So begins HBO Films' presentation of Temple Grandin, depicting the early life of noted autistic writer, advocate and animal management scientist Temple Grandin. The film, starring Claire Danes in a remarkable and unselfconscious performance, premiered this weekend, after a great deal of anticipation and concern by special needs advocates. Dr. Grandin has been a source of enlightenment to countless families, for whom she has given a window into the worlds that their own autistic loved ones inhabit, and inspiration to even more autists who look to her as an example of how they might make their own way in an inexplicable world. Would the film do justice to her life?
I should start off by saying that I don't have a dog in this fight, not exactly. I hesitate to even wade into the often controversial and frequently confrontational world of autism parenting. My exposure to the world of autism has not been small; I speak with a great many parents who are interested or even using the same speech prosthesis technology that helps my own daughter. The same social and educational barriers that exist for my kid stand in the path of many autistic children as well, and our victories and theirs are tied together in very real ways.
But Schuyler is not autistic; she's not on the spectrum at all. Her disability is caused by a brain malformation that robs her of speech and hands her other difficulties as well, but it is not related to the mysterious, unexplained and unexplainable world of autism. Indeed, it was an unsatisfying misdiagnosis placing her on the spectrum that spurred her doctors and us to pursue further testing and led to the MRI that identified her monster, polymicrogyria.
So when I watched Temple Grandin, much of it felt familiar in ways that broke my oft-broken heart, but in other very real ways, I watched the story as an outsider. And yet, so much of the film rang true. From where I stand, admittedly outside the spectrum and the unique experiences of parents of autistic children, it felt like someone understood. Without gooey sentimentality and the usual "God's special little angels" approach that is all too familiar in this kind of film, Temple Grandin quite simply gets it right. In her portrayal of a brilliant person who doesn't quite grasp the social contexts in which she must function but who nevertheless finds her own path, Claire Danes gets it right, too.
My daughter doesn't feel the social anxieties that many autistic kids experience; in some ways, she is almost anti-autistic. She has difficulties fitting in sometimes, and her difficulties in communication have manifested themselves in a variety of developmental delays. But she is an intensely social animal, and for now, at the age of ten, she still easily charms the people around her. I don't know how long that social ease will last, and indeed she is already showing signs of a kind of self-awareness that I have been dreading since the day she was diagnosed almost seven years ago. For now, however, Schuyler is still a happy and outgoing child, even if much of the time she functions like an exchange student from another world.
In the film, and presumedly in real life, Temple Grandin is something of a weird person. And in her day-to-day existence in school and in the world, my daughter is a weird kid. In our own ways, a lot of us have felt weird at some stage of our lives, but for kids like ours, it's a feeling that doesn't just come from within, from their own insecurities. For them, weird comes from without. It's an evaluation, a judgment from a world that can be kind or cruel or indifferent. As parents, we are wounded, deeply wounded, by that judgment. We want nothing more than to push it away, to somehow ease our children into waters that are familiar to us and to other kids. But these aren't the waters in which our weird and wonderful children swim. And I think they know that, they recognize it on an instinctual level that we can never share.
The best that we can hope for is that our kids will find their own comfort level, and let their freak flags fly, as the saying goes. And when the rest of the world sees that flag, some people, the ones who really matter, will recognize it as the mark of something strange and beautiful and wholly unique.
I can tell you the moment in Temple Grandin when I felt tears in my eyes for the first (but not the last) time. Temple's mother, played by the amazing Julia Ormond, has brought her daughter to a boarding school where she believes that Temple might have a chance to be herself and possibly thrive. But as she is meeting with the admissions board, her daughter sits outside on a swing, spinning repeatedly and obliviously in a manner that will be all too familiar to many families of autists. When some passing kids make fun of Temple, her mother balks and tries to leave. The science teacher, Professor Carlock (David Strathairn), stops her and tries to convince her that contrary to the medical thinking of the time, he doesn't believe that she has failed as a mother. He thinks the school may provide the right environment for Temple.
Prof. Carlock: I know it's difficult when as parents we want our children to be everything we hope for them to be, and if they're not, we think it's our fault, and that there's never ever anybody out there who understands what we're going through. And it makes you feel alone, right? Mrs. Grandin, I'm not an admissions person. I just teach science. But I feel that this school might be the right place for your daughter. I'd love to have her here.I don't think I have anything to add to that.
Mrs. Grandin: The doctors wanted me to institutionalize her. And I don't know, just dumping her at a boarding school, it just feels like another way to give her up.
Carlock: But it's not. It's just the first step in getting her out into the world. And I know you saw the children making fun of her, and you want to protect her.
Mrs. Grandin: Yes, of course I do.
Carlock: What parent doesn't want to? But at some point, she's going to hit life head on. Trust me, we know how different she is.
Mrs. Grandin: Different, not less.
Carlock: Different. But not less.
Robert Rummel-Hudson is the father ten-year-old Schuyler and the author of Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter (St. Martin's Press, 2008). He is also a contributing essayist for My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids with Disabilities (PM Press, 2009). His work has appeared in Good Housekeeping and Wondertime. Robert's adventures with Schuyler can also be found at his blog, Fighting Monsters with Rubber Swords.