Temple Grandin premieres on HBO

Claire Danes as Temple Grandin.

Claire Danes as Temple Grandin. Photograph: Van Redin

“My name is Temple Grandin. I’m not like other people.” The moment Claire Danes utters that first line in the new HBO movie Temple Grandin (premiering Saturday 6 at 7pm), it’s clear the actor has completely subsumed herself within the eponymous subject: the autistic animal scientist Temple Grandin. Last week, after an advance screening of the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center at which Grandin spoke, I gave the professor-activist a call. “Super good, super good,” Grandin said of Danes’s performance. “She got me in the ’60s and ’70s—really autistic. She became me.”

Grandin, 62, designed more humane slaughterhouses by using her highly acute sensory perception to imagine the cattle’s own sensory experience. Today, half the country’s slaughter plants use her designs. Mick Jackson’s powerful biopic shows how a young Grandin achieved this not just despite but because of her autism. Temple Grandin avoids the autistic-person-as-trick-pony-savant treatment and instead delves inside its subject’s inner world, evocatively illustrating her “visual thinking,” as Grandin calls it.

Time Out Chicago: What part did you play in the making of the HBO film?

Temple Grandin: I had a lot of input to make sure they actually built all my projects accurately, like the cattle-dipping vat; that was made off my original drawings. I also read some of the scripts, and if they had something in there that didn’t show visual thinking right, I told them about that. The way the movie shows visual thinking is really right.

TOC: Can you recall an instance when you corrected the filmmakers’ representation of visual thinking?

TG: Well, they were making me too much of an autistic savant; they were making me too much like a Rain Man savant, memorizing all kinds of books and things like that. I said, “No, that isn’t the way my mind works.” The way my mind works is, like the word shoe is said, all these pictures of all these different shoes flash through my mind. That’s how my mind works.

TOC: So when you hear a word, you conjure up every image you associate with that word?

TG: Well, if you want to find out how it works, why don’t you just pretend I’m Google for pictures right now, and give me something—I’m sitting here in a hotel lobby right now—so give me something I cannot see in a hotel lobby.

TOC: How about an apple?

TG: I see an apple that I took off a breakfast bar the other day and I put it in my bag. I’m also seeing an apple from childhood that was a toy wooden apple for teaching fractions. Now I’m seeing my kindergarten classroom and I’m very frustrated because I understood the concept of the letter B and the teacher didn’t give me time to explain it. I’m getting a little video of that class.

TOC: So it’s not just visual but associative.

TG: It’s definitely associative. It’s visual-associative.

TOC: How did that way of thinking help you design more humane slaughterhouses?

TG: Because when I design things, I can test-run them in my head. Also, an animal is a visual thinker, an animal is an auditory thinker. Animals don’t think in words. They think in distinct sensory memories. So it was obvious to me to look at things to see what the cattle were actually seeing. I got down in the chutes just like it showed in the movie: the chain hanging down, the coats on the fence. Way back early when I first started, that was one of the first things I did, figuring out what was scaring the cattle.

TOC: Was there a moment in your childhood when you realized you had this affinity with animals?

TG: Well, there was no—people are always looking for the magic turning point. I thought everybody thought in pictures. When I did my book Thinking in Pictures, I started finding out that my thinking really was different. Like if I ask you to think about a church steeple, I was shocked to find out that most people just see a sort of generalized, vague one. I only see specific ones, and I can tell you exactly where they’re located.

TOC: The film presents three key figures in your life: your mother (played by Julia Ormond), your aunt (Catherine O’Hara) and a high-school science teacher (David Strathairn). Your mother especially seems to have been the main force behind your early development.

TG: As a young child she was totally the main force. She always was forcing me to get out and do stuff. You know, autistic people don’t like change, but you’ve got to push them to do some new things or they’re never gonna develop. But you can’t push them too hard into sensory overload. They’re not gonna be able to tolerate that.

TOC: Yet in the film your father is a largely absent character. What was your relationship with him like?

TG: He was one of the ones who wanted to put me in the institution. Mother had to fight that off. And that’s a whole other story. The movie didn’t go into that.

TOC: Could you tell me more about that?

TG: He just, you know, the doctors—kind of going along with what the doctors said.

TOC: What did your father do?

TG: He sold some real estate, was not very successful at it, but that’s what he did.

TOC: So your parents fought over your treatment.

TG: Yeah, they did, and Mother just took the lead. When I was two and a half and didn’t talk, I was taken into a neurologist that recommended a little speech-therapy school that two teachers taught out of their house, very good teachers. They were just as good as teachers you’d have today.

TOC: Other absent characters in the film are your siblings.

TG: The siblings did not want to be in it. We respected that. I had a sister who was a year and a half younger, and having a weird older sister when we were in the same high school, that wasn’t easy for her, that was hard. The other two siblings were five and six years younger, so it didn’t affect them anywhere near as much.

TOC: After the screening here in Chicago, you said you found your strict ’50s upbringing beneficial to you as an autistic person.

TG: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

TOC: Could you explain that?

TG: You see, autism’s a continuum. You can get Asperger’s, which is the real mild form of autism, and another name for that’s just geeks and nerds. These are kids that have normal speech. And I’m seeing some of these kids that are way less severe than me, they don’t learn any table manners. They’re combing their hair with a fork at the table. They’re messing up a store. I was taught you don’t touch stuff in a store unless you’re gonna buy it.

TOC: Do you still feel like someone who watches others from the outside?

TG: Yeah, I do. You get people doing a lot of, like, chitchat, doing this social chitchat, talking about nothing, and they get so much out of it! And I’m just bored! This is why I put so much emphasis on career development, because where are all the happy Aspergers? They’re doing fun things like graphic arts and mathematics and computer programming and journalism.

TOC: So you think autistic people generally get more satisfaction out of things and projects than people.

TG: That’s right, that’s right, and they’re gonna get friends through shared interests, like when I was in high school, one of my best friends, we rode horses together; we also collected the model plastic ones together.

TOC: Have you ever had a romantic relationship?

TG: No, I haven’t. That sort of just doesn’t turn me on.

TOC: Does it feel like a loss to you or that it helps you focus on your work?

TG: I’m probably missing something other people have, but I’ve seen so many bad marriages. My parents’ marriage was terrible. They got divorced when I was 14.

TOC: Treatments for autism—diets, drugs—have been in the news a lot of late. What do you make of them?

TG: With the little kids, the two-, three- or four-year-olds, I’d strongly recommend trying the diets, like the wheat free, the dairy free and also a thing called the specific carbohydrate where you cut out a ton of sugar and white carbs like rice and potatoes. Those diets don’t help everybody, but there’s a subgroup that they help. Three months is the longest you have to do it. If it doesn’t work in three months, it’s not gonna work. There’s way too many powerful drugs given out to little kids. I’m just horrified at that. But I can’t be antidrugs because in my early 30s I went on antidepressants and it stopped the horrible panic attacks. It was the best thing I ever did.

TOC: One of the interesting themes in the film is your relationship to death, whether that of people or animals.

TG: I always wondered what happens to them. You search for the ultimate meanings of life. Well, I don’t do that anymore. I basically just figured the meaning of life is if a parent comes up to me and says, “Your book helped my kid go to college,” or a rancher says, “I really like your corrals you’ve designed,” or a mother says a lecture I gave helped her to teach her kid speech. You know, that turns me on.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)