Temple Grandin, which aired this weekend on HBO, explored not only its subject's navigation through a neurotypical-dominated world, but also her somewhat surprising decision to help slaughterhouses better kill cattle.
From the beginning of the film — which opens with Grandin's visit to her aunt's Arizona ranch — Grandin's connection with animals is obvious. Because of her exceptional powers of visualization — somewhat awkwardly rendered with animations — she's able to understand how horses and cattle perceive the world, and she's disturbed and soothed by many of the same things as they are. The clip above shows her inspiration for the squeeze machine — a device for calming cattle that she later adapts for herself. Grandin identifies with animals to such a degree that she literally puts herself in their position, and so it's a bit of a shock that she decides to aid in the business of slaughtering them.
But Grandin doesn't see this as a contradiction. Near the end of the film, she explains, "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be. I wouldn't want to have my guts ripped out by a lion. I'd much rather die in a slaughterhouse, if it was done right." She both empathizes with cattle and supports humans killing and eating them. It's a rare combination, but perhaps it shouldn't be. If everyone involved in the business of slaughtering animals actually cared what they thought and felt, then we would probably kill far fewer animals, and in far more humane ways. And the debate over food ethics — often a split between those who don't care what they eat and those who care too much what others eat, with all the people who don't have the time or money to care stuck in the middle — might be far less polarizing.
Ultimately, Temple Grandin ends up being far more about issues like this, and about the unique challenges and joys of Grandin's life, than about autism in general, and this is to its benefit. While the scene in which a doctor blames Grandin's mother for her condition — as the LA Times points out, a practice still common, although now focused on maternal age rather than "refrigerator mothering" — is both instructive and enraging, the film is generally weakest when it offers pat explanations for various features of Grandin's autism. Far better to watch Grandin — played by Claire Danes with surprising skill and with the real Temple Grandin's blessing — in action, sharing her signature brilliance with a world that's eventually forced to pay attention.
The process isn't easy, and while Grandin's challenges are her own, it's easy to sympathize with her when she complains, in the clip below, "I don't understand people." People are various and confusing, as are their brains, and as Grandin's experience illustrates, a diagnosis doesn't necessarily predict what a person can experience or accomplish. Temple Grandin won't make audiences understand autism — the condition is too complex to be fully captured in a two-hour TV movie, if it can be captured at all. But the film may help us understand her, to all of our benefit.