Temple Grandin on Temple Grandin

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Van Redin

Claire Danes stars in HBO's biopic Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is America's best-known autistic person, and she's about to become much more famous. On February 6, HBO debuts a feature film that stars Claire Danes as the gawky, socially impaired but brilliant animal scientist who, despite her disability — or in many ways, because of it — has achieved enormous success in two arenas: as designer of humane cattle-handling facilities and an author and outspoken voice on autism. The movie, Temple Grandin, tracks Grandin's early years as a child who had no speech and very little connection to the world at age four, through her painful humiliations in school, to her ultimate success in cowboy country. Claudia Wallis talked to Grandin, now 62 and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, about the biopic.

How close did Claire Danes come to matching your own memories of your early life?

It was like going into a strange time machine. She became me back in the '60s and 70's. 

Including that odd, rapid way of talking? You don't quite sound like that now.

That's the way I used to be. The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get better. You get less and less autistic-like, if you keep doing things and getting exposed to things that help you develop. 

You have a photographic memory. So were you bothered by differences between real events and places and the way they were portrayed in the film?

They had an uncanny resemblance. Like my aunt's ranch. They picked a house out in Texas that looks kind of like my aunt's ranch in Arizona. 

What kind of input did you have?

I had a lot of input into the cattle stuff. I wanted to make sure that it was really, really accurate. I liked how they recreated my projects. They built the dip vat [a pesticide bath for delousing cattle] off my original drawings from the 1970s. It was a working dip vat! The geek side of me really liked that.

What about the famous "squeeze machine" you built as a teenager to calm yourself down with a mechanical hug?

It was built exactly off my drawings.

The filmmakers tried to capture the visual way you think by showing flashes of images, as if every thought you have is a picture. Is that really how it is?

That's exactly how I think. It's just like Google for pictures. Go ahead and give me a word and I'll tell you how it comes into my mind. Don't give me a common word like house or car.

Okay, how about cactus?

I see the fake cactus they had in the movie when I was on the set. Now I see some cactuses out in Arizona. I see the little cactus plant in my house when I was in Arizona. Now I'm seeing a big feedyard in Texas that's called Cactus. Now you see how I'm getting off the subject.

I understand that you've had your brain scanned with an MRI and it has an unusual structure that reflects all this visual activity.

A. I have this great, big, huge Internet trunkline into the visual cortex that's twice the size of the [normal] controls. But I want to emphasize that not everyone on the autism spectrum is a visual thinker. Some are mathematic-patterns kinds of thinkers. Some are word people. People on the spectrum tend to be specialist thinkers — good at one thing and bad at others.

It seems like sexism was almost as much of an obstacle to you as autism in your early life.

Exactly. When I started out there were no women working in the feed yards, only as secretaries in the offices. The scene where they put bull testicles on my car? That happened. The scene where they said the cowboys' wives didn't want me there? That happened too. 

What do you hope people will get from this film?

I hope they'll get that somebody who is severely autistic really can achieve. Another thing I hope they get is the importance of the mentor teacher. I'm seeing a lot of smart, geeky kids and there's no Dr. Carlock [a high school science teacher played by David Strathairn] around to mentor them. Actually, my teacher was Mr. Carlock. I noticed they'd made that mistake in the script, but I decided he deserved an honorary doctorate so I didn't change it. He was just so important to my success. Now a lot of the science teachers are gone, and they got rid of the auto-shop classes and the welding classes. Those hands-on classes can get a lot of these kids turned on. I'm seeing more and more of the kids with Asperger's [a milder form of autism] getting held back. They are defining themselves as Asperger's first. I define myself as being a scientist first.

Julia Ormond plays your very determined mother. Is your mother alive and has she seen the film?

My mother is 82 years old. She's seen the movie. She liked it. She was a little worried about it. The movie presents me when I was at my most super-weird. 

Do you still use the squeeze machine?

It broke two years ago, and I never got around to fixing it. I'm into hugging people now.