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Thank goodness this young lady wasn’t institutionalized

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Temple Grandin—a young autistic woman who grew up during a time when autism was not well understood—did not speak until she was four, and her parents were told that their only choice was to institutionalize her for life. Who at that time would have imagined she would grow up to become a college professor and an internationally renowned expert on animal behavior?

The recent movie “Temple Grandin,” is an incredible portrayal of her life story. First: awesome performances by Claire Danes (as Temple Grandin) and supporting cast members. Second: gorgeous cinematography intersperses flashes of how Grandin experiences the world around her—bird’s-eye views with superimposed hand-drawn diagrams, montages of Grandin mentally riffling through a lifetime of images stored in her photographic memory—giving the viewer a chance to see how Grandin perceives the world.

I was extremely inspired by the protagonist, who blazes her own trail learning and doing what she really wants, and leaves her stamp on the world in the face of enormous obstacles.

But I was just as moved by everyone else who supported and encouraged her. Temple’s mother, Eustacia Cutler (played by Julia Ormond), teaches her to speak and read even though she had no support from the medical community and was told that Temple’s case was hopeless.

Temple’s Aunt Anne (played by Catherine O’Hara) supports Temple’s love of animals early on and encourages Temple’s inventions, including a controversial “squeeze machine” Temple creates to give her the calming experience of being hugged without the scary experience of physical human contact.

And there’s Professor Carlock, Temple’s science teacher at boarding school (played by David Strathairn), who sees that Temple thinks in pictures and has an incredible visual mind. Where everyone else sees Temple’s differences as a liability, he realizes she has the ability to perceive what other people can’t see. He encourages her, challenges her, and stands up for her when others are indifferent or irritated.

And he listens when Temple tells him that she wants to study cows in college. Though Grandin is autistic and has difficulty understanding human emotions, she is able to understand animal emotions and behavior unlike anyone else around her. During the movie, you can really feel the animals’ individual personalities when Temple interacts with them—in a way I’ve never seen before in film.

Temple ends up designing spaces for cows based on what cows like and what makes them feel safe. Her ideas revolutionize the cattle industry.

(I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this aspect of the film, but Temple makes it very clear that her mission is to treat cows humanely and with respect. You never actually see a cow getting butchered, and the only times an animal gets hurt in the movie is when someone ignores Temple’s instructions. [Also, the credits reassure us that no animals actually were hurt in the making of the film.])

My experience working with autistic students is extremely small, but I spend a lot of time with kids who see the world differently than their teachers and peers. Even if their perceptions aren’t as radically different as Temple’s, my job is to encourage these kids and stand up for them when no one else will.

I’ve never seen a mainstream movie deal so explicitly with what it’s like to learn differently, what it’s like to stand up for someone whose mind is different, or what it’s like to see a gift where everyone else sees a liability. I am grateful for this movie.

Related posts:
A disorder can be an asset
Self-taught heroes: Pearl Fryar
Self-taught heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind
Case study: learning geometry with a spatial disability

4 Comments on “Thank goodness this young lady wasn’t institutionalized”

  • Terry VanNoy on January 14th 10:21 am

    Yes, Rebecca, this movie is on my “must-see” list. I have known some students in my classroom who might not have been autistic, but borderline genius/at-risk, etc. These students have difficulty fitting in socially, but can greatly enhance the classroom discussions and environment, given support from classmates. I have been blessed in past years with teaching in a public school in Washington state whose students were caring, understanding, and would have mostly accepted a student like Temple, I think. Thanks for the movie review, and reminder of a film I need to see right away. Terry

  • Rebecca Zook on January 14th 2:44 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Terry! That’s great that your school is so accepting. Let me know what you think of the movie when you see it!

  • Sue VanHattum on January 14th 12:30 pm

    Thanks! I didn’t know about this movie. Now I’ll do my best to get out and see it. Is it appropriate for an 8-year-old?

    I’ve had some fascinating students in my classes who were autistic (or Asbergers). I was delighted at how accepting the other (college) students were.

  • Rebecca Zook on January 14th 2:48 pm

    I’m trying to think about parts that might be inappropriate for an 8-year-old. There is one part where they sort of mime what happens when a cow goes through a slaughterhouse, but there’s no blood or anything. And then there’s another part where you see the outline of a cow hanging on a meat hook hanging behind a translucent sheet. So I guess it just depends on how you think your kid would react to those parts. I’d think an 8-year-old would have a lot of questions about the storyline. But it was made for TV and shown on TV. I hope that helps! 🙂

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