This biopic, based on the books Emergence by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scarcaio and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin opens with Claire Danes (the lead actress) declaring:
My name is Temple Grandin and I’m not like other people. I think in pictures and I connect them.
Then the opening credits came on. I noted that Alex Wurman was in charge of the music but I became so engrossed with the rest of the story that I didn’t pay any more attention to the music!
The story starts with Temple arriving at her aunt’s ranch in Arizona in 1966. Temple is autistic, and Danes did a really good job portraying this. (Having taught an autistic boy before, I could recognise all the gestures and mannerisms as realistic.) For example, to make sure that she knows the room is allocated to her, her aunt has to write “Temple’s Room” on the door (but Temple herself added the word “Grandin”) but when one day the housekeeper accidentally let it fall off, Temple becomes agitated and gets a panic attack.
Autistic people are also particularly observant. Temple is able to separate all the cutlery items and categorise them neatly in the kitchen drawer when neither her aunt nor her uncle has been able to do so all these years. She also knows when the horse is looking (“by their ears”).
Temple did not want to attend college because of “People. I don’t uncerstand people. At least some of the people in schoool know I don’t understand them and some of them are my friends anyway. Girls get goofy over boys. they talk about silly pop groups and clothes and say things like “You are so grumpy” when I’m happy.”
Another characteristic of autistic people is that they are highly intelligent and precise. Soon after arriving at the ranch, Temple invents a brass bell which would open the gate so that the driver/passenger need not get out of the car to push it open. Her mother is pleasantly surprised to see a sign that reads: “Pull Brass Rod/ Gate Opens/ You have 47 seconds to drive through/ TG” which Uncle Mike declares: “Ain’t that the darndest thing? all these years Ann’s been bugging me, like I could ever come up with that!” Aunt Ann also says: “You won’t believe the things she’s fixed. She’s been wonderful with the cattle,” and “She has set her mind on staying.”
At this point in the movie, we get a flash back to when Temple was only 4 years old. She still had no speech at that age and would often rip things up, so her mother took her to a doctor who suggested putting her in an institution as autism could never be cured. But the mother refused, as Temple “was a perfectly normal baby and then she changed. We have another child and she is not like this.” The mother painstakingly taught Temple to read.
When Temple was in Boarding School New Hampshire in 1962, she had to change school mid-term because she had been expelled for hitting another child with a book. I could understand the agony of her mum when she told the principal: “I have never seen her strike unless she’s been provoked. And other children had taunted her and bullied her constantly. They make fun of her because she doesn’t understand their jokes. She spins to comfort herself. She talks fast, often too fast, and she talks repetitively, and then the children called her a tape recorder. Then she’ll go into a panic attack, and then they make fun of that too. If it isn’t good enough, it isn’t good enough. but you can’t imagine the chaos, the upheaval, the tantrums and the pain. Her pain.” Only the new school’s Science teacher, who once worked with NASA, thinks that mum is terrific, and tells her “As a parent, you want to protect her. But at some point, she’s going to hit life head on. And trust me, we know how different she is.”
Temple has an amazing mind. When the Science teacher asks, “Can you bring everything you see in your mind?”, she immediately responds “Sure!” “Even if it’s an everyday object like, say, shoes?” “I see all shoes I’ve worn, my mother’s and other people I’ve met. And you have three pairs, one needs a new heel. And I see the newspaper ads and TV ads and… Can’t you?”
Some of her teachers disagree: “Try teaching her Algebra. Or French. She’s hopeless.” This is because Temple thinks in pictures. That’s why she does so well when she can see the things that are discussed, like biology. Or shop. Those are concrete things. But language or algebra? It’s just gibberish to her. She’s an amazing visual thinker. Eventually this Science teacher convinces Temple to go to college by telling her to “think of it as a door – a door that’s going to open up a whole new world for you. and all you need to do is decide to go through it.”
At Franklin Pierce College in 1966, Temple finally has a blind girl to be her roommate and they become fast freinds, having a lot in common, such as: (TG- “Do you remember a lot of voices?”; Girl- “Of course, I see through sounds. But I remember the sound of a lot of places too.” TG- “We’re the same. Only you see sounds and I have pictures.”) Temple later tells her: “Other people will be overwhelmed by what they are seeing. But you are the only one who could feel and sense what I was trying to accomplish. I know there are a lot of things I can’t understand but I still want my life to have meaning.”
In 1970, Temple is the only female graduate student at Scottsdale, Arizona State. On her first day, she already decides to do research on cow’s mooing and write a thesis on “Agitation in Cattle”. By 1975, Temple has obtained a Master of Science in Animal Science at Bronxville, New York, and produced two articles in The Arizona Farmer-Ranchman : (1) On good moos and bad moos and (2) On head restraints in cattle chutes and killing pens.
At the National Autism Convention in 1981, Temple explains to the people gathered there that “Most autistic people are very sensitive to sounds and colours. Over-stimulation hurts. People talking too much at once can cause us to panic.” Then someone in the audience asks, “How did you get cured?” Temple’s reply is touching and heart-warming: “Well, I am not cured. I’ll always be autistic. My mother refused to believe I wouldn’t speak. And when I learned to speak, she made me go to school. And in school and at home, manners and rules are really important. They were poured into me. I was lucky. All these things worked for me. Everyone worked hard to make sure I was engaged. They knew I was different but was not less. I had a gift. I could see the world in a new way. I could see details that most people are blind to. My mother pushed me to become self-confident. I worked summers at my aunt’s ranch. I went to boarding school and college and those things. Those things were uncomfortable for me at first but they helped me to open doors to new worlds.”
Today, Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University and lectures worldwide on autism and animal handling. In North America, over half the cattle are handled in humane systems she has designed.