In 2010 HBO’s biopic Temple Grandin won five Emmys. Claire Danes won for Best Actress for her portrayal of Grandin.
By Nils Skudra
Among the autism-themed films that I have seen, one of the most outstanding biographical depictions is the 2010 HBO film Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes as the famed animal husbandry professional and autism advocate. This film delves into Grandin’s life and her efforts to achieve recognition and success at a time when autism was deeply misunderstood within the medical field and relatively unknown among the wider public. Because the public and professional understanding of autism has significantly broadened in the years since Grandin’s adolescence, I felt that this film merited a review so that audiences will have the opportunity to learn more about this compelling figure.
The film opens with Temple Grandin appearing in a room configured to represent an optical illusion, narrating, “My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people. I think in pictures, and I connect them.”
This introduction provides key information about visual orientation, which enables autistic individuals to form patterns in their minds and decipher information relating to subjects of interest. As the story progresses, this is revealed to be an important asset for Temple, which she utilizes to design special calming machines and cow dip structures in her future career.
The story’s setting takes place in 1966, when Temple arrives in Arizona to work at her aunt and uncle’s farm for the summer before starting college. Upon departing from the plane, she exhibits a series of nervous tendencies in response to the loud and swiftly rotating propeller of the plane and the clamor of the crowd waiting below, prompting her to hesitate for several minutes before Aunt Ann (Catherine O’Hara) calls for her to come down. When her aunt greets her, Temple shows a clear aversion to being hugged, which Ann finds somewhat off-putting but grudgingly accepts. As they drive toward the farm, Temple elaborates upon her favorite television show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., repetitively reciting a signature line, “Can you open that gate for me?” Once they arrive at the gate, Aunt Ann asks Temple to open the gate, which Temple initially shows some uncertainty about before complying.
The tendencies that Temple displays during this early scene are highly common among individuals on the autism spectrum. Because of their difficulties with social cues, many people with autism have an aversion toward physical touch, as well as strong anxiety which can be triggered by loud noises or huge crowds. In addition, they tend to talk repetitively, sometimes using the same phrase in every conversation or repeating a line from their favorite movie or show. When these lines are suddenly applied in a real-life situation, such as Ann and Temple’s arrival at the gate, autistic individuals can have difficulty processing the actual context since they have often memorized these lines from fictional depictions without grasping their import.
Upon arriving at the farm, Temple further displays a series of traits that her uncle and some of the ranch hands find bizarre. For example, she talks loudly and uses the same greeting, “I’m Temple Grandin. It’s very nice to meet you,” without making eye contact, and she insists upon eating Jell-o and pudding at the dinner table since she has colitis, which she maintains is triggered by her nervousness. This is another common tendency among autistic individuals since they are accustomed to having a fixed routine in a variety of contexts, including the types of food that they eat.
Furthermore, when she sees that her things have been removed from her room, she suffers an anxiety attack and runs outside, crying and breathing agitatedly, before putting herself inside a cow squeeze shoot to calm herself. Since meltdowns often occur when autistic individuals experience an unexpected change or development in their routine, many of them have a strong preference for applying surface pressures as a mechanism for decompressing and calming themselves. For Temple, this device later has a significant influence on her academic and professional career.
During her stay at the farm, Temple also exhibits a variety of unique intellectual traits which she applies constructively. These include thinking in visual thought patterns and using mathematical reasoning, exemplified by her visual measurements of the gate and how long it takes a person to open it. This provides Temple with the idea of devising a special lever for opening the gate, accompanied by a bell for visitors to ring so that they will not have to get out of their car to open the gate themselves.
When her mother Eustacia Cutler (Julia Ormond) arrives at the farm to bring Temple home, she is highly impressed by this innovation, but Temple is initially resistant to leaving the farm since she has become very comfortable interacting with the animals, with whom she displays a certain degree of kinship due to her observation of the cows’ reaction to being herded and placed in the squeeze chute. Nonetheless, Aunt Ann encourages Temple to agree to attend college since it will open new doors and provide her with opportunities for the type of career she seeks.
When Temple and her mother arrive at Franklin Pierce College, Temple initially shows a strong aversion to her dorm room since she has no roommate, and she begins to have another anxiety attack, demanding that they go home, before her mother urges her to calm down and steps outside for a moment, overwhelmed by her daughter’s agitated behavior. The scene then flashes back to Temple’s childhood in the 1950s, during which she exhibited frequent tantrums and meltdowns and could not speak until the age of four. In a meeting with a psychiatrist, Eustacia learns about Temple’s autism, which the psychiatrist characterizes as “infantile schizophrenia.”
