night and quit after five pages.

    And, yeah, Nancy, I’ve heard that interview and knew that she was on Fresh Air the other night. I had heard her interviewed about her last book last year, I thought, by Terri Gross. And, yes, there are A LOT of voices!! (As I was just reminded this weekend. Long story.)

  6. We don’t have HBO, but will look for the movie On Demand. I have three great-nephews (my niece’s boys) who all have autism from mild to profound. Thank you for calling attention to this film.

    BTW, I found you through the Valentine Blog Chain.

  7. Thank you for a great review that has convinced me to find a way to see Temple Grandin soon. I’ve enjoyed reading quite a few of your posts, and your review means even more knowing about your passion and your personal investment in autism awareness.

  8. Thanks, James. Somehow people are viewing it already if they did not see it already. I don’t know if it is Comcast on Demand or HBO is already repeating it. I am fairly certain there will be a DVD released of the movie.