“I am a big believer in early intervention. I am also a believer in an integrated treatment approach to autism. People are always looking for the single magic bullet that will totally change everything. There is no single magic bullet.”
This isn’t going to be a review of the HBO movie Temple Grandin, staring Claire Danes- the movie is exemplary on every level, and there are scads of movie reviews if you want those. It’s currently rating at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty unheard of, by the way, and is well deserved.
I’ve watched Temple Grandin, the woman, in lectures and read some of her articles. When Bean became old enough to know what autism meant, he asked if there were grown-ups with autism too. I pulled up a TED talk and let him listen to Grandin, and we talked about all the possibilities open to people with autism. He listened, head cocked and eyes slightly averted, then nodded and went about his business, question satisfied. (Danes captured this mannerism beautifully in the film) It’s me who sat at the kitchen table, heart in my throat, processing my emotions and herculean love for my son, while he submersed back into his world. It’s a world I cannot fully understand and this is one of the parts of mothering a child with autism that is most difficult.
One of the things startling when you first hear other autistic adults talk is the cadence and tempo of their voices- it’s what I hear in my own son. In the movie, Claire Daines utterly nails this speech idiosyncrasy, and as the opening titles were running and we first hear her voice, my eyes were already welling with tears.
There is a lot of isolation involved in parenting an autistic child. You want to hug and hold your child, but those natural expressions of love don’t make the child feel loved, and you have to learn, as Julia Ormond portrays exquisitely in the movie, to show your love in ways that respect the child. To squelch the natural-mother desire to touch your child is… a constant battle. Without even realizing it, you reach out to show your love, and they flinch and retreat. It’s a painful dance.
Having voices of adults with autism like Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison is a godsend to parents of autistic children. Here are two adults with the same neurodiversity as our children, and their voices are invaluable in helping parents yearning to understand what their (sometime non-verbal) children are thinking and processing. Of course autistic children are as diverse as typical children in their personalities, yet the markers and similarities are haunting and identifiable-yet also comforting, when the door opens a little wider to being able to understand my child.
One of the things Temple has said is that she “…values positive, measurable results over emotion.” Emotions and people make no sense to her- and the film brings this into focus beautifully. It also subtly and effectively illustrated the role sound often plays in autistic children’s ability to process things. There is always jarring noise in the background, and you struggle with Temple to focus. This is a problem my son also has- and only now, at 7, with three years of OT and PT behind us, can he tell me, in terse and curt words tinged with anxiety “Mom! The fan is inside my head and it’s making it hard for me to think in my brain!” I can flip the switch, turning off the ceiling fan that I hadn’t even noticed was on, and he doesn’t have to run, panicking for a place to hide. Which is what used to happen.
In the movie, Daines has her first on-screen meltdown spurred by (to a neurotypical person) small things wrong in her environment- and she panics. She runs, looking for a place to hide, and shuts herself into a cattle machine which squeezes her and brings her calm. By this point, I was crying so hard I could hardly see. We have lived this in our family in more ways that I can even express. Temple Grandin pioneered deep pressure therapy with her “hugging machine”, and we see the effects in our own home. My son routinely piles couch cushions on himself, and then asks me to lay on him. This kind of behavior is baffling to a parent who does not yet understand her child, and Grandin’s pioneering is a huge piece of why I know this behavior in my child is helpful to his brain, and perfectly normal for him.
So the movie? It’s amazing. If you have an autistic child, you will cry. A lot. If you don’t, it will help you understand not only the neurodiverse children (and adults) you might know, but also their families and how they live. While I’ve been writing, my son is curled up in a cardboard box he salvaged from the garage a few days ago. He’s basically been living in it, dragging it from room to room, and is currently eating his breakfast- a toasted English muffin with peanut butter- which he eats for breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner, every single day. For Grandin her food was yogurt and jello. For us, it’s English muffins. It’s yet another mirror held up by Grandin in which the autistic families of the world can see their own reflection. What a gift.