Dr. Temple Grandin: My Life on Filmby Judge Clark Douglas
17 August 2010
Clark recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Temple Grandin, subject of HBO's exceptional biopic Temple Grandin.
Clark Douglas: Dr. Grandin, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Temple Grandin: Really great to be here.
CD: I'd like to begin by asking you about your impressions of the film. The movie attempts to cover a lot of territory in less than two hours, but do you feel it's a fair depiction of your life?
TG: Well, I think Claire Danes did a fantastic job of becoming me in the '60s and the '70s. I just couldn't believe it when I saw it. I spent four hours with her and she videotaped those four hours, then I gave her all the oldest VHS tapes I could find from the late '80s and the early '90s. She really became me and they depicted all my projects very accurately -- the cattle dip vat, the squeezing machine, the gate you could open up from a car -- those were all created from original pictures and my drawings. All the problems I had with the guys, all the chauvinist piggery, the bull testicles on my car -- that happened.
CD: So you feel she did a fine job of capturing who you were at that point in your life?
TG: I think she did a great job. Of course, I was more autistic back then; that's before I took anti-depressants. I've been on anti-depressants now for 30 years and that's... y'know... but when I listen to Claire's voice... I listened to an interview on NPR where they interviewed me, then they interviewed Claire as Claire, then they took scenes from the movie and my voice was next to it, and I'm going, "Egads, you can't tell the difference between my voice and hers!"
CD: Was it surreal or unusual to...
TG: It was like really weird, it was like a weird time machine! That's what it was like.
CD: The film attempts to visually capture something you wrote about in your first book, which is the process of thinking in pictures, and...
TG: Oh, they did a fantastic job of showing that. Like, there's a scene in there where a bunch of shoes come up in rapid succession -- that's exactly how I think. Or the scene where a bunch of horses come up in rapid succession.
CD: I would think it would be tough for a movie to fully recreate the complexities of the human mind, but you feel they've done a good job of capturing that process on a visual level?
TG: Yes! The person who did that is the director, Mick Jackson, he was just fabulous on capturing the sensory problems, the visual thinking, and then all the anxiety. I had horrible anxiety and panic attacks. Then after I took anti-depressant medication I didn't have to eat yogurt and Jell-o anymore because the stress-related health problems stopped.
CD: How involved were you in the filmmaking process? Did the filmmakers come to you for advice very often?
TG: Yes, they did. They had two writers; I spent about two or three days with each writer. I read scripts and I had a lot of involvement on the cattle stuff. I spend several days with Mick Jackson, the director. I spent half a day with Claire, and she had all those old videos I gave her.
CD: There are a lot of other people from throughout your life depicted in the film as well -- do you feel the film did a good job of capturing those characters, or were they basically composite figures?
TG: Yes, they did capture them. Anne was beautiful, Catherine O'Hara, the science teacher -- Julia Ormond, she looked an awful lot like mother when mother was a whole lot younger.
CD: Setting aside this particular film for a moment, are you a fan of movies in general?
TG: Oh yes, I am, I really like movies.
CD: Which films do you regard as your personal favorites?
TG: Well, the old films -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, that's an old one.
CD: That's one of my favorites, too.
TG: I really loved Avatar. I like comedies too. I just saw Despicable Me; what a great satire on the banking industry, oh man! I loved it. (laughs)
CD: Over the course of your life, you've had the opportunity to see the manner in which autism is addressed change a great deal, and you've played a significant role in that change. Obviously living with autism isn't going to be easy, but do you see a large difference in terms of the resources and options those with autism have now as opposed to when you were growing up?
TG: Oh, absolutely, absolutely! I mean, autism is a very big spectrum, going all the way from somebody who remains non-verbal their entire life all the way up to smart, Aspergers-geeky-nerdy-kids. You know, half of Silicon Valley has some degree of Aspergers. If you didn't have Aspergers, you wouldn't even have Silicon Valley.
CD: There are some in the medical profession who hope to find a cure for autism, but you've indicated in the past that you would have no interest in this even if such a thing were possible.
