Temple Grandin (2010)
Temple Grandin is probably the best known autistic person out there; to say that she’s a global celebrity would not be going too far. She has written several bestselling books, she is an extremely respected professional in her field, she is often cited and quoted in all sorts of discussions about autism (popular and journalistic, as well as academic) and she gives frequent lectures and interviews on various media. But maybe the most significant contribution to her celebrity status outside the autism community (and the cattle industry) is this 2010 film which is based on her memoir. The first time I watched this film was when it came out. I knew very little of autism then, and I have never met an autistic person (as far as I knew). And at the time, I loved Temple Grandin. In fact, I have a strong feeling that (warning: cliché) this film was one of the reasons that made me want to study autism in the first place.
I was slightly hesitant before watching it again earlier this week. Was it really that good, I asked myself, or was I simply too naïve back then? Won’t I be terribly disappointed? I’m a bit more knowledgeable about autism now, I’m a lot more suspicious, and I’m also a bit cynical. In short, I was afraid to find that Temple Grandin wasn’t half as good as I remembered it. And seeing as I know something now of the actual person who inspired this film (not personally, unfortunately, but from reading her books and watching her lectures), I was worried of finding that Hollywood – as it often does – had done her an injustice.
I was happy to find I was wrong.
I mean yes, ok, a lot was left out (obviously), and yes, the film came short of offering a complete account of the array of different aspects of autism (again, of course it would), but all in all, I felt Temple Grandin the movie is a beautiful, sensitive, and honest telling of a remarkable story about a truly exceptional person. As far as representations go, I thought the makers did a very good job. The autistic protagonist mostly makes her own choices, and while the love and care of those around her are framed as indispensable for her growth and achievement, these are acknowledged as secondary to Temple’s own intelligence, talent, and formidable sense of self-worth. The makers of Temple were not (as is often the case) rushing to spread some simplistic message about autism that downplays its disabling features, or reducing it to a generic form of mental disability that stands for weakness, dependence, or deficit. “Different, not less” was actually the film’s catch phrase, and the movie remained loyal to this message from the beginning.
In other words, I loved Temple Grandin. Possibly even more so now than when I watched it first.
Temple Grandin was born in 1947, merely 4 years after autism was named and identified for the very first time. In a way, her life story can be said to parallel the history of autism itself.
Often, when people think of autism, they imagine a sort of static quality that exists solely within the confines of the body. A biological condition that if not properly understood by science, it is only because we still lack in scientific knowledge; that the truth is still unveiled, but science is slowly and surely progressing towards this very goal. This is a somewhat narrow view of a much more complicated reality. Like any medical category, and perhaps even more so, autism is as susceptible to historical, social and cultural conditions as it is to biological processes in the genes or in-utero. After all, it takes people to recognize autism, define it, study it, explain it, treat it, experience it, represent it, and make sense of it. And those people come from different cultures, subscribe to different theories, value different methods of inquiry, and have different perspectives about what’s desirable, what’s normal, what’s important and what’s right. As time goes by, as society changes, autism, in a very real sense, changes with it.
Who are those people who arguably have so much influence over an apparently unbending neurological condition? Well, it’s quite a long list, actually. Neuroscientists of various sub-disciplines (cognitive neuroscience, neurophysiology, neurochemistry etc.), psychiatrists, and geneticists usually make up the group in charge of scientific research into autism, which obviously has a massive effect on how it is framed, categorized, understood and treated. Epidemiologists make a huge impact in determining and communicating the prevalence rates of autism. Psychologists are responsible for characterizing its cognitive and developmental aspects. There are speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists who possibly know best which therapies work and which don’t (not that they are all in agreement). There are teachers in charge of instructing and educating autistic children and adults. There are those who provide welfare services, devise policy, and design legislation. There are those who advocate autism awareness and acceptance, and those who advocate the search for a cure. There are those who spend their everyday lives with autistic people, those who love them and know them best, namely their parents, siblings, partners, children or caregivers. There are those who write autism into books, make films, or write about it in newspapers and journals. There are those who study it from a humanities or social science perspective – like me. And ultimately, of course, there are those who are themselves autistic; living, talking, writing, acting, connecting, and making; they are sons, daughters, parents, partners, and friends; some are teachers, writers, researchers and artists; and they have significant influence on how autism is understood, treated, explained, experienced and even performed. Autism is therefore anything but static – it is as dynamic, fluid, and mutable as social categories get.
