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TCA Tour: A Chat with Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is a Doctor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, a consultant to the livestock industry in animal behavior, and a best-selling author. She’s also autistic, a fact which you may have already known if you happen to have a connection to someone with autism, be it first-hand or indirectly. For instance, I came to know about her, as you’ll soon read, through my wife, who works with autistic students and is the proud owner of a copy of one of Grandin’s books, The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s.

When an advance screener of the new HBO movie based on her life – entitled, appropriately enough, “Temple Grandin” – landed on our doorstep in advance of the TCA press tour, you can imagine that we popped it into the player post-haste, and I’ll tell you right now, I was blown away: Claire Danes gives a phenomenal performance as Grandin, but director Mick Jackson ties for MVP with his visual presentation of how Grandin’s mind works. I immediately went about trying to set up interviews in connection with the tour, and although Danes was unavailable, when HBO asked if I’d like to chat with Grandin herself, you’d better believe that I didn’t hesitate for a moment before saying, “You bet!”

Bullz-Eye: I just wanted to start off by telling you that my wife works with autistic children.

Temple Grandin: Oh, okay.

BE: She hadn’t actually trained in the field, but she ended up stepping into a job as a substitute teacher in a special education classroom, and she had such aptitude that the teacher gave her a gift: a copy of your book. She basically said, “Not everyone has the heart and the temperament to work with children who need a little extra effort, but I really think you do, and I think you’d get a lot out of reading this.”

TG: Which book was it?

BE: “The Way I See it.”

TG: All right.

BE: So as soon as she found out that I was going to be speaking with you, she immediately passed it on to me and said, “You’ll be wanting to read this.” (Laughs) But we also watched the movie together, and I thought it was fantastic. How did that first come about? Did someone read your book, then come to you and pitch the idea of making it into a movie?

TG: Well, that’s actually been going on for a good long time. Emily Gerson Saines started working on this about nine years ago and went to, like, two different directors and writers. Then, finally, it came together with the right people.

BE: Did you get final say about who would play you in the film?

TG: Well, that was just decided. Claire Danes did an absolutely brilliant job. Absolutely brilliant. I met with her for about six hours, and I gave her the oldest VHS tapes I could find of me, where I’d be more autistic-acting. Like, in old programs from the late ‘80s, where I was on a TV show, and some lectures from the early ‘90s. We dubbed those over onto DVDs, and she had those to practice with. I didn’t have any video older than that. Or movies. We didn’t do movies as a family, so I didn’t have that.

BE: I thought the visual aspects of the film, which try to give the viewer an understanding of how your mind works, were outstanding. I guess that was Mick’s idea…?

TG: I thought that was absolutely brilliant, the way Mick showed all of that. Wonderful. Like, the scene where it shows all of the shoes coming up…? That’s exactly how I think. Mick was absolutely brilliant with that.

BE: It really gave me more of a feel for what my wife does, I’ll tell you that. At the moment, she’s working one on one with a boy, and she has described working with him as being like an ever-changing maze, where she’s never sure from day to day at which turn she’ll be able to reach him.

TG: Well, my mind works more like Google for Images, and they’re coming up with some new ways of searching for images that puts them into categories, so I’ll be very interested to see how those work. Both Microsoft and Google are coming up with something like that. My mind can put images into categories…like, okay, let’s take shoes. Then you put them into work shoes, ladies dress shoes…see, there’s different categories. So if you say “ladies dress shoes,” then I get a different set of pictures than if you said “men’s work shoes.”

BE: I have to tell you, after watching the movie, the first thing I wanted to do – aside from reading your book, that is – was go watch an episode or two of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (Laughs)

TG: Oh, yeah! That and the classic “Star Trek” are some of my favorite shows.

BE: I liked how you observed that you related to Spock.

TG: Yeah, he was my favorite character in the classic “Star Trek.”

BE: Some time ago, I heard you on NPR discussing the system you designed to make the travel of cows to the slaughterhouse as humane as possible. What was the time frame as far as how long it took you to really get things from design to implementation?

