Interview: Temple Grandin on living with autism

Professor Temple Grandin, now the subject of a film starring Clare Danes, talks about her life's work

In an era where Katie Price can publish three autobiographies by the time she’s 32, filming a life story can seem a little repetitive. First success – check. Sudden tragedy – check. Amazing rebirth – check. Not Temple Grandin, however.

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You want a life less ordinary? Grandin, now a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, was born with autism, saved from an institution by the dedication of her mother, mute until the age of four, saved by cattle, now a professor of animal science, bestselling author and architect of half the world’s abattoirs.

They don’t write novels like that because no one would believe them.

HBO’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning film of her life, therefore, is more gripping and emotional than any crafted weepie, taking her from reject to superstar via a New England slaughterhouse. With Claire Danes delivering a career-best performance in the title role, the film follows Temple’s struggle – in effect – to survive.

Born into a wealthy Boston family in 1947, as a child Grandin avoided eye contact, rocked back and forth and screamed if anyone tried to hug her. She refused to talk until she was four and, after a hearing test established she wasn’t deaf, doctors diagnosed severe brain damage and suggested a nice hospital where she could pass the rest of her days…

Today, of course, we’d recognise the signs of autism. Back then it was only her mother Eustacia who believed Grandin could be helped. When Grandin meets RT, it’s clear her mother was right.

We settle down over a cup of tea in a sunlit room and the press officer introduces us to a smiling woman dressed a little like a cowboy. Unlike other celebrity interviews, however, the press officer then whispers a quick, last minute warning: “Remember – don’t touch her.”

Grandin’s clearly still nervous about physical contact with strangers and yet she chats away about her love of animals, her ambitions to write new books and how strange it feels to watch Claire Danes play her in her biopic just as if she was a garrulous chatterbox with all the social skills in the world – the kind of person Grandin herself calls “yakkity yaks”.

Her mother’s dogged refusal to put her into an institution and insistence on speech therapy, attention and education helped her step cautiously through our world.

Grandin explains that her mind is like Google Images: you put in a word, say “love”, and she tumbles through a cavalcade of visual impressions from Herbie the Lovebug to her mother to a scene from a movie and on and on at paralysing speed. It’s no wonder it took her a while to talk.

The film depicts these visual explosions in a way even Grandin says is accurate, cutting short, scratchy movies in with cartoons and photos in chaotic succession. You can feel Grandin’s panic as the sensations overwhelm her – like falling into the finale of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Anyone’s reaction would be to curl up and hope it all goes away.

Her family and the therapist spent hours playing games to help her with this, taking time to teach Grandin how to say “please” and “thank you”, sit up straight and speak politely.

“I had table manners drilled into me as a child, I couldn’t comment on fat ladies in the supermarket. When I look back, that was a good thing. I’m seeing way too many Asperger kids who are total slobs. There is just no excuse for that.”

It helped a little, but at school kids still taunted her, calling her “tape recorder”, because she’d lock on to a sentence and repeat it over and over. She explains this by comparing her head to the internet again.

“Imagine switching the internet on with nothing in it – it won’t have anything to say,” she explains. “The more experiences you put into it, the more it’s going to have and the more I can say. As a kid I had very few things to draw on. I would repeat anything I could.”

It was one long, hot summer on her aunt’s ranch in Arizona, tending cattle, that created her breakthrough. Her mother sent her to the farm when she was 15 – even then she was an accomplished inventor and horse rider because “the only place I could go where there was no teasing was horseback riding, the electronics lab, places like that.”

She noticed that when cattle on her aunt’s farm went crazy, they were put into squeeze chutes – a kind of wooden hugging device – to settle them. “So I built a plywood device that was similar, because I had these horrible, horrible anxiety attacks and I found I could get into this and it would calm me down.”

She started to wonder if there were more things in common between her sensitive mind and the panic of a young cow on unfamiliar ground. She went to the slaughterhouse and, kneeling down to see things from a cow’s eye view, she took pictures following the route through the system and found cattle were highly sensitive to the same stimulants that might set off a person with autism – stimulants that are irrelevant to most of us.

Light and shadow would stress the animals, as would grates on metal drains. Prodding and shouting to move them along just made things worse.

“One of the things that bothered me when I was young was my sound sensitivity,” she says. “Loud noises were like a dentist’s drill hitting a nerve. There are other people on the spectrum who can’t stand fluorescent lights. Hollering wouldn’t calm me down and it wasn’t calming the cows down.”

And here’s the unscriptable twist. All that she learned from those cows and the machine that had helped her so profoundly led her to one conclusion – that she must dedicate her life to building the best slaughterhouse the world has ever known.

If it was a Hollywood movie, it would go the other way – she’d set out to free them or found a vegetarian society. Instead, as a doctor of animal science, she’s the architect of over half North America’s abattoirs. She explains that she doesn’t want to save the animals’ lives – she wants to make their last minutes on earth more pleasant.

It’s clearly a conundrum she’s been asked about before. She pauses, and speaks slowly and carefully. “One of the things that I had to figure out for myself is whether the cattle knew if they were going to die as they went to the slaughterhouse. They don’t. They behave the same if they’re being vaccinated.

“The job isn’t finished with the slaughterhouses, mind you. When I first started out, I thought I could fix everything with equipment. I could only fix half of it with equipment. The other half is good management, and this is where now I’m spending more of my time developing these auditing tools to measure how many cattle are mooing and bellowing going up the stunning chute, or if animals fall down.”

If this sounds like a mission, it is – but not in the usual way. Regarding me with the same bemusement as she regards all those without autism (she once described being autistic as being like “an anthropologist on Mars”) she explains why it’s her who has to get the job done.

“You certainly don’t want to get rid of all autism traits because if you did, all you’d have is a bunch of social yakkity yaks sitting round the campfire and nothing would get done. Take the cavemen. Who figured out how to make the first stone spear?

“It wasn’t the yakkity yaks, that’s for sure. It was some Asperger sitting in the back of a cave figuring out how to chip rocks into spearheads. Without some autistic traits you wouldn’t even have a recording device to record this conversation on.”

Once she’d built her perfect slaughterhouse she had to take on the cowboys who ran them, facing them down when they called her names. She also stood up to speak out at autism conferences – amazing the doctors who believed autism sufferers were locked in for life.

Now she’s advising governments on their livestock, has received awards from both McDonalds and Peta and – in 1986 – wrote Emergence: Labelled Autistic, the first autobiography from an autistic author.

The film ends on her triumph – ready to become Temple Grandin as she is today; confident, chatty and, at the end of the interview, offering me her hand to shake.

Right now, for instance, she’s against the idea of weeding out autism genes should they be discovered. She accepts that autism is who she is, just as she accepts the inevitable fate of her beloved cows.

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“In nature everything dies. Those cattle would never have been born if we hadn’t bred the cows and bulls together. While they’re alive, we’ve got to give them a good life. I feel very, very strongly about that.”