HBO’s current film, Temple Grandin, stars Claire Danes as the noted author, animal husbandry expert, and unlikely heroine for many families affected by autism. I found the film spellbinding on several levels.
As a teacher, I love any uplifting portrayal of the educator who never gives up, one who sees potential in even the most truculent student. Temple was an academic misfit whose love of science was stoked by her boarding school instructor, played by David Strathairn. As a parent, I somehow feel ennobled by a film mom who can follow her instincts and try her best to guide a difficult child to independence. Check: that element is present. As a viewer, I eat up transformation stories, starting with the erasure of a starlet and the utterly persuasive replacement with an indelible character. Claire Danes becomes Temple Grandin down to the very way her teeth bite her words. But the way Temple learns to find her place in our chaotic world is the most moving transformation of all.
Temple was born in 1947. In the 1950s, her now-classic symptoms of autism were attributed to “infantile schizophrenia” or bad maternal bonding. Fortunately, Temple’s mother chucked much of the medical advice she was given, such as institutionalizing her child. Instead, I suspect this mother worked powerfully but self-effacingly. Her mother coined the phrase, “different, not less,” to influence Temple. Once Temple acquired language, her mother insisted on schooling and engagement. As Temple said, “Mother pounded me with manners and rules.” This very pounding helped to equip Temple to function out in the world.
I see so many criss-crosses with the story of Temple Grandin in my own life. Certainly when you work in a continuation school, there is a constant need for pounding manners and rules. Manners begin to instill a sense of dignity among those who’ve been downtrodden. Manners reduce classroom beefs and prevent fistfights. Furthermore, when I volunteer at Club 21, I’m noticing the steady emphasis of learning rules of civility and engagement, of what constitutes normal social behavior. If you are a teen with Down syndrome, you need to learn that you don’t hug everyone you meet; you hug your family. Or if you want to join the social group, we sit up in chairs. We don’t sprawl all over the floor during conversations. Most of all, I recall my own mom saying, “Just wait ’til you have a child who’s different.” Sure enough, I did have a child who has endured many learning challenges through life. How often our family has faced dilemmas and decisions, frustrations and missteps. Not as profound as what Temple and her mother experienced, but enough that I can identify with their story.
When you have a child who is different, your job as a parent becomes even more complex. Average can become your aspiration. As one of the moms at Club 21 beamed not long ago, “The teacher told me my daughter got a normal passing score on her spelling test! Normal!!” We all reveled in laughter at the compliment.
Parents who recognize their children may be different, but not less, become searchers. We don’t look for grand-scale miracles, but we are always open to the smaller ones that may come our way. A kind, persistent speech therapist;a classroom teacher willing to adapt; the group leader who teaches social cues–as searching parents, we treasure these finds. Only last year did a friend recommend a great resource new to me: Fuller Seminary’s Psychological and Family Services program. Dr. Stacy Amano and her team conduct thorough, in-depth studies for children, adolescents, and adults with learning and socialization issues, including Autism Spectrum concerns. Appointments need to be made six or more months in advance and the cost is dear. But the interpretation of results, the comprehensive report, and the valuable referrals that follow make it worthwhile. For us it made all the difference.
Jean Gillis teaches in Alhambra and writes for her blog, Dating Yourself in Pasadena.