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Most people don’t have a life story that ends up on TV—much less as a movie that wins seven Emmys. Most people will never land a spot on Time magazine’s “The World’s Most Influential People” list. Colorado State University’s Dr. Temple Grandin, 63, isn’t most people. She is autistic—and her unique visual thinking has rendered her one of the country’s most sought-after experts on livestock psychology. Because she thinks in pictures rather than words, she identifies with the way animals process their surroundings—without language—and can pinpoint what causes them panic and terror.
An animal sciences professor and best-selling author, Grandin might be better known as The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow (a 2006 documentary) and is a fierce advocate for humane treatment of slaughterhouse animals. Multinational corporations such as McDonald’s have hired her to improve conditions in their animal processing facilities. After the HBO film Temple Grandin (2010), starring Claire Danes, dominated the Emmy Awards in August, Grandin found herself and her disorder in the spotlight. Here, Grandin talks about living and succeeding with autism.
How are you dealing with the media attention the movie has created?
I treat it as a responsibility. I’ve got to give people good, practical advice [about persevering with autism.
Was the movie accurate?
The work stuff, in terms of showing my projects, was absolutely accurate, as was showing my anxiety and sensory sensitivity. It was really strange to watch Claire Danes be me in the ’60s and ’70s. It was like stepping back into a time machine. She did a fantastic job.
Can you describe sensory sensitivity?
Sounds that wouldn’t bother most people are like dentist drills in your ears. Bright lights—though they don’t bother me—cause problems for a lot of autistic kids. I can’t stand wool against my skin—imagine sandpaper scratching inside your clothes. Your sensory system is turned fully up, and you can’t turn it down.
What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
One of the most important things the movie can do is show people that kids who have problems can succeed.
What advice would you give to parents of high-functioning autistic children?
Develop their strengths. Take their fixations and draw them out. If the kid likes airplanes, read about airplanes. Do math about airplanes. Link back to the fixation and use it to motivate activities and studying. When they get older, teach job skills. You should start in middle school, so they learn to do things for other people. We’ve got to motivate these kids who are different kinds of thinkers. Mentors are really important.