TG: No, I certainly wouldn't want to give up my logical way of thinking. On the other hand, you've got parents with very severe kids who are not going to be able to do the things that I do that are self-abusive, epileptic and have all kinds of other problems. See, the problem is that autism is a true continuum. Genetics is extremely complex; you're not going to have simple genetics. There's a point where being slightly anti-social and geeky and nerdy is a personality variance. So you go from someone who's just a geeky, nerdy kid to somebody who's non-verbal and maybe self-abusive in the autism field. Then you've got some non-verbal folks that can actually learn to type, and they've got a good brain hidden inside them and are totally frustrated because they can't communicate.
CD: So in certain cases, there are circumstances where autism just can't be advantageous on any level.
TG: Yeah. There are the severe cases with epilepsy and tons of other medical problems on top of the autism. But then you get the milder forms and there are some advantages. Einstein would probably be labeled autistic today. Tesla, who invented the power coil, would probably be labeled autistic today. These are people who made contributions... Tesla had a lot of problems, Einstein didn't. The problem you've also got -- it's a behavioral profile, it's not a precise diagnosis like getting tuberculosis or AIDS or something like that where the diagnosis is absolutely definitive; it's very, very variable.
CD: Now, of course, there's been a lot more research that's gone into this than when you were growing up, but do you still find there are many circumstances where people go through their lives without realizing they're autistic?
TG: Absolutely, absolutely. I had a lady walk up to me the other day who said, "Now I understand my husband; I was pretty sure he had mild autism after I read your book." Yes, very definitely, especially on the milder ends of the spectrum -- one spouse may not be able to determine why their spouse is not very demonstrative, not very social and so on. The other thing I'm really getting concerned about today is a lot of geeky/nerdy kids who ought to be working ought in Silicon Valley that get a handicap mentality and are held back by the label. The Silicon Valley people tend to avoid the label.
CD: You obviously had a lot of challenges to overcome, but you've noted that in some ways your autism has helped you to accomplish things you might not have been able to otherwise.
TG: Well, I was an extreme visual thinker and that helped me with my work with animals. When I was in my early '30s I started taking anti-depressants. If I hadn't started taking anti-depressants in my early '30s, I would have been destroyed by health problems like colitis and I would not have been able to accomplish anything. This brings up the issue of medication. For some people, a dab of the right amount of medication works wonders, but too many kids are getting drugged into oblivion. They're not gonna be able to think. I tried a dreadful drug which made me so spacey I couldn't think; I tried it for a week and said, "There's no way I'm gonna take that stuff." There have been a lot of improvements -- there are all kinds of services now for young children that did not exist back then, but I got very good early intervention because my mother went to a very good neurologist. This wasn't shown in the movie. When I was two and a half, I went to a very good doctor at Boston Children's Hospital named Bronson Carruthers. She recommended a speech therapist and normal therapy. The bad doctor that's shown in the movie; that happened around the time I was four, and he's kind of a fictionalized composite. You see, you've got things on the bad stuff where you have to fictionalize. But the work stuff, getting that done and the science teacher and stuff, that was all true. But it's a two-hour movie, you can only do so much.
TG: The most important message I wanted to get across in the movie is, "Yes, people on the spectrum really can do things and succeed." And I hope the movie really motivates a lot of quirky kids to go out there and succeed.
CD: Looking back at the film, is there a single moment that stands out as your favorite?
TG: Well, there are different things I like for different reasons. I really liked how my science teacher was portrayed and my aunt was portrayed, because they were such important mentors in my life. Mentors are so important in getting these kids to succeed.
CD: There's something else I wanted to touch on -- if a person suspects they may have some form of autism or Asperger's and they're looking for solutions, there can be a lot of conflicting views on how that person should proceed to find out more. What would your advice be in this situation?
