I will be the first to say that HBO's special movies do nothing much for me. I've watched a few and they were, meh, OK, nothing to grab you. However, recently I came across one called "Temple Grandin", and resolved to watch it because of my son Merlin, who has Asperger's Syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism. I was totally amazed, entranced, and fascinated with this story and how Claire Danes completely immersed herself in the role--you do not really see HER, but the character she is playing, whom she brings to life very vividly. Temple Grandin was born with autism, which kept her cut off from the world around her and unable to speak until she was 4 years old. At the time she was born, 1947, autism was still a fairly new diagnosis and its discoverers still struggled with understanding the nature and causes of this disorder. Her mother refused to be held by the precept that autistic children should be institutionalized, and decided to work with her at home, and by her intense efforts in teaching her to speak and write, her structuring of her daughter's time and forcing her gradually into more and more contact with others--all of these an expression of her love and commitment--she made a real difference in Temple's life. Her story is an inspiring and even breath-taking one which I recommend to anyone who has or knows an autistic person.
Because of Temple's autism, her inability to read human emotions and tones, she gravitated more toward animals, specifically cows, horses and dogs, where she began to see that her disorder actually gave her a deeper understanding of their minds--she felt more comfortable around these animals who wanted only her attention and company, than around humans with whom she had little in common. She spent her summers at her aunt's ranch, where she gained much experience in the nature of the animals, and at her boarding school she excelled in the handling and understanding of horses. The movie shows all of this in a clear and sympathetic light.
Because severely autistic children cannot bear human touch (though some can be trained to accept a handshake or a touch on the arm), many of them go crazy when a parent or anyone else attempts to hug them--their brains are wired in such a way that the hug is too much input, too much stimulation and it sends them often into tantrums of rage. Still though, they are human and require some kind of nurturing touch to grow and thrive--Temple developed a 'hug machine', sometimes called a 'squeeze machine', based on those used to hold and calm cattle when they are being inoculated. She used it to comfort and calm herself when she was overly stressed at school or home. These machines hold the kneeling person with panels on each side, and the chin rests on a soft strap--the sides are closed either by a handle or a special machinery outside. At first, the Freudian psychologist at college interpreted her need for the machine as sexual--though in the movie (as well as in real life) Temple presents a singularly asexual persona. She researched the use of her machine and presented a paper on it to her professor and thus earned the right to have it in her college dorm room without complaint. This all led to her first degree in Psychology.
Her interest and compassion for cattle provided her with her degrees in animal husbandry and she overcame enormous challenges for a woman in a man's business, especially one who was battling autism. The movie is very open on how she was treated by the men in the cattle industry, though it is not one-sided; you also see that her way was made a little smoother by clear-sighted men who seemed to understand that she had a special talent with the animals that made up their world. Her story is really incredible and interesting to watch. Her premise is based on animal welfare, as she plainly states, not animal rights--animal welfare concentrating on the fair and humane treatment of those animals we use as pets, meat and on farms. She eats meat and acknowledges that this is the lot of animals like cattle and pigs, and yet she carries her own special brand of spirituality as shown in the movie: just BECAUSE we end up eating these animals, we owe them a certain amount of respect: they do not need to be treated badly in their short lives, but handled with compassion and understanding.
Through her keen visual acuity and inventiveness she created an animal dip which kept the cattle calmly moving through it, instead of mooing, jostling, bruising themselves and even, sometimes, drowning. She saw that they preferred to move in circular and curving pattern, not to be forced in straight lines, that they became easily distracted by light and shadow and needed smooth, high walls to walk through. She also developed a humane alternative to the cruel slaughterhouse methods of herding terrified cattle, who gave off toxins which tainted their meat, through a gentle walkway--the cows would quietly walk through this, stand still, and be peaceful even at the moment of death. Some animal rights activists denounce this, but she is firm in her belief that her method is compassionate and useful--she saw the overall view that we owe the animals we eat that peaceful death before we consume them. One of the things that impressed me was that she saw the connection between their lives and God, that she constantly asked, "Where do they go when they die"--she was genuinely concerned about it, even asking this question when her favorite professor died.
Her curving cattle dip design
Her slaughterhouse walkway design
Temple's overcoming of many of the challenges of autism made her a internationally well known speaker about the disorder. The movie includes a moment at an autism conference where she draws the audience to herself by her questions and comments on autism. The people are amazed and the many overstressed and frustrated parents of autistic children drink in her words like desert travelers at an oasis. There is no cure for autism, and yet, through her own life and work, her studies in psychology and her development of the 'hug machine', she gives these people hope that their child can make it in the world, can become useful to themselves and others, and live a full life. On her website
you will find a number of books she has written on the subjects of animal welfare & treatment, of understanding the minds and hearts of animals, as well as works on autism.
This movie led me to do hours of research on Temple Grandin, and later, to have my son Merlin sit down with me and watch it--I wanted him to see her difficulties and struggles, similar and also worse than his own, and how she overcame so many of these obstacles to become a person who could support herself and also reach out to others to help them understand better the autistic and the animal. I hope that you can see this movie for yourself, and be touched by it. I believe it to be the bests that HBO has produced in a long, long time.
* * * On a personal note, my son, Merlin, who has had such a problem finding and keeping work, of dealing day to day with the public, began to make a definite, self-impelled effort to become employed. I believe was inspired by her story. After seeing this, he made up a stack of postcards advertising himself as a worker in plumbing, construction, lawncare and many other areas, stood out in front of Home Depot and Lowes, where he eventually he found a gentleman with a sound & communications installation business who hired him to work. His level of energy, his self-respect and mood have greatly improved--he felt himself trapped in so many ways--willing to work, desperate to work and earn his way in life, but no one would hire him. The fact that he thought up this method of advertising himself, and set out determined to do it makes me so proud. I hope that, in some way, Temple Grandin's story was a help to him.