Temple Grandin, Autism and Humanity

Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”  –Temple Grandin

I was recently blown away by the new HBO movie Temple Grandin, the biopic of the woman by the same name.  The film illustrates Ms. Grandin’s (Claire Danes) struggle and perseverance with autism in the face of ridicule and isolation during a time when autism was less understood than it is today.  Aided by the quiet, unwavering strength and dignity of her mother (Julia Ormond) and an empathetic science teacher and mentor (David Strathairn), Ms. Grandin became Dr. Grandin, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, advocate for the humane treatment of livestock and noted speaker in the field of autism and Asperger Syndrome.  Nearly half of the slaughterhouses running today in North America use Dr. Grandin’s design.  “We raise them for us,” she says, “that means we owe them our respect.”

In the history of film, we have enjoyed many incredible and poignant portrayals by actors, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Claire Danes’ portrayal of Temple Grandin should be included near the top.  Her transformation was riveting and complete; heartfelt, respectful and imbued by pathos that was as devastating as the catharsis was uplifting. 

For many years, I’ve had a theory about disorders like autism and Asperger’s.  I’ve kept the theory to myself, writing it off as science fiction, but watching this film seemed to validate these thoughts.  In a nutshell, the theory is this:  What if autism and Asperger’s aren’t disorders at all, but, in reality, the first steps onto a new, human evolutionary path?  The exact opposite of a “disorder;” a “hyperorder” perhaps.

Even if you don’t believe in Evolution (with the capital “E”), you can still acknowledge that our bodies and brains evolve (small “e”) and adapt to accommodate the world in which we live.

Rarely do we recognize genius in our time.  It almost always appears in the rear-view mirror as we contemplate the road that delivered us to any given place.

In the interest of fairness, my wife and I are not parents, let alone parents of a child with autism or Asperger’s, so you would be well within your rights to say that I’m naïve, but it seems to me that the “disorders” exhibited by those with autism and Asperger’s are more cosmetic and social than they are indicative of any kind of deficiency.  In the words of Temple Grandin’s mother:  “Different, but not less.” 

For instance, to an autistic child, the world is a very loud, confusing avalanche of stimuli.  I’d say that’s an accurate assessment.  Of course, as “normal” people, we accept it, ignore it or filter it.  But is it “normal?”  We may not rock or spin, but we do tune it out; albeit in more socially acceptable ways.

Autistic children lack a “normal” grasp of language, and, instead, see the world as a series of images and pictures.  There is a Chinese proverb that says:  “One picture is worth ten thousand words.”  To “normal” people, this is quaint and romantic; to a child with autism, it is quite literal.  And is it a great stretch to say that our vernacular is slowly becoming a series of images?  As anyone with a Twitter account knows, the rules of communication are morphing and contracting every day.  To many, a text message can be as foreign as a series of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but to others, it is succinct and efficient.  According to the “rules” of blogging, I’ve already gone on too long for today’s abbreviated attention spans, and I thank you for staying with me this far.  But which should we consider “normal?”

My intent is not to whitewash the challenges faced by children with autism or Asperger’s and those of the parents who love them.  Rather, just as those with autism or Asperger’s experience a “different but not less” perspective, perhaps “normal” could do with a different perspective of that which we consider “disorder.”  As the film Temple Grandin (and Dr. Grandin herself) has shown, often times, in “disorder” there is genius.


There are 5 comments

  1. dave theune wrote

    That is certainly food for thought, Dylan. Thanks for post.

  2. David Silvester wrote

    Dylan.. great post. As a dad with two sons on the autism spectrum I thank you for spreading the word about this film. Temple is an amazing woman. My wife and I got the opportunity to hear her speak at The Minnesota State Autism Conference a few years ago. Her journey is a unique one. Those of us who are raising kids in this day and age with ASD issues are thankful for her insights into her autism so that we may better try to understand our own kids. When she was a child the common solution for dealing with an autistic child was institutionalization. Thankfully times have changed and we’ve come a long way toward understanding this very complex and fascinating condition. Dylan.. don’t apologize for going on to long about this subject. It is too dense to sum up in a blogpost and I find myself starting to ramble on a bit here as well. The one thing to keep in mind is that all people are effected by autism differently….hence the official name of autism spectrum disorder. Not all will be savants like Miss Grandin or the late Kim Peak. Some will have to live in group homes or institutions. Some may go on to marry and raise families. Thanks again.

  3. What follows is a comment by Robert Henderson on Facebook, followed by my response:

    Robert Henderson: I’ve read several of Temple Grandin’s books but had no idea that there was a bio pic. Interesting point of view; however, from the standpoint of evolution, I’ question that autism confers an adaptive advantage as I also question the oft-floated theory that ADD is the up-and-coming adaptation for a high tech age.

    Seems to me that humans are designed as a high-touch species (so much so that lack of touch can cause an infant to waste away and die) and that inability to easily hug another–rather than find hugging adversive–or to tune into the all-important language of the face and body of one’s nurturers is an undeniable deficit for the one who has autism and a challenge for his or her parents.

    As for ADD, granted, there’s the ability to hyper-focus when one’s highly interested or threatened, but inability to discipline the mind to tune out extraneous stimuli to attend to, and hence remember and learn, stuff that’s been deemed not interesting or necessary to “get into” also seems a learning and social deficit. … See More

    I’ve worked with many autistic children in residential treatment and continue to work with others in special ed classrooms—and I could probably write a book about everything I’ve learned on ADD.

    Autistic kids find it difficult to tune in and appear to be aliens; ADD kids can’t tune out enough static to pay attention (except to strong stimuli or exceptionally interesting stimuli) and are often just plain annoying.

    Dylan Bolin: Robert,

    By all means, see this movie. There’s also an excellent Fresh Air podcast from 2/5/10 featuring Temple Grandin in 3 interviews starting in 1995.

    I’m going to qualify my response by reiterating that my theory did not come from a place of experience. It began when I heard that there had been a huge increase in diagnosed cases of autism. I then tried to imagine the world today into which these children were being born…. See More

    I thought: What if Nature knows something we don’t? What if children on the autistic spectrum are perfectly suited for the world we “normals” are leaving them?

    Then I saw the movie. The result is what I wrote. In that admittedly unscientific vein:

    I agree that humans WERE designed as a high-touch species, but they were also designed to survive. For better or worse, a lot of things have replaced touch. It makes perfect sense to me that an unused design would gradually disappear, and be replaced by one that was useful; the ability to focus completely, the predisposition to tune out all but what is most important.

    If we normals could even recognize it, we’d probably diagnose their behavior as either a disorder or genius. Just like we normals are are the sums of our disorders and genius, but THEIR sum would seem unbalanced and strange to us.

    All that being said, your experience gives you the cred; I’m not disputing any of it. I was just thinking “What If?”

  4. If you’re interested in more, here’s a link to a talk by Temple Grandin on TED.com.


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