Politics At The Movies

“Temple Grandin” and the hipness of autism
Directed by Mick Jackson

Early in last year’s “Bruno,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s vacuous fashion TV show host blithely describes autism as “in.” Why, he asks a model guest. “Because it’s funny,” she replies, to his approval.

Well, sometimes. But it’s also both a potentially looming public health disaster and, possibly, part of the reason we have things like the Internet and iPods.

In other words, autism is far more complicated than other disorders because it can come with major advantages. Take last year’s ACR 53 by then-Assemblyman Currin Price, which declared an Autism Awareness Month and urged that people “recognize that individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are valued an important members of society.” Very well-meaning. But I grew up in academia and worked for years in Silicon Valley, and can say with confidence that people on the vast “autism spectrum” are largely running both.

“Temple Grandin” deftly explores this tension when, for instance, the title character reads a page of French from memory after a glance or learns how to draft blueprints by watching someone do it for an hour. Grandin’s story is now the subject of an excellent biopic from HBO. It portrays her journey from a severely-autistic child who didn’t speak a word until she was four to then become the world’s leading designer of cattle slaughterhouses and then, almost accidentally, a leading writer and speaker on autism.

But notions of “autistic pride” are fairly new—and owe a huge debt to Grandin. She has often been described as “the world’s most famous autistic person.” Well, if you forget about Einstein, Isaac Newton, Darryl Hannah and several other people widely believed to have autism or Aspergers (Hannah has said it herself in interviews), but never mind.

There are certainly some feel-good TV movie moments here, with a lot of focus on the small number of people who end up connecting her to the wider world, most-notably her mother (Julia Ormond) and science teacher (David Strathairn). Ormond especially comes off as a hero, because of her refusal to listen to the then-ignorant medical establishment and her constant insistence that her daughter be part of the “normal” world.

In this way, it’s a good blueprint for current thinking on how to work with people on the spectrum. Assemblymembers such as Jim Beall and Carol Liu have been leading a charge to help make sure other autistic spectrum have what Grandin’s mother made sure she got—screening, services and educational opportunities. For the timebeing, most parents of autistic children are forced to become experts on navigating an uneven patchwork of aid and ignorance in schools, programs and health insurance.

Much of the attention on this film has focused on Clare Danes performance as Grandin takes on these challenges. Gawky and rail-thin (Grandin lived for years on Jell-O and other bland foods that didn’t overstimulate her), Grandin herself told Teri Gross on “Fresh Air” that Danes nails her speech of mannerism from her early days “when I was far more autistic acting.”

It’s tempting to lump the performance in with Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” from a generation ago. But there’s far more nuance here. For one, Grandin interacts with people, not just near them. For another, the film takes on the difficult task of showing her inner world. She famously “thinks in pictures,” whether it’s naming all the thousands of types of shoes she’s ever seen or constantly designing devices in her head as she views the world. “Temple Grandin” shows a bit of what it’s like to actually be Temple Grandin.

Another thing that’s most interesting is the historical contrast—especially around gender and sex. While spending a summer on an aunt and uncle’s ranch in Arizona in the early 1960s, Grandin is inspired by a device which calms cattle for vaccination by squeezing them. She decides to build her own “squeeze box” out of wood, a substitute for the human hugs she can’t handle. But her college takes it from her over the concern that it gives her sexual gratification—ironically, an urge Grandin is essentially free of.

It’s also ironic that sexism ended up being a far bigger impediment to Grandin’s work in the cattle industry that did her autism—which, oddly, appears to be what allowed her to overcome objections to her work. Her ignorance of social pressure and single-mindedness allow her to break through in a world dominated by macho cowboys who want her gone. Watching her roll herself in mud and sneak through the feedlot gates in drag brings to mind that old quote about unreasonable people changing the world.

Speaking of autism being funny, this flick has a lot of very humorous moments caused by Grandin’s lack of social grace. Oddly, this is also what causes much of her pain. The difference between humor and angst is in how people react.

Which got me wondering a bit about how humor styles have changed. The 20th Century largely belonged to wisecracking smart-asses, from Groucho Marx to Bugs Bunny. Modern humor increasing relies on social cluelessness—probably because it plays on the social insecurities everyone feels, even if they’re “neurotypical.”

This is what Baron-Cohen practices with characters like Borat, Ali G. and Bruno. Incidentally, Baron-Cohen’s cousin is Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world’s leading autism researchers. It’s probably just a coincidence, but it’s also a reminder that everyone is autistic in some else’s culture. Jagshemash!

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