“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.