TG: If this is someone like a software engineer or someone who has a decent job and health insurance, I would recommend not getting Asperger's or autism put on their medical records. Instead, read the books, go to the meetings, get on some of the web discussions -- the books that were most helpful to me were personal experiences from other people. Thinking in Pictures , a lot of people have said they were helped by that book so I'd recommend it. They might wanna read Liane Holliday's Pretending to Be Normal ; some very good first-person accounts like that which would be really helpful. I often have the spouse come to me, the wife comes to me and says, "Oh, my husband does these things I don't like." You need to just tell him a real matter-of-fact way that he's doing something that really bothers you and to just not do it. Just tell him in a calm, logical way -- you can't hint with an Aspie -- you've got to just tell them, "When you chew with your mouth open and burp during dinner, I hate that, it's really bad manners and you need to just not do it." Just tell them in a real matter-of-fact sort of way. A person on the autism spectrum needs to learn social skills; like being in a play. One of the things that helped me was my '50s upbringing. On the other hand, if you've got a kid with a lot of severe problems that needs the services of the school, then you need to get diagnosed and get the services for the kid. But I had a guy who was in the National Guard ask me if he should be diagnosed and I said, "Absolutely not, you don't want to risk getting kicked out of the National Guard."
TG: There are problems with wrecking your health insurance. When I was in my 40s, I moved to Colorado and tried to get health insurance. They wouldn't give me any health insurance, and you know what they gave as a reason?
CD: What's that?
TG: A broken nose!
CD: That's ridiculous.
TG: That's totally ridiculous! That wasn't the real reason.
CD: So you would recommend that adults do the research, find out information from books and find support, but avoid getting an actual diagnosis because of the stigma that can come with that?
TG: Yeah, there's the stigma... and we're trying to reduce the stigma, but there's still discrimination. I'm worried about problems with health insurance. I notice the people in the tech community tend to avoid the label like the plague because they're worried about getting held back. I know that some of the people who are captains of the technical field have Asperger's. I'm not going to name any of them; you can figure that out for yourself.
CD: It's amazing that such a stigma is still in place, given that it's been proven that people with that condition can still achieve considerable things.
TG: Well, the stigma is getting less -- but I'm really worried about the health insurance thing. First of all, the diagnosis is just a behavioral profile; it's not precise. The other thing right now is that the American Psychiatric Association is saying they want to remove the Asperger's designation. So what I recommend to someone who's employed and has a good job and good health insurance -- read all the books, go to the meetings -- you'll know. And the books -- I'd recommend Thinking in Pictures, if the person's a lady they might want to read Jennifer Meyer's stuff, some Liane Holliday, Tony Attwood 's got some great books, I've written books on social skills, a book on employment -- read the books!
CD: You mentioned there's discussion of removing the Asperger's designation -- would that designation simply be replaced with the basic "autism" label?
TG: Yeah, basically it'll just be the autism continuum. When you look at the science, there's no black and white dividing line between Asperger's and autism. It is a true continuum. When does geek or nerd become Asperger's? There is no black and white dividing line. It is a continuous trait with very complicated genetics. I think it's embedded in the personality; I don't think you'll be able to separate out the genetics because it's so embedded.
CD: In the modern era, hopefully more people are starting to come to terms with how this works and understanding it, partially due to books like yours and the amount of education that's become available.
TG: You know, we've got to work on kids developing their strengths. There are a lot of autistic kids with uneven skills who are good at one thing and bad at something else. We need to build up their areas of strength. It might be art, it might be mathematics, it might be writing. Anything they're good at, build up on that. Take the thing they get fixated on and build on it. I've seen too many of these kids get so addicted to video games; you can't get them to do anything else. I am concerned about that, because they're not going to get employed.
CD: Dr. Grandin, it's been a genuine pleasure getting an opportunity to speak with you today. Any final thoughts you would have for our readers before we conclude our time together?
TG: Well, there are a lot of kids out there who are nerdy and quirky, and they're getting all kinds of labels. I'm worried about the kids getting labeled "oppositional defiant" -- talk about something that's going to be a stigma. Or the kids labeled "temper disregulation syndrome" and all kinds of other weird stuff. We need to have mentors to mentor these kids -- people like my science teacher. I'm worried about the schools losing their science teachers. They've taken the hands-on classes out of the schools; where a kid who has learning problems might be a great auto mechanic. If they aren't exposed to that, they won't find out that they like doing it. That's important to remember.
CD: Dr. Grandin, thank you again so much for taking the time to join us today and share some of your thoughts with us.
TG: Okay, great! Thank you very much.
Be sure to read Clark's review of Temple Grandin.
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