So wait, who are the real experts then? Well, they all are, but you know what happens when you have too many experts in one place. You get tension, disagreement, and conflict. And autism, with its myriad sorts of experts, is a fertile breeding ground for exactly that. In one of the very best books written about autism (on my opinion, that is), Gil Eyal and his colleagues, a team of sociologists, take a deep and thoughtful look into this field of contention, which they call (and named their book after) “The Autism Matrix”. Give it a read if you have the time. It’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth your effort.
Temple Grandin offers a wonderful insight into how these disagreements between the various sorts of experts come about.
The earliest scene in the movie, chronologically, depicts four-year-old Temple and her mother in a meeting with the doctor – most likely a psychiatrist. He diagnoses Temple as having autism. At that time autism diagnoses were scarce, and autistic children of Temple’s generation were very unlikely to be diagnosed as autistic. The clinician is thus arguably very well read and well trained, being familiar with such a “rare” new condition. Yet he still considers autism as interchangeable with childhood schizophrenia; this was an extremely common misconception at the time, and it remained common for decades more to come. Well trained as he may be, the doctor regards autism as hopeless and destructive. Temple will likely never speak, he says. It’s caused by a lack of bond between mother and child, he reproaches. And he recommends she should be institutionalized. The psychiatrist represents the common scientific perception of the time. He is an expert.
But Temple’s mother – a strong, educated, intelligent, and outspoken woman –rejects the doctor’s prognosis, and refuses to accept that her daughter will amount to nothing. She thus effectively opposes the psychiatrist’s expertise, and situates herself and her own understanding of her daughter’s condition – namely her own expertise as a mother – as equal, if not superior to that of the trained physician. Decades later, such opposition by parents will become widespread, as parents begin to collectively question the medical establishment’s approach to autism, its prognosis, and most importantly – its etiology. So that in contrast to what most experts claimed during the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s (and in some parts of the world still do), mothers knew they didn’t cause their children’s autism. It took a while for medical professionals to accept this as true – and nowadays, the fact that autism is innate is near consensus.
Another scene shows Temple’s team of school teachers frustrated by her behaviour. They consider expelling her. Only her science teacher realizes that her “bad” behaviour is not an integral part of her condition; but a result of a lack of support and care in the school environment. He takes it upon himself to mentor her, challenge her, and indeed love her. “Just a science teacher”, but nevertheless an expert in his own right, he has a huge positive effect on her life.
In college, a psychologist interviews Temple about her squeeze machine; utterly oblivious to the communication barrier between them, he asserts it has a sexual purpose, and forbids her to use it. Her mother, concerned of the impression that Temple’s use of her machine might create among her peers, follows suit. This time it is Temple’s aunt that insists that if the machine helps Temple, it must be allowed, and encourages her niece to devise an experiment to demonstrate that the machine is in fact helpful. The authority of the mental health specialist is thus undermined by a caring relative, who shows herself to be more of an expert then he is, at least in this regard. When Temple conducts her own study as to the possible benefits of her squeeze machine, a remarkable social process unfolds: she situates herself as an expert on autism not only by being autistic, but also by employing scientific methods to substantiate her assertions. The division between experiential knowledge and scientific fact is becoming blurred.
In the very last scene, we witness what is to become a revolution in autism expertise, as Temple’s own experiences, theories, ideas, and perceptions of autism and its meaning impress heavily on the conference participants, who very symbolically banish the “expert” speaker from stage as they ask her to take his place and speak in his stead. Autism self-advocacy is born.
It is important to remember that no type of expertise ever fully replaces another. Parents’ and educators’ expertise gained its rightful position alongside that of doctors and psychologists. Neurologists and geneticists (the more recent sciences) followed. Therapists and advocates, policy makers and social scientists, and not least autistic people all claim their right to make assertions, suggest theories, devise treatments, design priorities, and speak the ‘truth’. But truth is a problematic notion. One can never be sure that an objective ‘truth’ about autism can ever really be achieved. Instead, we are likely to witness an ever-lasting struggle between opposing or simply differently-focused discourses. A dynamic, ceaseless, complicated “matrix of expertise”, in the course of which the meaning of autism is never definitively unveiled, but is instead constantly negotiated.