About That Autism Biopic

Charlie on a cold Saturday walk  I was a big fan of Claire Danes and My So-Called Life back in 1994. I was some years past the age of teenage angst, but Angela Chase's musings, grumblings, and yearnings still resonated with me.

Ever since hearing that Danes would be playing Temple Grandin in an HBO biopic, I've been trying to get my head around her as the "famous author and animal sciences professor" who is "a beloved figure, even a heroic one," in the words of the January 29th New York Times. To prepare for her part, Danes describes a six-hour meeting with Grandin, who talked about her sensory sensitivities and "about the way she perceives the world, how loud sounds, for instance, cause her physical pain, how she is always hyper-vigilant." At the end of the meeting, Grandin gave Danes a hug, with the actress noting "'You know, for her [Grandin], that’s not easy. So that was very moving for me. That was the validation that I was looking for.'" According to the New York Times, Grandin also gave Danes some rather cryptic advise about a "postpartum depression" letdown after making the film: "'[Grandin] told [Danes], ‘You must be very careful, because you are investing a lot of yourself in this, and there is going to be a fall, and you have to protect yourself from that.'” 

Understandable that Grandin would take the cinematic portrayal of her life so seriously. Danes's performance will certainly come under a lot of scrutiny for the "authenticity" and "accuracy" of her portrayal of an autistic woman. The  New York Times article emphasizes Danes's acting in the biopic for being "both emotionally transparent and intelligently complex"; a heightened ability to feel and sense and a highly original intelligence are the very qualities that are often said to stand out in Grandin. I'm sure there will be a plethora of comparisons to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and, inevitably, to Grandin on film herself, with individuals on the spectrum to families of children on the spectrum to professionals of all sorts weighing in. 

(I suppose it might give us all something else to blog about besides Dr. Wakefield……)

My own response will be a bit second-hand as ours is a TV-less household; I'll be viewing YouTube clips of the movie primarily. It's hard not to anticipate cringing a bit: I know it's just not possible for me to watch a movie about Temple Grandin's life as "entertainment" and "just a movie." Even if I'm only watching a snippet of the movie, my "but is that really what I'd like people to think about autism?" radar will be up. 

There's also a couple of references in the New York Times article about the movie being "inspirational," presumably because of its basic plotline of Grandin as a severely challenged child who grows up to achieve an unexpected, and highly unique, success. The film's plotline is (rather tongue-in-cheekly) summed up as "an autistic woman who beat the odds to revolutionize the slaughterhouse industry." Is it possible to have a popular story about autism in which an autistic individual doesn't exactly "beat the odds"? Or maybe a better way to put it is that "beating the odds" doesn't have to mean revolutionizing industrial practices regarding animal husbandry. More often around here, "beating the odds" simply means making  it through another day, working out a path for Charlie amid obstacles that most people wouldn't consider such.

In the case of Saturday morning, it was getting Charlie out of the gym of his school where he'd been peacefully participating in a basketball session—walking the track, dropping the ball into a hoop on the court floor—and then, after one too many requests to get up and play after one-minute breaks, he couldn't take it anymore. Jim got him out of the gym in a very unhappy state—all the more tough because Charlie had been doing good following instructions from someone he didn't know and, too, was at a new activity (and how off-putting to be inside his school on a Saturday morning). After too long, when Charlie was finally calm though shaken, Jim and I reminded each other that we don't know (who does) every last thing about autism, but we do know a great deal about Charlie. Eventually it would be good for him to do the activities with an aide, but the whole set-up of Saturday basketball was new to Charlie, and, as it was, many of the other kids were throwing around basketballs with their parents. Jim and I also reminded each other, better to quit while you're ahead—we should have left when Charlie was doing well (as another friend did with his son).

Because, "beating the odds" is not about staying to the end of a 45-minute session or about shooting a basket, or about revolutionizing industries or inventing new technologies. Often I'm reminded, if we can get Charlie and us through these adolescent and teenage years in (preferably) more or less one piece, I'll give us all the equivalent of an Academy Award.

Yes, "us." We're still that tight team o' three, meaning that Charlie upset means we're all shaken up. And it also means, we're sticking together, come what may. 

And so, rather than slump home and sigh behind a closed door, we ventured back to Red Hook in Brooklyn (Jim's giving a reading there on Wednesday) and then drove over to Chelsea Piers on the west side of Manhattan, and then back to Jersey—and a long (and, yes, cold) walk that we were all back inside. 

Not a storybook day but—-pace, HBO—that's not what this blog proffers but rather, a very real life.

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Comments
24 Responses to “About That Autism Biopic”
  1. Liz Ditz says:

    I haven’t expressed this to you (plural = Jim, Kristina & Charlie) for a while, Kristina.
    Thanks so much for sharing your lives with me.

