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This HBO biopic on Temple Grandin, the world’s most accomplished and highly respected individual with autism, is an extraordinary break-through film that goes far beyond Rain Man in redefining the realities of ASD. It won seven Emmy Awards for best dramatic movie, best director (Mick Jackson), best actress (Claire Danes, who also won a Golden Globe and SAG award for her amazing performance as Temple), best supporting actress (Julia Ormond, who played Temple’s mother Eustacia Cutler), best supporting actor (David Strathairn, who played her most challenging teacher), best editor (Leo Trombella), and best original musical score (Alex Wurman).
The film makes two major contributions. More than any other previous fictional film, it uses the cinematic medium to show us how a person with autism like Temple Grandin actually perceives the world—how she thinks in concrete images rather than words, how she perceives more raw sensory data than most of us “neurotypicals,” and how she struggles with sensory overload, primarily because she is unable to filter out what she sees, hears and feels. Although this mode of perception presents difficult challenges, we see how she overcomes them (e.g., inventing a squeeze machine she can control that substitutes for physical contact with other humans) and how she leverages them creatively (e.g., designing more humane slaughter houses across the USA and writing books that re-conceptualize autism).
The film also presents a new developmental model for how persons with autism can continue to change and grow, not only in childhood but also as an adult—an on-going process that inspires hope in others diagnosed with the disorder. This model is visualized through recurring images of a series of doors, which lead to a number of breakthroughs. Thus, it presents autism as a condition that continually demands the individual and her family to make choices: of when and where to get a diagnosis, of how to improve the relationship between the autistic child and the rest of the family, of where to go to school, of what kinds of demands to make, of what kinds of treatments to seek, of how to overcome fears, of how to leverage one’s special abilities. Though Temple is obviously very intelligent, she is not presented as an autistic savant with mysterious talents. Rather, she begins as a child who was severely autistic, one with extreme tantrums and self-destructive behavior that made doctors advise her parents that she should be institutionalized. But through the determination and advocacy of her mother and teachers, who forced her to interact with neurotypicals and to take on new challenges outside of her comfort zone, and through her own persistence and courage, which enabled her to conquer many of her fears and to achieve considerable agency, Temple demonstrated extraordinary growth. Still, she retains and values her distinctiveness as an individual on the autism spectrum—one who is different but not inferior. She does not long to be “normal” because she accepts and values who she is.
What is most remarkable is her ability to assess her own experience, to test it against what has been written both by experts on autism and by scientists in other fields, and to come up with new generalizations about individuals with autism, including their similarities to animals and differences from neurotypicals. These dynamics and their powers of inspiration are best demonstrated in the scene where she and her mother attend a conference. As soon as she expresses an opinion, she is asked how old is her own child with autism. When she tells the assembled group that she has no child but is autistic herself, every head spins around to gaze at her with amazement and hope. By asserting her presence and agency with such intensity, she makes members of both audiences (both at the conference and in front of the TV set) realize (if they didn’t already know) that all future pronouncements about this disorder should include input from individuals with autism.