When Temple Grandin was diagnosed with autism at age three, a doctor recommended she be placed in an institution. Instead, Grandin grew up to be a world-renowned expert on the handling of livestock and arguably the most famous person with autism in the world.
Now the story of Grandin’s journey from struggling toddler to sought after Ph.D. and autism activist is the subject of a new film called “Temple Grandin” starring Claire Danes premiering Feb. 6 on HBO.
Ahead of the premiere, Grandin, 62, spoke with Disability Scoop about the film and her life with autism.
Disability Scoop: What was it like growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s with autism?
Temple Grandin: It was mostly terrible because they were diagnosing kids as mentally retarded and putting them in institutions. When I was 2 and 3-years-old, I had no speech. I had lots of tantruming, really severe autistic symptoms. Fortunately, the very first doctor that my mother took me to referred her to a little speech therapy school that two teachers ran out of their house. It was as good as any ABA program today.
Disability Scoop: What difference do you think that made?
Temple Grandin: A huge difference. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of early educational intervention with 2, 3, 4, and 5-year-old kids 20 or 30 hours a week.
Disability Scoop: The movie is shot from your perspective. It shows how you think in pictures and your experiences with overstimulation. How accurate is this depiction?
Temple Grandin: The way it shows how my visual thinking works is marvelous. Like when they said cattle husbandry and then showed a weird picture (of a cow and a man posing in a wedding scene). That’s exactly how I think.
Overstimulation was very accurately shown. There are some individuals who go into a supermarket and they start screaming because they feel like they’re inside a speaker at a rock concert. For me, antidepressants have helped. Claire was playing me in the 1960’s and 1970’s and I started taking the drugs in 1980 and that stopped a lot of the panic attacks and constant anxiety and it tamps down a lot of the sensory problems.
Disability Scoop: How were you involved in the making of the movie?
Temple Grandin: I spent a half-day with Claire Danes and she got to watch my movements and then I gave her lots of videos. Then she had a movement coach and a speech coach and she worked very hard. She was brilliant. If you left off the title credits, no one would ever know that was Claire Danes. That’s how much she became me. It was like a weird time machine.
Disability Scoop: The film shows how you designed a device called the “squeeze machine” to help calm yourself. Can you tell us more about it?
Temple Grandin: One of the problems that I had was terrible panic attacks, non-stop panic attacks and the pressure relieved the attacks. Some people on the autism spectrum respond to physical, deep pressure over broad areas of the body and some don’t.
Disability Scoop: Do you still use the squeeze machine?
Temple Grandin: Not much anymore, not when I’m traveling 95 percent of the time.
Disability Scoop: Have you outgrown the need for it?
Temple Grandin: Yeah, I have. The one thing that helped too was taking medication, but I was still using it for a long, long time even after I was on medication.
Disability Scoop: You’ve lived many places and had lots of experiences – everything from boarding school to working on ranches, getting a Ph.D. and teaching. Has it been difficult to transition into various roles?
Temple Grandin: The thing that people did with me was get me to try new things. In the movie it showed that I didn’t want to go to college, but actually I didn’t want to go to the ranch. I was scared to go out to the ranch, but once I got to the ranch I liked it. It was almost a fear of having a panic attack.
Disability Scoop: You often credit mentors for your success. What advice would you have for people struggling to find a mentor?
Temple Grandin: You never know where you’re going to find a mentor, but mentors are attracted to ability. People thought I was really weird, but when I showed them my drawings, then I got respect.
Disability Scoop: How have you learned to succeed socially?
Temple Grandin: I read. In high school I got a subscription to The Wall Street Journal and I read it and I read it and I read it. They have all kinds of articles in there about how to behave at work. It was very helpful. And even Dear Abby. I would read Dear Abby, very carefully. Then I would know what would be a good way to behave in a similar situation. I would absolutely vacuum up information. Read, read, read.
Disability Scoop: What advice do you have for others with autism?
Temple Grandin: People on the spectrum tend to get obsessed with something. You want to take that thing they’re obsessed with and build on it. I found that I got friends through shared interests in model rockets and horseback riding and electronics. In the shared activities there was no teasing. We’ve got to build on the areas of strength.
Temple Grandin is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is the author of six books including Thinking with Pictures.