Saturday, March 20, 2010

Temple Grandin

There is a movie on HBO about Temple Grandin.

I think Temple Grandin rocks.  She interests me for a number of reasons.  She is a woman who advocates the humane treatment of animals.  Specifically cattle.  She does this by designing slaughter houses--slaughter houses that won't frighten animals.  I saw her speak once.  I can't remember why I went to see her exactly--I hadn't heard of her before this speaking engagement.  Her mannerisms were slightly awkward at times, but her message was absolutely fascinating.  She talked about the work she'd done designing humane methods for handling cattle.  She said that she was uniquely suited to designing facilities for animals because she thinks she sees the world similar to the way animals do--in shapes, colors, and movements, sensitive to noise and motion.  Instead of interacting with other people through language and facial expressions, as most of us do, she sees the world differently.  She is autistic.  She also talked about the work she has done with autism research and discovering the best methods for treating her own symptoms and anxieties.

Her character is played by Claire Danes in this movie, and I have to say that she has done a remarkable job of mimicking the facial expressions that I can remember from Temple Grandin's talk.  This motion of tightening her chin before she speaks--Grandin says that because she thinks in pictures, language is her second language.  You can see some of that struggle even though she has become an articulate speaker.

I can remember that she said in her speech that her mother taught her to be polite but she did those things automatically and without any meaning behind it.  She realized that saying "Hello, nice to meet you," was necessary even though she couldn't understand how or why it mattered.  But she learned to do it because it was a means of communicating with other people, and her mother believed that she had something to share--that although she was different, she wasn't less than.

In the film, her character says, "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be.  We owe [cattle] some respect.  I touched the first cow that was being stunned and in a few seconds it was going to be a piece of beef but in that moment it was still an individual.  It was calm and then it was gone.  I became aware of how precious life was.  I thought about death and I felt close to God."

Not exactly a moment that you would expect someone to have in a slaughter house, but definitely a reminder that we can strive for something better in the way we treat animals.  And maybe in the way we treat people, too.

Temple Grandin's career is an example of how important it is to understand people who think and learn differently.  She developed her own system for dealing with her complex symptoms and she ending up earning a doctorate and becoming an important and well-respected figure in her field. She's now a professor at Colorado State University and she lectures on autism and animal handling.  Over half of the cattle in North America are handled in humane systems that she has designed.  And now she gets an HBO biopic.  Rock on, Temple Grandin.

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