The Real Temple Grandin Speaks

The woman behind the HBO movie talks autism and Avatar with MORE.

Temple Grandin with some of the cattle she loves.
Photograph: Photo by: Courtesy of Temple Grandin

In the HBO biopic Temple Grandin (premiering February 6), Claire Danes has the most fascinating role of her career. She plays the woman of the title, who went from being a nonverbal autistic child in the 1950s to becoming a celebrated animal behaviorist, designer of humane, efficient methods of livestock management and slaughter, and lecturer on autism from an insider’s perspective. Oliver Sacks wrote about Grandin in An Anthropologist on Mars; the BBC dubbed her The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow in a 2006 documentary. Danes’s fierce, uncompromising portrayal illuminates how Grandin, now 62 and a doctor of animal science, thinks in pictures rather than words; how she developed a "squeeze machine" based on a cattle restraint to calm her autism-related anxieties; and how she became the accomplished, extraordinary woman she is today. MORE talked with Dr. Grandin about autism, animals, seeing herself portrayed onscreen, and  what she loved about the Oscar nominee Avatar.
MORE: What did you think of the HBO movie and of Claire’s portrayal of you?
TEMPLE GRANDIN: I thought Claire was absolutely, positively brilliant. Watching her was like going back in a time machine into the ’60s and ’70s. I mean, she became me.
Did it bring back any particular memories for you?
Yeah it did. I thought, boy, I was awfully weird-acting back then. I have changed.

What was your day on the set like?
One of the reasons I was down there was to make sure the cattle stuff was done right. They used my original drawings to re-create a real working dip vat, and you saw the scene in it where the cattle drowned. Well, I had to make sure all my anti-drowning fixtures were in place, because those scenes where the cattle swim through the dip vat were all real. Nothing was faked there. The geek side of me just loved seeing all this stuff re-created off my drawings, and my drawings being in the movie used as props. The way the movie showed how my visual thinking works—I just loved that.
I hear you also spent a day with Claire when she was researching you. What did you do togther?
We had lunch and we talked for about five or six hours. She recorded the whole thing. I told her all about sensory issues and autism. I gave her the oldest VHS tapes I had, [including] a TV show from the late ’80s I was on and some old cattle-handling lectures.
What kind of questions did she ask?
I talked a lot about sensory issues, and the way she portrayed that was very, very good. I talked a lot about what it was like having constant fear, the main emotion in autism.

Had you seen Claire in movies before?
No, I hadn’t. I’m really a livestock person and I don’t keep up on that stuff. Most of the movies I see, I see on airplanes. And then there’s movies like Avatar, I had to see that in the theater. I thought that movie was wonderful, and Sigourney [Weaver] played a great scientist.
What was great about her?

Well, she had ethics. I mean, she smoked, but she had ethics. The other thing I liked was that it presented scientists in a realistic way. Even though it was 150 years in the future, and they have all this crazy equipment no one has now, they were doing things scientists do. Like naming their equipment stupid things. That is typical geek scientist.

Do you still use the "squeeze machine" you built to calm yourself?
It broke two years ago and I never got around to fixing it. I built it in 1970 and it’s broken several times before. [But] I can hug people now.

Did your sqeeze machine become a therapeutic tool that others used?
Yes. A lot of therapists use pressure, especially on autistic children. A lot of simple things: bean bag chairs, get under mattresses, weighted vests. Just real simple things. Deep pressure is calming to the nervous system. What you’ve got to do that’s really important, you put it on for 20 minutes and then it’s got to be off for awhile. Otherwise the nervous system habituates and then it’s not going to work.

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