When my son still wasn’t talking at age two, my wife and I heard whispers of “autism” from relatives, so we took him in to be evaluated, fully expecting to hear that we were worried about nothing, and that even though our son spent most of his playtime spinning his toys and freaking out when he couldn’t find the Matchbox car he wanted, this was all no big deal. Instead, we were told that while he was still too young to receive a definitive diagnosis, it was highly likely that he’d land somewhere on the autistic spectrum. By the time he was old enough get diagnosed for real, we’d gotten used to the idea that our son was autistic—so much so that my wife, who had to work, didn’t come to the clinic the second time—but when the team of doctors gathered to tell me the news, they still went through their usual spiel, trying to let me down gently. They told me about the available therapies. They told me that a diagnosis of autism said nothing about what my boy might be capable of.
And, of course, they told me about Temple Grandin.
Nearly every parent of an autistic child knows all about Temple Grandin. She’s the comforting counter-example that comes up again and again when we read up on the condition, and start to contemplate a life spent taking care of a child who might be incapable of living on his or her own, or even expressing his or her desires coherently. Grandin, a high-functioning autist, had a Harvard-educated mother who provided her with cutting-edge therapy in the ‘50s (back when autism was considered a kind of paralyzing emotional damage, caused by near-criminal maternal neglect). Temple went on to attend a boarding school for gifted children, and then college. She has a PhD in animal science, and her ideas have helped revolutionize commercial cattle ranching. To special-needs parents in particular, Grandin’s independence and professional accomplishment is a source of abiding hope as we consider what our kids are going to grow up to be.
Playing Grandin in the HBO biopic Temple Grandin, Claire Danes captures the brilliance of the woman: how she sees things that others don’t, and makes connections others can’t. Danes gets Grandin’s braying monotone, stooped posture and default defensive stance to other people—and more importantly she conveys it all unselfconsciously, as Grandin would, with no awareness of how she must look to others. (That is, until they start laughing or whispering behind her back.) The performance is more than just a collection of skillfully strung together tics. Danes also captures Grandin’s sense of humor and her perception of everyday life: how she finds things funny that aren’t necessarily jokes, and how unexpected sounds, lights and motion can put her in a mild state of panic. As with most high-functioning autists, much of Grandin’s social interaction is learned, not instinctual. When she meets new people she spits out, “Hello I’m Temple, it’s very nice to meet you,” in a single breath, like she’s reading off a script in her mind. But she’s hardly a robot. She takes real pleasure in the company of animals, and her favorite TV shows, and the praise of others.
Temple Grandin focuses on three phases of Grandin’s life: her struggles to navigate higher education, her bucking of convention in the slaughterhouse business, and—as a kind of brief epilogue—her becoming an advocate for autism, by helping people understand the condition from the inside. Director Mick Jackson is probably best known for his brief stint as a Hollywood A-lister in the ‘90s, when he helmed The Bodyguard and Volcano, but Temple Grandin has more in common with Jackson’s late ‘70s documentary series Connections, in which scientist James Burke explained how seemingly unrelated objects and moments are linked. Here, Jackson—working from a script by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson—tries to put in pictures and sound how Grandin experiences the world, in an attempt to make the life of the mind visually dynamic.
Some of the movie’s aesthetic choices border on the cliché. The pulsing minimalism of Alex Wurman’s score has become as much a shorthand for “intellectual mystery” as Arabic wailing has for “Danger! Terrorists!,” and Temple Grandin’s illustrative animated sequences run a little too close to A Beautiful Mind for my taste. Monger and Johnson’s script overemphasizes Grandin’s attempts to screw up her courage to “open doors to new worlds,” and it returns too often to her ingenious way of calming herself with a self-designed hugging machine. The conventional biopic beats all get hit here.
But Danes’ performance is far from conventional, and Jackson supports her work with a visual style and sound design that reveals how the ordinary world can be assaultive to Grandin’s senses—how a ceiling fan, or aquarium motor, or automatic door can spook her the way a cowboy with a whip would spook a herd. Temple Grandin is unusually sensitive to the concerns of the autistic. When she’s trying to win the respect of suspicious cattle ranchers, Danes shows Grandin searching her memory banks as quickly as she can to find the right combination of words to allow her the access she needs. When she loses an object that’s important to her, Grandin melts down, but when animals or people die, she looks at their limp bodies quizzically and asks, “Where did they go?”
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about portrayals of autism in movies, and how the problem with most autism-themed films is that they’re structured like typical disease-of-the-week fare—except that the “patients” tend to be the parents and siblings of the autist, who have to learn how to live with the alien in their midst. Few movies about autism treat their disordered characters as full-fledged, complicated people, with their own distinct personality traits and desires. Even the recent Adam (starring Danes’ husband Hugh Dancy, as it happens) reduces its Asperger’s-afflicted hero into a checklist of symptoms gleaned from a medical journal. (Though the movie does at least allow Adam to have his own full story arc, which is a step in the right direction.)
Temple Grandin is so much better than the norm in that regard, because Grandin herself has done such a remarkable job over the years of letting people know who she is, in all her complexity. Special-needs parents who’ve clung to Grandin’s example for so long needed her story told right. Thanks in large part to Danes—and to the creative team around her—Temple Grandin does what it has to do. On behalf of my particular sub-group, the effort is much-appreciated.
-I have a hard time explaining to people sometimes why I like the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory so much, but a big part of it has to do with Sheldon Cooper, the most fully-rounded autistic character I’ve ever seen on TV or in the movies. The key to Sheldon’s success (besides Jim Parsons’ brilliantly funny portrayal) is that the BBT writers refuse to say definitively that he has Asperger’s, because they don’t want to be constrained by the “rules” of the disorder. Which is great, because as parents of autists and Aspies will tell you, there are so many occasions when those rules don’t apply, and our children do or say things that don’t fit the rigid definition of their condition. Future writers and directors looking to portray autism on film should look to Sheldon, and to this movie.
-My son’s eight years old now, by the way, and in the years since his diagnosis, he’s thrived. He talks just fine (though in a too-loud monotone voice, much like Grandin’s), and he eagerly tells us all about his day, his likes, his dislikes, and his theories of how his universe works. In his younger sister (who’s five), he’s found a devoted playmate, and the two of them spend hours making up games and inventing imaginary players to join them. He’s in a regular third grade class (with periodic pull-outs for speech therapy), and though he’s socially awkward, he’s not completely inept. He loves videogames, which gives him something to talk about with his peers, and he’s in chess club, running club, and the Gifted & Talented program, which gives regular chances to interact with smaller groups of children with shared interests. He still spends a lot of his idle time muttering to himself and careening heedlessly around his room, knocking into walls, but he’s also able to focus intently on his favorite books (and instruction manuals), memorizing and delighting in their fine details. He’s especially adept at pattern-recognition and mathematics. On his spelling tests at school, he’s been known to pencil in the Scrabble point-value of the words in the margins, and his classmates like to test him by giving him three-digit multiplication problems to solve. He's a well-rounded kid, and a joy to be around. Will he be able one day to go away to college on his own, get a job, live by himself, and make a positive contribution to society, like Temple Grandin? It’s way too early to say. But we hope.