Temple Grandin, a new film biography about the best-selling author,
renowned animal scientist, and perhaps America's most famous person with
autism, debuts in February on HBO with a strong cast and a sensitive narrative
starring Claire Danes. It depicts a woman who is uniquely talented (she
imagines the world through the eyes of the animals she studies) but also
heartbreakingly hamstrung (everyday noises can be deafening and changes to
The film -- with Catherine O'Hara, Julia Ormond, and David Strathairn --
traces Grandin's life from nonverbal child to often-overwhelmed teenager to
capable adult. Her ability to identify with animals, especially cattle, and to
imagine how cows perceive and react to their environment led her to design more
humane feedlots and slaughterhouses.
Alison Singer's days became a blur eight years ago when her daughter Jodie,
now nearly 11, was diagnosed with autism.
Singer left the workforce temporarily and focused on her daughter. "I set up
the home program -- 40 hours a week of applied behavioral analysis therapy,"
says Singer, referring to a common autism
treatment. There were appointments for evaluations to schedule -- and then
get to -- and numerous decisions to make. "Your life becomes dominated by
autism," Singer remembers. "I used...
Now an award-winning professor of animal science at Colorado State
University, Grandin, 62, also speaks at conferences on animal behavior as well
as on autism. She is the author of several books, including Animals Make Us
Human and The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and
Shortly after her own son was diagnosed with autism, New York-based producer
Emily Gerson Saines committed herself to making a movie about Grandin after
reading her book Thinking in Pictures. "The trick with this particular
film," she notes, "is that it couldn't have a big old happy ending and Temple's
cured -- because she's not."
The Nature of Autism
Grandin has autism, one of a group of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). ASDs
are developmental disabilities that cause a range of social, communication, and
behavioral challenges; the severity varies widely from person to person. Autism
is usually diagnosed in childhood, as with Grandin. As many as one in 150 U.S.
children has some form of an ASD, according to the CDC.
But for Grandin, it is important to look beyond the label. "There is no
black and white dividing line between autism and 'geek' and 'nerd,'" she says.
"When is it obsession and when is it perseverance? You can design a mind to be
more social [or] more interested in things. And if we didn't have people more
interested in things, we wouldn't even have a phone to talk on."