Of the more than sixty feature films, made-for-television movies, and documentaries produced in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain that portray the lives of characters with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), only a few have focused on the lives of autistic adults. These include Rain Man (1991), Under the Piano (1995), Molly (1999), I am Sam (2001), First Person (2001), Mozart and the Whale (2005), Autism is a World (2005), and Snowcake (2006). A new addition to that list is HBO's 2010 film Temple Grandin, a biography that chronicles the early life and career of Temple Grandin. While the film introduces audiences to Grandin as a high school student at Hampshire Country School, a boarding school for children who, as the dean describes, have "special needs, emotional problems, [and] neurobehavioral issues," the film primarily focuses on Grandin's experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student at Franklin Pierce University and Arizona State University throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Directed by Mick Jackson, Temple Grandin was widely popular with critics and audiences alike and earned a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series (Claire Danes) as well as seven Emmys, including one for Outstanding Made for Television Movie. Although mainstream awards often go to films that portray disability within the familiar ableist narrative of overcoming the burden and tragedy of impairment, Temple Grandin offers a more complex representation.
The film focuses on Grandin's life as a gifted but socially isolated student who has been expelled from numerous high schools for fighting. As a young woman, Grandin is encouraged to study math and science, particularly animal sciences, by her high school science teacher, Dr. Carlock. Grandin further develops an interest in cattle and horses after spending summers on her aunt's ranch in Arizona, where she observes how cattle are calmed by the deep pressure of the squeeze shoots and develops a similar "squeeze machine" to calm herself. The film also highlights the discrimination and harassment Grandin endured on the feedlots as a female graduate student in a male-dominated, working-class industry. Temple Grandin concludes with Grandin emerging as an advocate for the ethical slaughter of livestock animals and one of the most popular and enduring representations of adult autistics in American culture.
HBO's portrayal of Grandin does occasionally slide into a supercrip narrative, one that, in the term used by Anthony D. Baker, "spectacularizes" Grandin's autism. Baker argues in "Recognizing Jake: Contending with Formulaic and Spectacularized Representations of Autism in Film" that films with autistic characters often present a narrative structure that perpetuates autism's mystique: "Plots hinge on the way that some other character can use the special powers of the autistic character. Autism is only a viable plot device—and autistic characters are only viable characters—if a spectacular skill or power is among the defining features of the character's disability" (234). The film engages in such spectularization by portraying Grandin as, in the words of her science teacher, "an amazing visual thinker" with a "very special mind that allows her to see the world in ways that others can't." Grandin describes herself as being able to "see in pictures." As she explains to Dr. Carlock, when she thinks about her favorite horse, Chestnut, she recalls every occasion throughout her life that she has seen a horse that looks like Chestnut: "I see Chestnut the day I arrived. I see grooming Chestnut. I see a picture of a horse just like Chestnut in a book, two pairs of horses like Chestnut on Route 119 near a feed store. There was one on a calendar at Aunt Ann's. There was one in Life magazine opposite a picture of Mr. Kennedy." When Dr. Carlock asks Grandin if she can bring everything she sees into her mind, Grandin responds, "Sure. … Can't you?" In another scene, during an undergraduate French class, Grandin is asked to read a page aloud from her textbook. Grandin looks at the page, memorizes it, and recites it back to her professor word for word—in French—much to his chagrin. Ultimately, these scenes spectacularize Grandin by setting her apart, both intellectually and socially, from the world around her.
Despite this tendency, Temple Grandin is more complex and nuanced than many other films that feature autistic characters, especially autistic adults. When autism spectrum disorders are featured or addressed in television programming and films, the characters severely affected by autism are typically positioned in supporting roles and the narrative emphasizes how those with autism affect or influence the lives of other (nondisabled) characters. However, HBO's film focuses singularly on Grandin's experiences during high school and college, and Grandin's mother, aunt, science teacher, and editor at the Arizona Farm and Ranchman are the supporting characters who nurture Grandin's intellectual curiosity, talents, and interests. Likewise, Grandin is portrayed as an independent, vibrant, complicated young woman who loves and is lovable. Her autism is generally portrayed as a quality that sets her apart as, in her mother's words, "different, [but] not less." Grandin is portrayed as an outstanding student and scholar whose success is demonstrated through her commitment and passion for her profession, not simply because of her autism. For example, Grandin struggles but eventually succeeds to complete an extra credit project on perspective for Dr. Carlock; conducts and presents extensive research on her squeeze machine; observes and researches cattle behavior at the feedlot; and, when commissioned to design a dip vat for another rancher, observes an architect drawing plans and painstakingly designs her own.
Temple Grandin also offers a convincing illustration of the rejection and stigma autistic adult women experience, and the viewer witnesses the discrimination and harassment Grandin endured while studying and working in a male-dominated field in the 1970s. For example, Grandin's squeeze machine marks her initially as a sexual deviant by both school administrators and her roommate (who refer to Grandin as a "pervert"). The film also illustrates how Grandin's desire for independence and rejection of femininity threaten the feedlot employees and manager, who often refers to Grandin as "honey," "sweetie," and "Little Lady." Grandin is at one point refused entry onto the feedlot to study because the "wives don't like a woman on the lot." Only when Grandin disguises herself as a man is she given (temporary) entry onto the lot. The film shows the culmination of the men's resentment toward Grandin when they smear the windshield and hood of her pick-up truck with bull testicles. Angry, Grandin screams back at the men, holding back her tears: "I've eaten bull testicles. This is a waste."
Grandin's commitment to developing humane slaughterhouses parallels arguments presented for the ethical treatment of the cognitively impaired, particularly those on the other end of the autism spectrum from Grandin, who are more likely to experience abuse, neglect, and homicide. While I do not, and the film does not, suggest that the cognitively impaired are like cattle, Temple Grandin reiterates a commitment to respect and dignity for all living creatures, regardless of our understanding of their capacity for reason, intellect, and consciousness. For example, Grandin is visibly disturbed by the cruelty shown toward the cattle when they are drowned by the arrogant cattlemen who do not follow her dip's design. Grandin explains to Dr. Carlock how the cattlemen's "stupidity" leads to unnecessary mistreatment and abuse: "They deserve our respect. Nature is cruel but we don't have to be." Grandin argues that slaughterhouses could easily be designed so that the cattle "don't feel pain and don't get spooked." Later, Grandin states (in a voice-over), "We owe them some respect. I touched the first cow that was being stunned. In a few seconds, it was going to be just another piece of beef, but in that moment, it was still an individual. It was calm. And, then it was gone. I became aware how precious how life was." Consequently, Grandin designs and constructs a cattle dip vat and slaughterhouses with solid walls and gentle inclines that do not stress, frighten, or endanger the cattle. Temple Grandin thus encourages audiences to recognize that all living beings, regardless of their cognitive impairments or differences, deserve respect, dignity, and compassion.
Although the film does rely on the "spectacle of the spectacular," in Stuart Murray's phrase, it also offers a mass media audience the novel opportunity to witness a woman's autism not as an indicator of "medical difference or personal difficulty" but as a facet of her personality, a sign of her "eccentricity that a public culture could, and would, recognize" (Murray 1). In doing so, Temple Grandin presents audiences with a complicated and nuanced portrayal of an autistic woman that challenges conventional assumptions, elevating and redefining the filmic discourse on autism into a more honest and sophisticated understanding of what it means to be "different, not less."
- Baker, Anthony D. "Recognizing Jake: Contending with Formulaic and Spectacularized Representations of Autism in Film." Autism and Representation. Ed. Mark Osteen. New York: Routledge, 2008. 229-42.
- Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2008.