Reaction: “Temple Grandin”

“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.”

~Temple Grandin

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.

18 thoughts on “Reaction: “Temple Grandin”

  1. I still haven’t seen this movie. I love Clair Danes. Did you see Temple Grandin at the Oscars? That was awesome. (Or was it the Emmys?)

    My kids and I all have a lot of autistic tendencies but I don’t think any of us would actually be diagnosed as autistic. But the food stuff, the touching issues, the auditory processing, some OCD behaviors…it’s all there. Just milder. Wonder what my grandkids will be like…

    • Yeah, Susan, I did. It was the Emmys, and it happened to be her birthday too. :)

      We all have spectrum issues of some degree. (as I was just typing this, Bean walked in the kitchen with his weight-blanket draped over his shoulders). The more I learn, the more I understand.

      I am SO excited to be heading into a grad program in Special Ed!

  2. Doesn’t this make you sort of grateful to be parenting today? When there are so many reasons that being a parent today is perhaps more challenging, there are also these awesome tender mercies about it. I’m so glad you have access to so many resources and so much information that is genuinely helpful and supportive.

    • Em, absolutely. I was kind of trying to say that in an oblique way- what a blessing that I have this child NOW, when I do have so many tools to help him and understand what he needs, and not have a doctor tell me he should be institutionalized. It’s huge.

      It’s part of why I balk when I hear people saying what dark times we are living in- perhaps in some sense, but if a person has an idea of what life was like even 50 years ago, it’s hard to argue that point. Babies live who used to die, people the world over are working to cure disease, a premium is placed on human life- no matter the hurdles that life may have. We’re not perfect, but the striving and overarching tendencies of people are so great.

  3. What a beautiful post. I’m going to have to see the movie.

    I don’t have any autistic children or family members, but still I was reading through tears.

    Amen – about the wonders of living now. Only a short while ago, Bean would have been consigned to his own private Hell – not being understood, really, by perhaps anyone. A few centuries ago (and, in many cases, not even that long ago), he would have been considered to be possessed by demons.

    Truly, we have much for which to be thankful.

  4. I’ve been wanting to see it. I’m happy to hear it was so well done. Looks like I’ll have to pick it up. My brother exhibits minor autistic tendancies. When my parents saw Rainman in the theater they laughed through tears and other people in the theater gave them dirty looks because how could they laugh at someone with problems like that? So much of it was just so familiar to them, especially the mannerisms. I’d expect to see some of the same things in this film and can’t wait to see it. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. I rented this 4 weeks ago. I’ve noticed some similar traits in my own kids (audio processing and the love of deep pressure) but was surprised to link it to things in this movie. Autism is huge in my SLP-training world with scholarships and fellowships specifically slated for those willing to specialize in area.

    The more I learn, the more I am in awe of families, especially mothers, who deal with this every day. In my house, we deal with Down syndrome, dyslexia/disgraphia, and audio processing problems every day. I’m often asked “how do you do it?” We just do it. This is the norm for us. I look at families who deal with autism and wonder the same thing: “How do you do it?”, only to find out that they are wondering the same.

    I am so grateful to live here and now, where someone else has pioneered the educations, medical, and psychological twists and turns so I don’t have to.

  6. A friend of mine sent me over to check this out. I too loved the movie. And I too cried–a lot–the first time I watched it. I have since purchased a copy and have shown it to most of my family. The yogurt and Jello; the “squeeze machine”; all of it is so, so familiar. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks for this post, and your follow up comment about all of us having spectrum disorders of some degree.

    My foster son’s therapeutic teacher has recommended a lot of “pressure” tactics with him. I made him a weighted blanket (THANK YOU for the tutorial!) and now squish him with pillows regularly. He enjoys it but I wonder (and excuse my ignorance, trying to understand here), if I teach him to depend on these tactics now, what happens in 10 years when he’s sitting in a classroom about to take a test and there’s no one there to smash him with a pillow? Is this a bridge type of therapy, getting them through the younger years until they learn to self-soothe?

    This movie is on my netflix que!

    • jendoop, Temple actually addresses this in her lectures and writings- she doesn’t use her squeeze machine anymore. It’s a bridge for some, others, as they get older and learn coping techniques find new ways to self-soothe. Bean has a heavy blanket at school, and when he starts to come undone, the teacher gives it to him quietly. Like everything else with autism, it varies like crazy.

      SO GLAD the tutorial was helpful for you!

  8. This post mostly reminds me of how different so many autistic kids are. I’ve never noticed particular speech patterns, but that’s probably because Spencer’s speech is so delayed and limited. Spencer also loves people and hugs and attention (though often he doesn’t know how to get attention, especially in appropriate ways, or understand why people reacted with positive attention so he can do the same thing again). He actually does better in really noisy environments, too — when he was a baby, he cried incessantly if left alone, but if he was in the middle of a room with all his cousins playing crazy games around him he could sit by himself contentedly for hours.

    The deep pressure thing is one that I can definitely relate to, though. Small cardboard boxes are definitely a favorite toy/chair around here, and sometimes I get sore arms from squeezing him so tightly, but he loves it and it helps calm him down. And particular foods used to be a huge thing for him, though we’ve managed to move past that one, which is nice.

    I’m so glad you’re going to a grad program for special needs, too. I’m always grateful when wonderful adults want to spend their time learning how to work with our wonderful children.

  9. Saw the movie at Blockbuster the other day and wondered if it was any good, so thanks for the rec. I’ve heard several interviews with Temple Grandin and found her fascinating. I agree on the benefits of parenting challenging children today. So much better than even 20 years ago.

  10. I loved this movie, too. It hit so close to home. My brother, Ben, is on the spectrum and so many of the scenes in the movie could have been replayed directly from my childhood. Ben is 26 now, has a driver’s license (yikes), a part-time job, and is the #1 most active member of his singles ward. He never misses even a single FHE, service project, or home teaching visit (yay for OCD!). Our family’s vacation and get-together schedule revolves around the singles ward activity calendar.

    For a kid who was so anti-social and anti-touch when he was younger, it’s fascinating to us how he now thrives on social interaction with peers his age. He comes home from these activities just chortling with delight, shaking his hands in the air uncontrollably. He called me the other day and recited all the new foods he had tried at the last “Linger Longer”/fast Sunday potluck at the ward and I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Chili? Caesar salad? Really? Where is the kid who for 20+ years only ate plain spaghetti with melted cheddar cheese or plain tortillas with melted cheddar cheese?

    I know so many of you are in the middle of the worst of it right now while your kids are young, but I’m very hopeful for their futures. Ben has matured so much. His self-soothing skills and social skills are night and day different, even in just the last 2 to 3 years. Although he will likely live with my parents (or me or one of our other siblings) the rest of his life, he is in a phase of life where he seems to be just genuinely happy. And it makes us happy to be around him. Life is good.

  11. Thanks for telling me about this movie. I hadn’t heard of it but it is exactly the kind of thing I would be interested in. My late talking older son was almost on the spectrum but eventually he outgrew all his issues except language. I’m with all of you in spirit.

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