  2. Well the only way to make any movie realistic is actually to make it obviously unbelievable, and make absolutely clear the whole thing is artifice, perhaps by setting it on the moon, or in a submarine, because the traditional hollywood biopic demands falsehood in order to create an artificial sense of reality.
    I would rather not be Temple Grandin when she sees the result.
    I know that it would be impossible to make a movie out of my life, much less a believable one, because some of the things I have done in my dafter moments seem like theatrical stunts in themselves, indeed I have to confess it was watching the movies that put me up to at least one of them.
    Nah I think the younger Harrison Ford could have starred as me, he’s too old now, just as I am.
    Larry Arnold and the Temple of Doom, yes I like that title 🙂

  3. Jen says:

    The Autism Women’s Network had an interesting interview with Temple Grandin a while ago (there’s a transcript of it at http://sweetperdition.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/temple-grandin/) , in which she discussed the movie and Clare Danes’ portrayal of her (among other things). She seemed very happy with it- said that it was very accurate. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

  4. Jill says:

    It would be great if Charlie had an aide to give you all a break. Charlie would benefit from having some young guy to go on walks with, play basketball or whatever and you and Jim would have some time alone.

  5. Brenda says:

    “Because, ‘beating the odds’ is not about staying to the end of a 45-minute session or about shooting a basket…”
    Yes!
    That’s exactly what I think. If we can get Jack through his daily challenges, we done good.
    I’m so glad you have the three of you. (Just like us!)
    And now, in the “beating the odds” category, the winner is … Charlie! and his crew!

  6. Leila says:

    I heard Temple Grandin on NPR last Thursday and she loved the way Claire Danes portrayed her in the movie: “the thing was amazing is how Claire totally changed into me”, she said.
    Kristina, that’s right, not everyone can live up to Hollywood’s standards! Each one of us have to set up realistic goals, and if we get there or surpass them we can celebrate beating the odds.
    In any case I’m happy that an autistic person is being talked about in a movie in a positive light, showing that people with the disability can have enormous potential and deserve a chance. I wished it wasn’t just on HBO because most people won’t watch. I’m gonna have to wait for the DVD.

  7. Louise says:

    “I know it’s just not possible for me to watch a movie about Temple Grandin’s life as ‘entertainment’ and ‘just a movie.'”
    Even if a person does approach this film as “just an entertainment,” what is the harm in that? They will actually learn something. Would they bother to watch a documentary (which would be, honestly, edited to be entertaining)?
    I’m out of the “spoonful of sugar” school. If a film or even a comic book can honestly depict accurate facts, then bring it on! We use all sorts of method to teach people. This film looks to be something that is going to teach a horde of people about Grandin and autism.

  8. autismvox says:

    @Larry,
    I am liking the idea of a possible “Larry Arnold and the Temple of Doom” movie more than much.
    @Jen,
    AWAN is doing some great stuff.
    @Louise,
    ah, but what will be taught?
    @lizditz,
    thanks for your long-time work—and just thank you. will you be in New York in August?
    and ps. I’m someone who all but dances around the room to teach the passive voice in Latin.

  9. autismvox says:

    @Larry,
    I am liking the idea of a possible “Larry Arnold and the Temple of Doom” movie more than much.
    @Jen,
    AWAN is doing some great stuff.
    @Louise,
    ah, but what will be taught?
    @lizditz,
    thanks for your long-time work—and just thank you. will you be in New York in August?
    and ps. I’m someone who all but dances around the room to teach the passive voice in Latin.

  10. autismvox says:

    @Leila,
    I’ll have to see if I can get one of my techie relatives to tape the movie! I guess a Classics professor has to maintain her ‘standards.’ xaxaxa [ = hahaha in Greek]
    @Larry,
    also occurred to me, they could have set the movie on Mars, per Oliver Sacks……

  11. autismvox says:

    @Leila,
    I’ll have to see if I can get one of my techie relatives to tape the movie! I guess a Classics professor has to maintain her ‘standards.’ xaxaxa [ = hahaha in Greek]
    @Larry,
    also occurred to me, they could have set the movie on Mars, per Oliver Sacks……

  12. Linda Sullivan says:

    Ditto about an aide. Charlie is settled in his new school. Think of the nice young person who could use the $$ 😉

  13. Linda Sullivan says:

    Ditto about an aide. Charlie is settled in his new school. Think of the nice young person who could use the $$ 😉

  14. autismvox says:

    I already have an old friend planning to come over in the summer and spring break…….

  15. autismvox says:

    I already have an old friend planning to come over in the summer and spring break…….

  16. Synesthesia says:

    Odd
    Didn’t Grandin succeed BECAUSE she’s autistic and her autism manifested itself as being extremely visual, allowing her to design slaughter houses by understanding the perspective of the animals?
    I am wary of movies. So many books I love have gone from being juicy oranges to an orange peel filled with orange dye and HFCS.

