CBS' 60 Minutes is doing a segment tomorrow night on autism and iPads. Leslie Stahl talks about interviewing Temple Grandin in the segment above. Stahl is enthusiastic about Dr. Grandin, even affectionate.
So why does this segment make me uncomfortable?
Part of it is the enthusiasm Stahl shows for Dr. Grandin's role as "self-narrating zoo exhibit." I appreciate her ability to describe autism a great deal, but I cringe when the journalist gushes at her ability to tell us about autism "from inside." Yes, Dr. Grandin's expertise in autism comes from having lived it. But it also comes from having studied it, for years, with a mind that revolutionized an entire industry. Over half the beef eaten in the United States is processed in plants that Dr. Grandin helped to design. Her work in developing standards for handling cattle has done more to alleviate the pain and suffering of animals than PETA can ever hope to do.
Her work in the cattle industry is not even mentioned here, which is not unlike doing a segment on Steve Jobs, without ever saying "Apple" or even "computer."
Dr. Grandin is a genius, who has studied autism intensely. Those two things are at least as important to the brilliance of what she has to say about autism as the fact that she herself has it.
But Stahl seems delighted and bemused, exactly as she would if one of the cows Dr. Grandin studies suddenly began to speak. And stated that it would prefer to remain a cow! Mindblowing!
She really seems to be unable to grasp an important idea, even though it is stated bluntly as the theme of the movie based on Dr. Grandin's life:
It just does not seem to occur to this veteran journalist, no dummy or stranger to discrimination, that a brain that is different could actually be as good as a typically developing one. They talk about Dr. Grandin's unusual MRI, which shows one highly developed "highway" for language output, rather than the four smaller paths usually seen.
And Stahl says this:
"The other three gnarl and break up and go off in all kinds of wrong directions."
Different, Leslie, not wrong.
Because although the development of those parts of Dr. Grandin's brain is probably part of what causes her to have impaired language, there is no way to know that those same develpments are not also partially responsible for her brilliance.
When Dr. Grandin tries to explain to her that without autistic people, there could not be a CBS, Stahl laughs a little and says, "Half my colleagues, huh?" It's condescending, but it's also more than that. She thinks the suggestion that she really might be working with people whose brains are more like Dr. Grandin's than her own is a joke.
I wasn't amused by how Stahl discusses the feelings she had during the interview:
"I was interviewing her. . . and I loved her. I did, I loved her. And I don't think she felt anything toward me at all. It was a strange thing, 'cause it wasn't really an interaction. I don't even know why I loved her."
I understand why she loved Dr. Grandin: she's extremely charismatic and radiates compassion, or at least that was my experience when I met her. I loved her, too. And I'm also pretty sure she didn't feel anything in particular about me. I don't expect interactions I have with people like her, or Ari Ne'eman, or John Elder Robison, to mean anything to them, even though they are intensely important to me. I know who they are. If I'm writing about the experience, they are the story.
Does Stahl think that other famous people she interviews feel things toward her? Really? Because that seems insane to me.
And why wasn't this interview really an interaction? What I think she means is that it did not feel like the interactions she is used to and was perhaps not entirely satisfactory to her. But that is still an interaction.
Different, but real.
Because she does, we can.
This message showed up in my Facebook feed this morning:
Temple Grandin likes Dr. Temple Grandin.
This is actually a newsworthy message: Dr. Grandin now has an official public page for herself (where you can see her with a cute puppy).
But I also liked it as a literal message.
I believe that Temple does like Dr. Grandin. I believe that she not only has pride in herself, but that she likes herself. She likes the self that she has made.
We must all create selves for ourselves that we can like. We need to accomplish things, and we need to do that in ways that don't destroy us. For people with autism and our families, this is very hard.
It can be hard to like yourself when your emotional life is different from that of that of the people around you. It can be hard to like yourself when it is hard for other people to be around you in ways that do not cause you pain.
But because Dr. Grandin has learned to like herself, she has taught us all how to like her, too. And, for some of us, learning to like Dr. Grandin has been an important step in learning to like ourselves.
A video tribute to Dr. Grandin from Colorado State University.
The university that Dr. Temple Grandin has made her academic home has crafted a beautiful video tribute to her. It's a superb introduction to the real Dr. Grandin, with a lot of video of her teaching and her design work. Her colleagues at Colorado State University have wonderful things to say her, and it's very moving to hear them. Also movingly, Claire Danes, who played Dr. Grandin in the HBO movie, narrates. I watch a lot of Temple Grandin videos-- this is one of my favorites.
This is a great video, if you want to experience Dr. Grandin from a dog's perspective.
Temple Grandin spoke September 4 at EcoFair Marin. In this speech, she discusses both animal handling issues and autism:
Grandin feels she benefited from an education that allowed her to focus on specific subjects that interested her. She is frustrated by systems of public education that require all students to focus on a few core subjects taught in a linear fashion — systems that do not appreciate the many different styles of learning with which students come to the table.
"High school was the worst time for me because I was constantly teased," Grandin said. "The only places I wasn't teased were when I was doing something specific — horseback riding, electronics, art.
"I'm appalled by educational systems that take away hands-on work, such as art, music, wood shop and welding," Grandin added. "I come here, and half the people I meet in Silicon Valley probably have some version of Asperger's (Syndrome). I go back to Kansas, and I see kids who are the same — they're the same geeks — and they're addicted to video games, their lives going nowhere."
This is a fairly standard speech, and the camera angle is less than flattering. But the audio is good and some of the the questions are interesting. I learn something new from Dr. Grandin each time I listen to her speak. I'm not sure that there is anyone else I would say that about.
Celebrate our hero Temple Grandin.
August 29 is Temple Grandin's birthday.
Let me suggest three ways to celebrate:
1) Check out these favorite moments with Dr. Grandin:
I love these videos of Temple Grandin doing rhythmic drumming with former student Michelle Hardy. Not just because they are adorable, although they certainly are.
They demonstrate a couple of key factors in Dr. Grandin's success: she's willing to try new things, and she's not afraid to look foolish. Both of these things can be huge obstacles for everybody, but they are especially hard for people with autism. Our attachment to routine and our slow learning curve with many things can make us very reluctant to leave our comfort zones. Our experiences with unfriendly ridicule may discourage us from trying anything that might make us look silly.
Dr. Grandin talks with parents and teachers
And for all of thAutcasts' Dr. Grandin coverage (including cute cowboys, auctioning off her shirts, and much more) click here.
2. Listen to the commentary track on the DVD for the HBO Temple Grandin movie.
I assume you have seen the extraordinary movie based on Dr. Grandin's life. If not, please do as soon as possible. But get the DVD. If you've already seen the movie, but haven't heard the commentary that Dr, Grandin and the film's director and writer did for the DVD, it's essential. She explains in detail how events were altered for the film. Many of her actual designs and drawing were used in it, and her discussion of them is fascinating.
3. Leave a birthday greeting for Dr. Grandin in the comments here.
I will be forwarding birthday greetings left in the comments here to Dr. Grandin. I can't guarantee that she will see them, but the person who reads her email will!