Temple Grandin Gives Me Hope

Seems like anytime I send for an old-fashioned DVD from Netflix, it then sits around our house for weeks and weeks before I ever get around to watching it, even if I was so excited to see it. Just another reason why instant streaming always wins in our house.
But I did finally dig the latest DVD out on Saturday night, and I sat down to watch the HBO movie, Temple Grandin. I roughly knew the story – a biopic about the life of a woman with autism who has gone on to do incredible things both in spite of and because of her different mind – and I was interested in learning more about Temple. I thought it might help me understand my own daughter a little bit more and maybe even help me feel more confident about her future. However, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional gut punch that came with the story.

If you have a child with autism, I highly recommend this movie. With tissues.

If you don’t have a child with autism, I also highly recommend this movie. Possibly with tissues.

The first part that brought tears to my eyes was near the beginning, in a flashback scene where her mother remembers when Temple was four years old and diagnosed with autism. Her mother asked how soon they could start treatment to cure her, and the doctor flatly told her that in these cases they recommended institutionalizing the child for life. Her mother’s reaction – one of confusion and horror – reached right out and grabbed my heart.

I’m thankful that research for autism has come so far since 1960. I can’t imagine being told my child would have no chance at a life outside of an institution. But I shared a similar reaction when the school told us they thought Cordy had autism. Oh sure, I put on a pretty brave stiff-upper-lip about the whole thing when it happened, but I can honestly say now that I was so very, very scared. In those first few days I was faced with an entirely different life plan for Cordy, one where I had to wonder if she’d ever be able to go to college, or have friends, or even live on her own. While it was a complete overreaction, for a short time autism felt like a death sentence for all of my hopes and dreams for my beautiful curly-headed firstborn.

Temple, despite being nonverbal at four years old, wasn’t put in an institution. Her mother worked with her daily, brought in others to teach her as well, and she eventually went to school, then to college, then to graduate school, and she now has her PhD. Her family didn’t give up on her, and they didn’t let her give up either. It was interesting to see how her family worked with her through her quirks and needs in high school and college, but at the same time they still insisted that some things must be done, no matter how difficult. I only wish the film had been longer to show more of how Temple was brought out of her shell as a child.

It was also painful to see how others treated and reacted to her. She was bullied, she was called a freak, and she was an easy target for others. I already know Cordy will face an onslaught of bullying in school, and I don’t know how to protect her. Thankfully she often doesn’t notice if someone teases her, but I know that kids don’t like to be ignored and will drive their point home if she misses it, physically if needed. She has such a gentle soul that believes everyone is good – how will I prepare for the day when that soul is crushed by cruelty and she realizes her rigid definition of humanity doesn’t fit?

The second time I cried was at the end, when Temple attended an autism conference and was asked to speak. Just the full realization that this woman – with autism – has led such a successful life overwhelmed me with happiness and hope. Her different way of thinking led her to design cattle pen systems that are considered some of the most humane ever invented, and over half of the feedlots and slaughterhouses in the US now use her designs.

She wouldn’t have been able to do it without being autistic and seeing the world the way she does. She’s published many articles and a few books on her work with animals, and she’s also written about what it’s like to have autism, how she overcame her challenges, and how she embraces her autism as a part of her. She meets nearly every definition of success.

I still have days when I look at Cordy and wonder what her life will be like. She’s come so incredibly far from that three year old who recited entire episodes of Dora but couldn’t carry on a simple conversation. The kid who had a 20 minute meltdown, trying to bash her head into the floor over and over, because her routine had changed, or the room was too loud, or she had touched fingerpaint.
She’s full of life, she’s outspoken¬†(although she tends to talk way too much), and she’s smart. She still has no grasp of sarcasm, takes everything you say literally (never say you want to kill something in front of her), and is still bothered by certain sensory stimuli.¬†Will she continue improving? Will she be successful?
I don’t know if she’ll go on to college, but I plan to do everything I can to get her ready for it if she wants to. Maybe even if she doesn’t want to – after all, Cordy needs a lot of pushing to face her fears and grow. If I didn’t force her to go outside of her comfort zone, she’d still be unable to deal with a loud room and still drinking only out of sippy cups. I feel like the bad guy when I make her do things she doesn’t want to do, but I really believe she has to conquer those fears if she’s going to realize her full potential.
I have yet to read any of Temple Grandin’s books, but I plan to add them to the top of my priority reading list. I want to know more about her experiences and how she felt about her family and teachers and how they challenged her. I want to better understand her in the hopes of better understanding my own daughter, and perhaps get some tips on how to better reach out to Cordy. I’m considering going to see Temple speak when she’s in Indianapolis in April, too.
So yeah, if you get the chance, add Temple Grandin to your Netflix queue or just buy it outright. And don’t wait as long as I did to watch it.

Full disclosure: Just because it needs to be said, no one contacted me asking me to review this film – I just wanted to watch it. Although the links above do contain my Amazon ID, meaning if you click on the link and buy the DVD, I get a few pennies in return.

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  1. I heard an interview with Temple last year (NPR or BBC, not sure which). She’s a very interesting woman, to be sure.

  2. Thank you for the insight about this movie. I remember when it came out there was buzz about it but it has long since left my mind. It is on my list to watch now! Sounds like a great story, and best because it is true.

  3. I loved this movie.

  4. I loved this movie.