  17. Synesthesia says:

    Odd
    Didn’t Grandin succeed BECAUSE she’s autistic and her autism manifested itself as being extremely visual, allowing her to design slaughter houses by understanding the perspective of the animals?
    I am wary of movies. So many books I love have gone from being juicy oranges to an orange peel filled with orange dye and HFCS.

  18. “@Larry,
    also occurred to me, they could have set the movie on Mars, per Oliver Sacks……”
    Now that is cool!
    My differences with Temple are mostly political and to do with her so called stance on Animal Welfare which I do not buy into.
    Apart from that in some ways we are similar, though I think she over simplifies the notion of picture thinking because that is to me a simplification of something a bit more complex.
    She is not any kind of Savant however, nor an exception except in so far as she has been able to succeed in a career.
    Do you know something she accused me of being rude, but the reality is she is just as rude in other ways as I am, I don’t know about anywhere else but my observations were that she could no more keep from interjecting during other peoples presentations than I can.
    It is unfortunate that Ken Russel was not given the job of directing the movie, I am sure that would be something then.

  19. “@Larry,
    also occurred to me, they could have set the movie on Mars, per Oliver Sacks……”
    Now that is cool!
    My differences with Temple are mostly political and to do with her so called stance on Animal Welfare which I do not buy into.
    Apart from that in some ways we are similar, though I think she over simplifies the notion of picture thinking because that is to me a simplification of something a bit more complex.
    She is not any kind of Savant however, nor an exception except in so far as she has been able to succeed in a career.
    Do you know something she accused me of being rude, but the reality is she is just as rude in other ways as I am, I don’t know about anywhere else but my observations were that she could no more keep from interjecting during other peoples presentations than I can.
    It is unfortunate that Ken Russel was not given the job of directing the movie, I am sure that would be something then.

  20. Regina says:

    I haven’t seen the movie so this is a comment in a vacuum.
    I’m okay to some extent if this is a feel-good film, if it promotes the idea of seeing possibilities and not pathology, and if Temple Grandin believes that she was accurately portrayed (’cause it’s HER, after all(smile)), so much the better. What I am concerned about is whether there’s a public perception that everyone with an ASD diagnosis is like, or thinks like, or needs the same things as Temple, just as I would be concerned if a portrayal of someone of a certain race, nationality or life experience was extrapolated to real individuals as being identical or very similar in persona, desires and needs. But that said, I’ll reserve judgment until I get a better handle on it.
    As far as the basketball thing – while not having the identical thing, we have some familiarity with beating a strategic retreat because we overestimated our daughter’s level of interest and probably patience. Sounds like you got over the hump and finished the day well.

  21. Regina says:

    I haven’t seen the movie so this is a comment in a vacuum.
    I’m okay to some extent if this is a feel-good film, if it promotes the idea of seeing possibilities and not pathology, and if Temple Grandin believes that she was accurately portrayed (’cause it’s HER, after all(smile)), so much the better. What I am concerned about is whether there’s a public perception that everyone with an ASD diagnosis is like, or thinks like, or needs the same things as Temple, just as I would be concerned if a portrayal of someone of a certain race, nationality or life experience was extrapolated to real individuals as being identical or very similar in persona, desires and needs. But that said, I’ll reserve judgment until I get a better handle on it.
    As far as the basketball thing – while not having the identical thing, we have some familiarity with beating a strategic retreat because we overestimated our daughter’s level of interest and probably patience. Sounds like you got over the hump and finished the day well.

  22. emma says:

    I wasn’t going to say anything about the movie, biopics rarely stick to just telling a truthful story (they just have to add some “emotional music” and drama etc) – but the idea of Ken Russel directing the movie made me laugh.
    “better to quit while you’re ahead” – so true, sometimes we get the timing right others we get it completely wrong.

  23. autismvox says:

    And (continuing in my cynical strain), I could cynically say that Danes was chosen because she certainly has “star power” and a certain part of the audience might well just watch the movie to see her. Seeing as it’s an HBO made-for-TV production, I am figuring it won’t go too far out on a limb (Mars would have been quite far!). (And Ken Russel…..)
    The point about how some might see the movie and say “ok, that’s what autism is” is my main concern. I can imagine people asking me and others “so do you think Danes really showed what autism looks like?”
    Keeping in mind what Stuart Murray wrote in _Autism and Representation_, I would be curious how this film’s representation of autism “measures up” against _Rain Man_’s—Murray argues that _Rain Man_’s representation of autism was most effective, more than what is seen in _Mercury Rising_ and some other films.
    Regarding the “thinking in pictures” notion—I’ve found the descriptions of this in Grandin’s writings indeed over-simplified—with the result that there’s a tendency for people to insist that being autistic means one is a “visual thinker” and to use lots of visual stimuli to teach a child. I do think Charlie thinks in pictures and images and in visual phenomena, but it doesn’t often seem to work so well to teach him using those. And, I find it interesting that she first refers to her mind as having a huge library of videos that provide the pictures, and then talks about DVDs, and eventually, some other technology.

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