I first became aware of Temple Grandin from a friend, John, who had a teenage autistic son. That boy must be in his thirties by now. At that time the awful bullshit known as “facilitated communication” was all the rage. John didn’t believe in it, and it’s been conclusively proven to be just another false hope. (Autism seems plagued by shit like that. Currently, it’s the vaccination scare, such that even though the one completely bogus study of twelve children has been debunked, people still cling to the pseudo-science and refuse to have their children vaccinated. I only wish the whooping cough could be visited on those idiot parents instead of their hapless kids.)
TG’s story is almost too incredible to believe. First, she had wonderful luck, because she was born into an age when autism was largely a mystery and her chances of institutionalization were virtually 100%. One of the most awful characteristics of autism is failure to bond. Autistic kids don’t want to be touched, much less hugged, and don’t like making eye contact. If they haven’t bonded, the culprit is obvious. The prevailing theory said that the mother hadn’t given them enough love. Of course, the mothers had done nothing of the sort and this was obvious to anyone who looked into it, but why let something like that spoil a good theory? Grandin’s luck was in having a mother who didn’t buckle down to this nonsense, and fought for her daughter’s freedom. It was hard; Temple didn’t speak until she was four. After that her behavior was often bizarre, as these people tend to be. They don’t have the software in their brains that enables most of us, without any effort at all, from the very cradle, to distinguish human emotions from facial expressions. The human face is fairly simple, but the variations are endless, and an eighth of an inch movement at the side of the mouth can be the difference between a smile and indifference. We speak of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile; TG would not even be sure she was smiling. And she wouldn’t care. She is a terror at anything scientific, she is a bona fide genius, but she can’t really relate to other people, and has stated that she finds conversation and pretty much any human interaction (except about science) boring.
Second, she had boundless determination. Try to imagine earning a bachelors, then a masters, and finally a PhD when you are subject to almost constant panic attacks. The world is too loud and too bright to autistics. She invented machines to help her through this horror. Today, she takes drugs that have evened her out quite a bit. She doesn’t act like what is portrayed in this movie. She describes it as a miracle.
But in interviews she has said that Claire Danes absolutely nailed her behavior and speech as a young woman. I’m so happy to hear that because, even without TG’s endorsement, I felt sure this will be one of the most powerful performances of 2010. They could start engraving her name on the Emmy right now, as far as I’m concerned. The film is wonderful, and gives a good alternative to the Rain Man picture of autistic people. There are many, many good scenes, but the one that knocked me out was when she was attending a conference about autism around 1980. She stood up to speak, and at first these people (mostly mothers) didn’t realize she was autistic. Then, they were stunned when she told them she had a masters in animal husbandry. These were women who had probably been told there was no hope for their children, and that it was their fault, and who struggled every day to give their children some degree of socialization. Imagine the hope they must have felt to see this funny-talking, awkward, but obviously whip-smart young woman who was succeeding in the world. You must see this film. It is playing now (2/9/10) on HBO, but if you can’t see it there, rent the DVD.