World Renowned Autistic Advocate Temple Grandin's Mother to Tell the Family Story

HBO released Temple Grandin’s auto-biography this past March.

From Boston, Temple is 62 years old. As a person with high-functioning autism, Temple is the inventor of the hug machine squeeze-box designed to calm the hypersensitive.

I am particularly interested in the presentation as my own adopted son has had learning disabilities his entire life and the presentation is being held to benefit my son’s school, The Child School.

Eustacia Cutler will describe raising her daughter Temple Grandin in the conservative “Leave-it-to-Beaver” world of the 1950’s, a time when little was known about autism — then called “infant schizophrenia” — and children like Temple were banished to institutions. Eustacia will talk about some of her own life experiences, fighting to hang onto hope. She will also explore the main stumbling blocks of autism as she has learned them from doctors.

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Eustacia Cutler, Temple’s mother, to speak in New York.

Temple is a Doctor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and a bestselling author. Temple is also widely noted for her work in autism advocacy and animal awareness. She once said, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right. We’ve got to give those animals a decent life and we’ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.”

Having been labeled and diagnosed with brain damage at age two, she was placed in a structured nursery school with what she considers to have been good teachers. Temple’s mother spoke to a doctor who suggested speech therapy, and she hired a nanny who spent hours playing turn-based games with Temple and her sister.

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Temple Grandin presented at TED 2010. TED (short for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is

a foundation best known for its conferences devoted to what it calls “ideas worth spreading.”

Temple became well known after being described by Oliver Sacks in the title narrative of his book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995); the title is derived from Temple’s description of how she feels around neurotypical people. She first spoke in public about autism in the mid-80’s at the request of Ruth C. Sullivan, one of the founders of the Autism Society of America. Ruth writes:

I first met Temple in the mid-1980s… [at the] annual [ASA] conference… Standing on the periphery of the group was a tall young woman who was obviously interested in the discussions. She seemed shy and pleasant, but mostly she just listened… I learned her name was Temple Grandin… It wasn’t until later in the week that I realized she was someone with autism… I approached her and asked if she’d be willing to speak at the next year’s [ASA] conference. She agreed…

The next year… Temple first addressed an [ASA] audience… people were standing at least three deep… The audience couldn’t get enough of her. Here, for the first time, was someone who could tell us from her own experience what it was like to be extremely sound sensitive (“like being tied to the rail and the train’s coming”)…

She asked many questions: “Why does my son do so much spinning?” “Why does he hold his hands to his ears? “Why doesn’t he look at me?” She spoke from her own experience, and her insight was impressive. There were tears in more than one set of eyes that day… Temple quickly became a much sought-after speaker in the autism community.

Based on personal experience, Temple advocates early intervention to address autism, and supportive teachers who can direct fixations of the child with autism in fruitful directions. She has described her hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli. She claims she is a primarily visual thinker and has said that language is her second language.

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Temple attributes her success as a humane livestock facility designer to her ability to recall detail, which is a characteristic of her visual memory. Temple compares her memory to full-length movies in her head that can be replayed at will, allowing her to notice small details. She is also able to view her memories using slightly different contexts by changing the positions of the lighting and shadows. Her insight into the minds of cattle has taught her to value the changes in details to which animals are particularly sensitive, and to use her visualization skills to design thoughtful and humane animal-handling equipment.

Temple’s interest in animal welfare began with designs for sweeping curved corrals, intended to reduce stress in animals being led to slaughter.   Grandin is considered a philosophical leader of both the animal welfare and autism advocacy movements. Both movements commonly cite her work regarding animal welfare, neurology, and philosophy. She knows all too well the anxiety of feeling threatened by everything in her surroundings, and of being dismissed and feared, which motivates her in her quest to promote humane livestock handling processes. Her business Web site has entire sections on how to improve standards in slaughter plants and livestock farms. In 2004 she won a “Proggy” award, in the “visionary” category, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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One of her most important essays about animal welfare is “Animals are not Things,” in which she posits that animals are technically property in our society, but the law ultimately gives them ethical protections or rights. She uses a screwdriver metaphor: a person can legally smash or grind up a screwdriver but a person cannot legally torture an animal.

As a proponent of neurodiversity, Temple has expressed that she would not support a cure of the entirety of the autistic spectrum.   Temple says without emotion “the part of other people that has emotional relationships is not part of me” and she has neither married nor had children. She lives alone in Fort Collins, Colorado. Beyond her work in animal science and welfare and autism rights, her interests include horse riding, science fiction, movies, and biochemistry. She describes socializing with others as “boring” and has no interest in reading or watching entertainment about emotional issues or relationships.

She has noted in her autobiographical works that autism affects every aspect of her life. She has to wear comfortable clothes to counteract her sensory integration dysfunction and has structured her lifestyle to avoid sensory overload. She regularly takes anti-depressants and uses a squeeze-box (hug machine) that she invented at the age of 18 as a form of stress relief therapy.

Despite this anxiety, she has stated that, “If I could snap my fingers and become non-autistic I would not do so. Autism is part of who I am.”

Temple has also been featured on major television programs, such as ABC’s Primetime Live, the Today Show, and Larry King Live, and written up in Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, and The New York Times. She was the subject of the Horizon documentary “The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow,” first broadcast by the BBC in June 2006. She has also been a subject in the series First Person by Errol Morris. She is the focus of a semi-biographical HBO film, titled Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes as Grandin. The film was released in 2010.

Temple’s mother Eustacia Cutler will at The Child School/Legacy High School auditorium this Tuesday, May 11, at 6:00pm at 566 Main Street, Roosevelt Island, New York City. There will also be a special photography exhibit by Paul O. Colliton entitled “A Father’s Moving Photo Study of Autistic Son and His Classmates.” The event will also include a silent auction to raise funds for the school’s programming.   The Child School is a non-profit organization and event donations are restricted for student learning tools and activities. For further information contact Camille Mouquinho at The Child School by e-mail.

Originally published in The Daily Kos, May 9, 2010.

Tags: ABC Primetime Live, An Anthropologist on Mars, Animal Science, Autism, Autism Society of America, Autistic advocate, BBC, Camille Mouquinho, Claire Danes, Colorado, Colorado State University, Education, Eustacia Cutler, First Person by Errol Morris, Forbes magazine, Fort Collins, Global Citizens, HBO released, Horizon documentary, hug machine, Infant schizophrenia, Larry King Live, Legacy High School, Maari de Souza, New York City, New York Times, Oliver Sacks, Paul O. Colliton, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, People magazine, Roosevelt Island, Ruth C. Sullivan, TED, Temple Grandin, The Child School, The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow, Thought Leaders, Time magazine, Today Show

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The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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