A Reflection of God

3 Sep

from BusinessWorld, September 1, 2011

THERE IS a grainy black and white photograph of a beautiful young girl — soft, dark hair, clear skin, and a smile playing on her lips — on page 33 of the book Emergence. At first glance, she appears healthy and happy, clearly a picture of a growing young child. The only hint that something may even be amiss is the faraway look in her eyes. It is those eyes that tell a tale common to more than 69 million people worldwide today.

The young child in the picture is Temple Grandin. Her story is an unusual tale of survival and grit, of tough love and fierce expectations, of acceptance and recognition.

Temple Grandin, perhaps the most well-known person with autism in the whole world, comes to the screen via HBO’s semibiographical made-for-television movie of the same name. First premiered in the United States in February 2010, the movie was met with critical acclaim and heartfelt emotional reception, surprising for a movie that does not gloss over drama or amps the disability factor for its vested interests.

Temple Grandin was born in 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts, only four years after the first case of autism (Donald T.) was diagnosed and reported in medical literature by Dr. Leo Kanner. In 1943, with only 11 cases known in the United States, autism was seen as an “exceedingly rare” condition. It is a wonder, then, that so early in the history of autism, when so little was known and the diagnosis was deemed a life sentence, Temple Grandin’s mother, Eustacia Cutler, bucked the recommendations of mainstream physicians to institutionalize her daughter and put her in an asylum for the mentally insane. Risking rebuke and ridicule, Mrs. Grandin educated and guided her daughter and when Temple was ready, fought for her daughter’s right to study in regular classrooms. You could say, then, that it was her mother’s love that saved her, and it would not be untrue. (Incidentally, in 2004, she published her own book on raising Temple, entitled, A Thorn in My Pocket.)

But Temple’s movie tells as much about the feisty, fiery-tempered young woman as it does the woman who raised her. Loud and awkward, gawky and seemingly inelegant, Temple displays the many traits common to people with autism — the lack of eye contact, the deficiencies in emotional connectivity and relatedness, the sensitivities to many sensory stimuli, even the extremely unusual way of thinking.

Claire Danes, as Temple Grandinof varying ages, disappears completely in Temple’s skin; it was difficult to see where the actor ended and where the character began. Danes’ highly nuanced acting is at all times respectful and mindful, tempered by an obvious desire not to make a caricature of Temple’s eccentricities. We see Danes’ Temple struggle to fit in a one-size-fits-all world and get frustrated, lashing out in anger, turning violent at times, and we feel her pain, too. We begin to understand the wonders of her gifted mind, which sees in pictures, but can sometimes be too literal and too unbending for comfort. We experience a level of her discomfort to loud sounds and unpredictable things, and comprehend her craving for a nonhuman but physical hug. And we see the reactions of many people, ignorant of what makes a person with autism uniquely different, and they are often unkind and taunting.

Despite all these, Temple rises to heights of unimagined success, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in animal science, on the wings of those who persevered and helped her become more than her diagnosis. From her unrelenting mother (Julia Ormond), to her patient aunt Ann (Catherine O’Hara), to her inspirational high school science teacher, Mr. Carlock (turned Dr. Carlock in the movie, portrayed by David Strathairn), each played a pivotal role in helping her discover her superior intellect and amazing visual capabilities.

If there is one word that sums up what HBO’s Temple Grandin has successfully aspired to, it is respect. No other film on autism has revealed so much depth with so much restraint. There is none of the crassness or in-your-face sentimentality that often turns to mush and gush. There are no ploys at deception and no attempts to patronize the characters involved in the story. We see Temple Grandin as she is, complete with human frailties, different, but not less, and ultimately reshaped by love and empathy. Temple Grandin, in the end, is no longer the sum of her autism; what she is is what we all ought to aspire for in our lifetime — a human being.

“Nature can be cruel, but we don’t have to be,” Temple says in the movie, and for many of us in the autism community, this speaks of much more than her desire to provide a humane end to animals for the slaughter. In a way, it reminds us that nature may have been cruel to some — those who are unable to speak for themselves and those whose disabilities limit their thinking and movements — but as a human society guided by the divine, she also reminds us that compassion to those who are least among us make us more than just animals in the food chain. Indeed, we are reflections of God.

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