Temple Grandin – How the Girl who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World – Sy Montgomery
A biography of Dr. Temple Grandin written by Sy Montgomery after interviews. The biography moves from writing about the current day of the interview, where the reader is shown some of the ways Grandin works on a day-to-day basis, to details of Grandin’s history from childhood through university and employment.
Every day at school, she dreaded the sound: the loud, deep ring of the school bell. The janitor rang it at the end of each class: CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! Most kids were happy to hear it – but for Temple Grandin, the ringing of the bell hurt like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve. She covered her ears, but she could still hear it. There was no escape.
This book was released after most of Grandin’s own publications on autism (with the exception of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum), so I’m not sure who this book would be aimed at. The interviews were conducted around the time the film ‘Temple Grandin’ by HBO was being made but the book wasn’t published until two years after so it wasn’t written to coincide with that. I suppose with the film’s release and with the increase in the last 5 or so years of autism acceptance and autism self-advocacy there is a new audience of people who are finding out about Grandin and want to know more about her. This book does act as a straightforward introduction to who she is and what she has done.
Temple’s mother loved her. But Temple was a difficult child to love. She did so few of the things that typical children do to make people love them. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t smile when tickled. She didn’t hug her mother or father or hold out her arms to be picked up. At age two and three and even four, she never said, “I love you, Mommy”
The author does bring out a number of the stereotypes about autism and there are times when the attitude presented is a little less than accepting. Thankfully a lot of the writing comes from Grandin’s recounts or quotes of her life and so these snippets do not show up very often. Reading that quote I ended up wondering how many times I have told either of my parents that I loved them. It’s certainly not been very many, but that doesn’t mean that my parents are not aware that I love them. I just express it in different ways. I think there has been the start of a shift towards this understanding, that many autistic people do care about other people or beings but that it’s just not expressed in the way non-autistic people might expect.
I know there are some people in the autistic community who do not appreciate that Grandin has been portrayed as the spokesperson for autism, and others do not appreciate her own views on autism. Others find her insights and writing interesting and insightful. Controversy and arguments do seem to be constant within the autistic community. Whichever side you fall down on there is no denying that what Grandin has done for the field of animal behaviour and the livestock industry is nothing short of amazing. This book does cover a lot of the work that Grandin has done, including recounting the events around her designing a new slaughterhouse layout for free in an attempt to sort out what she said was the worst slaughterhouse she had ever seen. Often the career and work that Grandin has done can be forgotten amidst the discussion of her autism.
Even as recently as 150 years ago, most Americans weren’t expected to be able to read. Back when most people lived on family farms, children weren’t expected to sit at desks quietly for five to eight hours every day. The kids had to help their parents take care of the animals and plant and harvest food. When they played, they ran around outside. A kid who today would be labeled “hyperactive” might have been applauded in the 1800s for all his energy.
There is also a reasonable chunk written about the way autism affected Grandin throughout her life, with a focus on the sensory aspects and how this impacted her, from the way she reacted to noises through to her “hug box” and the way certain clothes feel against her skin. There’s also a lot of talk about the way Grandin approached opportunities, knowing that her autism meant that a straight-forward interview was unlikely to be effective and describing how she took advantage of other possibilities when they presented themselves. My own experiences of work are similar, interviews alone are very rarely successful for me and sometimes when you’re not very good at that face-to-face, social side of it, you do need to find alternative ways into the working world.
Temple has not gotten rid of autism. Autism does not go away. Her signature button-down cowboy shirts would feel unbearable if she didn’t put them on over a well-worn T-shirt to soften the itch. She never wears dresses, because she can’t stand the feel of her legs rubbing together. She washes new underclothes many times to make them soft enough to wear.
She still has trouble hearing certain words correctly. To her, “woodchuck” sounds like “workshop”, “therefore” sounds like “air force”, and “door mat” sounds like “floor lamp”. She can usually figure out what people are saying, though, from the contect in which the words appear.
Is it worth reading?
If you have not read Grandin’s own book then yes, this is a straightforward and reasonable biography with equal value placed on presenting her autism and her working life. If you have read Grandin’s book then you might not get much out of this one.