TG: Well, I started going up to visit feed yards back in 1971, I worked for a short time for a company that built feed yards, and I learned a great deal while I was working on the feed-lot construction company, but I had some of my first jobs…ones that were strictly mine, that I did from scratch…in around 1974. ’76 and ’78 was when the dip vats actually got built. So they were all in the ‘70s. And I spent a lot of time learning, you know. It didn’t happen overnight. I spent three years going to every feed yard in Arizona, working cattle. I’d measure their work area and then make a drawing of their cattle working area, and then I kept track of what worked and what didn’t work in different systems, sort of like piecing all the little puzzles together. Taking lots of specific examples and putting it together to make new holds. But I didn’t learn that overnight. It was a lot of information that had to be loaded into my mind. (Smiles) You see, sometimes the crafting kind of magically appeared, but there was a long period of time of putting information into my head to learn how to relate the lines on a drawing to an actual building. Like, if you have a bunch of squares on a drawing and those represent the concrete posts that hold up the building, to understand that, I had to walk around in a building and say, “Okay, here’s the square and there’s the concrete post,” to relate the real thing to the more abstract marks on the drawing.

BE: We saw in the movie how everything was when you got to college, and we saw a little bit of your high school years, but what was it like prior to that, when you were in, say, elementary school?

TG: In elementary school, I had my problems, but elementary school was smooth sailing compared to high school. Totally. Because in high school, you got into all the teasing stuff, and the only places where I could get away from all the teasing was with the shared interests: horseback riding, model rockets. And Mr. Carlock did do model rockets. The ones in the movie were bigger than the ones we had. (Smiles) The ones we had were only about this big around, about half the size of the ones they had in the movie. But we did actually do that, and there was the electronics lab. And we were doing stuff like stretching rubber over loudspeakers and gluing mirrors on them, and they would bounce in time to the music. When we were doing these shared-interest things, there was no teasing. It was, like, the dining room and the parking lot, that’s where the teasing was.

BE: How did David Strathairn do at portraying your teacher, Mr. Carlock?

TG: He did a good job of playing him. In fact, he was Mr. Carlock, but they made him Doctor Carlock, and I did not correct them, because I wanted him to have his honorary doctorate. He deserved it.

BE: He came across as a very sweet guy in the film…

TG: …and that’s the way he was. He was always Mr. Carlock. His real name was Bill Carlock, and that’s the way he was, just getting kids interested in science, and…yeah, the way that was portrayed was excellent. He worked on spaceships for NASA, so having an actual astronaut helmet in there… (Voice cracks) I, uh, get choked up when I think about this, because…I can’t emphasize enough the importance of really good teachers. And he was one of those really good teachers.

BE: I can still pinpoint my high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Holton, as being the teacher who made the biggest difference for me. She heavily edited me, which cut into my confidence as a writer, but what I learned from it ultimately made me more confident…

TG: …because she showed you how to fix it. You see, the problem we’ve got now is that teachers aren’t copy-editing kids’ work. I mean, that’s how I learned to write when I was in elementary school. They red-marked up the work, and then you had to do it over again.

BE: Exactly.

TG: But that’s how you learn. But high school…that was absolutely the most miserable time of my life, with the teasing and all of that, and Mr. Carlock was just crucial for my success. I mean, your journalism teacher probably had a lot to do with your success.

BE: Every time I’ve seen her since then, I’ve made sure to tell her how far I’ve come since then. So once you got to college…in the movie, it’s painted as kind of a feel-good thing, where you start off rough but at the end you’re successful.

