Temple Grandin: Changing the Face of Autism

Temple Grandin was thrust into the national spotlight nearly one year ago year after the release of HBO’s critically acclaimed movie, Temple Grandin. She then became a near-household name last month after Claire Danes, who portrayed her in the film, took home a Golden Globe award for her performance.

However, few are aware that prior to the hit HBO film, Temple Grandin was featured in a 2006 BBC Horizon documentary, giving a fascinating glimpse into her life and mind.

The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow tells the true-life story of Dr. Grandin, who has autism and is a professor at Colorado State University, specializing in the field of animal science.  

In addition to the Golden Globes award, Grandin’s HBO movie was also nominated in 15 Emmy categories and received 5 awards, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Best Actress in a Drama for Danes. 

Grandin’s story has single-handedly shattered the misconceptions and expectations of what people with autism can achieve in their lives and has become an inspiration to many.

The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow, differs from its HBO counterpart because it shows the real Temple Grandin at work and in her element.  As a result, the viewer feels like they are getting a glimpse into what the world is like from the vantage point of someone who grew up with and conquered autism.

Temple Grandin has a highly controversial and groundbreaking theory that the autistic mind is closer to the animal mind when it comes to perceptions of the world around us.  She describes these minds like that of a prey animal, frightened and highly sensitive to outside stimuli. This includes being easily startled by strange sights and sounds and constantly feeling alert and anxious.  

Temple uses her intuition to understand the animal mind and associates it with her own struggles with constant anxiety. This has enabled her to make a major impact on animal welfare, in particular, the treatment of cows. She has been instrumental in modifying the ways these animals are held, moved and slaughtered and has developed numerous innovations in the humane treatment of beef cattle.  In fact, it has been reported that nearly half of the cattle in the United States now go to slaughter in humane equipment designed by Temple Grandin.

The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow is more than just the story of Temple Grandin.  This short film also tries to address how our understanding of autism has progressed.  For many years, during the fifties and sixties, many psychologists and doctors were of the opinion that autism was an emotional disorder, brought on by a disturbed childhood.  Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children developed autism because their mothers had consciously or subconsciously rejected them as babies, and he consequently believed that children with autism could be cured with psychotherapy. 

When Temple Grandin was a baby, autism research was in its infancy and many doctors didn’t even have a name for her condition.  In her own words, as a young child Temple demonstrated “all the full-blown symptoms of autism.”  Many children like her were even institutionalized.  

With intensive tutoring and special care, it still took her many years to learn basic skills.  To this day, social situations are still a struggle for her.  But approximately twenty years ago, Temple did something no one with autism had ever done before — she wrote an autobiography entitled, "Emergence: Labeled Autistic," which was her story of what it was like to grow up with autism.  Since then, she has written several other books on autism and her life has been a revelation for parents and scientists, providing much-needed understanding and insight into the inner workings of the autistic mind.

Labeled "mentally retarded" when she was just three years old, Temple is now an associate professor of animal science, a best-selling author and now arguably the most famous person with autism in the world.

The much-overlooked 2006 BBC documentary is available for viewing below and is highly recommended:






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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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