By Keith Roulston
Among the joys of my years being editor of The Rural Voice was the opportunity to hear speakers who left their impression – and among those was Dr. Temple Grandin.
I was thinking that the other day when I pulled the movie Temple Grandin off the shelf and watched it as I do every couple of years. Claire Danes plays the remarkable life of the woman who proved autism was no barrier to making her mark on the world.
Dr. Grandin changed the way animals are handled because her condition allowed her to understand them better than the rest of us could. It was those insights that brought her to speak to us in Western Ontario from her position at Colorado State University.
She would never have been able to score her achievements if not for a remarkable mother – so remarkable I should probably have written about her in time for Mothers Day.
When Temple was born in 1947, doctors simply didn’t understand autism. Temple’s mother, highly educated herself, was frustrated when doctors told her that her child, who didn’t speak and couldn’t focus, should simply be institutionalized and more or less forgotten. She went to work to reach and teach Temple. In fact, though the movie doesn’t tell this part of the story, Temple’s parents split because her father wanted to follow the doctor’s advice.
Through infinite patience, Temple’s mom managed to get through to her and teach her to communicate and learn. She was eventually sent off to a boarding school where she was tortured by her fellow students because she was so different.
That’s when a second remarkable person in the form of William Carlock, came into her life. A former NASA scientist he became a science teacher at what is now the school that Grandin studied at. He encouraged her and challenged her and she graduated from high school and went on to university.
Another important step in shaping the remarkable life of Dr. Grandin came when she went to the cattle ranch of the sister of her mother’s second husband (though this information is a little obscured in the movie). Here she is at first appalled when she sees cattle immobilized in a squeeze-chute but realizes they become calmer when held in it.
She tries the chute herself and finds it helps her. Later, at university, she builds a chute for herself, but other students and the university throw it out. She builds a new one after creating a study to prove it works.
Similarly after she graduates, she realizes that cattle react differently to handling than humans. She has to overcome resistance to even get into major feedlots to study animal behaviour. She finally meets a feedlot owner who will give her ideas a try but she’s undone by cowboys who tear her design apart and several animals die as a result.
Finally, the intelligence of her handling systems was understood and her designs were used in feedlots, abattoirs and handling facilities around the world.
Dr. Grandin herself supported the film and contributes to the audio commentary on the DVD.
You need an open mind to appreciate a talk by Dr. Grandin. Despite years of communicating with non-autistic people like students and audiences, she still sounds different than the regular speakers you hear at meetings. You have to open your mind and listen to the intelligence of what she says.
There’s a wonderful scene near the end of the movie where she and her mother go to a discussion about autistic children and she excites parents, who have been told there is little hope for her children’s future, by telling them what she has accomplished. It’s a reminder to all of us that there’s so much we don’t know or understand.◊