TG: That’s right. And there’s some things in the movie where they kind of change some stuff, but the stuff in there that’s absolutely accurate was…well, the sexual discrimination at the feed yard, with the bull testicle thing, that happened. Kicked out because the cowboys’ wives didn’t want me there? That happened. A chance meeting with somebody that got me into the plant? That… (Hesitates) That happened, meeting that lady who got me in the planet, but in real life it happened a little bit different. But it was a chance meeting very similar to that. They had to kind of change some things around, but all of my projects that they showed, those were built right off my original drawings. That dip vat actually worked. It was a real, working dip vat. And the squeeze machine, that was built off the drawings, and the magic gate. Those things were absolutely accurate. And the stuff I had a lot of input into was the cattle stuff, to make sure that was accurate. Like, making sure they bought the right kind of cattle to be in the movie.

BE: What you’ve brought to those who have autism, showing them what they can do despite it, is…well, it’s pretty amazing.

TG: I get worried about it. I’m seeing kids today who have milder autism than I had, and they’re taking social disability payments because, when they were kids, nobody made them do stuff. I originally didn’t want to go out to my aunt’s ranch when I was 15. I was scared. But she said, “It’s two weeks, or it’s all summer.” You’ve got to push them out, get them out there doing stuff. When I was in college, she made sure I was doing internships in the summer. I worked at a research lab one summer, the next summer I worked at a school for autistic kids, doing a whole lot of different things. You’ve got to get them out doing stuff, because that’s how I learned.

BE: Now, you go around the country and speak. At one point did you decide that you wanted to start doing that and, y’know, kind of spread the word?

TG: Well, you just sort of fall into it. There’s a lot of things where you fall into stuff. Originally, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was working on all of my design stuff and livestock stuff, and then I went back and…we had kind of a big recession in the early ‘80s, where there just wasn’t any work for two years, so I went back to school, got the coursework done during the recession, but then it took me forever to get my thesis done. Then after I got that done, I went out to Colorado, and…sometimes in your career, you just sort of go on more and more speaking engagements. But I still want to do my livestock stuff. I don’t want to let the autism stuff take over totally from the livestock stuff, ‘cause that’s my real job. I was just getting book sales figures, and I was very happy that my little livestock book, “Humane Livestock Handling,” had sold 1,400 copies. (Laughs) That’s a best seller for that kind of book! Because that’s my professional life, and I want to keep that. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want ot give up my professional life.

BE: I would think not. Yeah, actually, I was going to ask you if you still wrote articles about livestock.

TG: Yes. I do eight a year, and I still teach my class. I have to be home for half the semester on Tuesdays for that. This is during the time when I’m not doing the class, though.

BE: Is it bizarre to see your life shown on the small screen like this?

TG: Well, watching Claire play me during the ‘60s and ‘70s was like going in a really weird time machine, and she did an absolutely brilliant job. She’s a brilliant actress.

BE: How much input did you have into the film, as far as, like, Mick’s direction?

TG: Well, I had a lot of input on the stuff like how my thinking was displayed, and I had a lot of discussions with Mick about the scene with the shoes. I explained to Mick how I think, and, you know, they collapsed and changed some stuff around, and I didn’t have much input into that, as long as they didn’t have me doing something out of character, like a big romance or something. That would be totally out of character. (Smiles) And the other thing I had a lot of input into was accuracy. Autism accuracy, and my projects. My actual drawings got to be in the movie. That was really cool! And the cattle accuracy, I had a lot of input into that. In fact, that was the one thing where I actually went down on the set and supervised the filming. That one afternoon, I kind of got to direct…and it was really, really cool! (Laughs) You know, showing them where to put the camera to get the really good pictures! Claire Danes was with the A-crew, going through the door, doing the door scene, where it opens up to the big feed lot, when I was doing the other. I said, “We can’t have a stupid thing like that ‘City Slickers’ movie.”

BE: (Laughs) Oh, yeah?

TG: That was so stupid! Holstein cattle? They had all the wrong kind of cattle, and…it was just ridiculous.

BE: I’ll see if I can get Billy Crystal on the phone for you.

TG: (Shakes her head) Oh, I just thought that movie was so ridiculous. Even the tack on the horses was wrong. No, the cattle accuracy in this movie was good.

BE: I’ll be sure to spread the word. Well, Temple, it’s really been an honor and a pleasure to meet you.

TG: Thank you!

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