He tells her that Temple’s condition likely stems from insufficient maternal affection, reflective of the “refrigerator mother” trope prevalent at the time, and recommends institutionalization as the only course of action since autism was considered untreatable. Eustacia emphatically insists that she has never been a neglectful parent and is determined to have her daughter receive a normal education, and therefore she hires therapists to work with Temple and practices social interactions in the form of showing her daughter pictures so that she can learn the meaning behind them, although Temple’s lack of communication makes this effort a heavy ordeal for Eustacia.
As Temple adapts to college life, she has difficulty fitting in with other students since she processes certain information in unusual ways. For example, when she is called upon to read a portion of her French textbook, she looks at the reading for only a few seconds before reciting it verbatim, having memorized the text instantaneously. In addition, her anxious behavior earns her the ridicule of her classmates; when she is frightened by the automatic opening and closing of a sliding door in the cafeteria, she freezes before fleeing in panic while the other students laugh at her. She copes with this anxiety by using a personal squeeze machine that she has designed in order to calm herself. However, when Temple’s roommate arrives, she misinterprets the machine as a form of masturbation, a perception which is reinforced by the college therapist’s interview with Temple due to her comments on feeling a sense of release that the machine gives her. Consequently, the machine is taken away and dumped in the garbage, which deeply upsets Temple.
Following her difficult first year of college, Temple is resistant to the prospect of returning but is encouraged by her aunt, who accompanies her and explains the squeeze machine’s true purpose to the faculty. Nonetheless, the chancellor tells Aunt Ann that Franklin Pierce College is perhaps not the right place for a person with Temple’s needs, which prompts Temple to speak up for herself, proposing that she use the machine for a scientific experiment to test students’ reactions.
Over the next few weeks, she compiles an in-depth report of her findings, proving that the machine has a therapeutic value for her subjects. When she receives an F on her assignment, she panics but then recalls her time at boarding school, in which her science teacher, Dr. Carlock (David Strathairn), encouraged Temple’s innovative spirit and became a close friend and mentor, recognizing the strengths of her visual orientation. This gives her the incentive to go to the chancellor and explain why she felt her assignment should have received a positive grade, showing him her data report. This prompts a change in the chancellor’s attitude, as he is deeply impressed by Temple’s analytical approach, and he assures her that she will receive a good grade on the assignment.
Temple subsequently graduates as the valedictorian of her class, delivering a powerful speech in which she elaborates upon her autism and the ways in which it has influenced her journey. She closes with a rendition of the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel, illustrating her newfound determination and perseverance. Several years later, as a graduate student at Arizona State University in Scottsdale, Temple observes the inhumane conditions in which cattle are herded through dip structures on their way to be slaughtered, which leads her to design a new dip structure that allows cows to move voluntarily rather than being prodded. Although ranch hands are initially dismissive of Temple’s design, she persists in her efforts, bringing both her empathy and economic common sense to her argument:
Spooked cattle don’t act straight. They get bruised, scraped, drowned… that all cost money. It takes a good half an hour to calm a herd, and that all cost money too. It’s not a good way to run a stockyard. I believe what’s good for cattle is also good for business.
The film concludes with Temple’s attendance at the 1981 National Autistic Convention, in which she observes how some of the parents are having difficulty trying to stop their children’s self-stimming behaviors that she exhibited as a child. Upon seeing how the speaker is unable to answer many of the audience’s questions, she speaks up and announces that she can speak from personal experience as a person with autism.
When one of the audience members asks how she was cured, Temple replies that autism is something she will always live with and then elaborates upon her journey, crediting her mother with pushing her to become self-sufficient and lead a successful career. As she is called to the podium, Temple recognizes that a new door has opened for her, which will lead her to become an autism advocate.
Temple Grandin is a brilliant and compelling biographical masterpiece, in which Claire Danes delivers a stellar portrayal that captures Temple Grandin’s idiosyncrasies and determination.
In addition, the film sheds light on an important period in the history of autism through its revelations of Temple’s childhood and adolescence, a time when it was considered a form of mental illness that could only be dealt with through institutionalization. In the decades since the 1950s, there has been a substantial growth in medical and public understanding of autism, together with a significant rise in the number of people diagnosed with autism.
Consequently, there have been new advances in the types of services available for people on the autism spectrum, reinforced by federal legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to ensure that they can lead successful lives as integrated members of the community. Many people today might not be aware of this film since it was released thirteen years ago, and therefore I would highly recommend Temple Grandin as a superb depiction of an amazing individual’s experience. By watching this film, families of children with autism will hopefully be encouraged to give them the emotional support they need so that they may lead successful careers.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.