Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Temple Grandin

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 22, 2010

   Last night, I watched the HBO documentary entitled “Temple Grandin” . I was sad and touched to see her life story on the screen. At age two, Temple was diagnosed with brain damage. She did not speak. At four she began to talk. Although she was emotionally tortured in middle school and high school, she went on to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College, a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University and then a PhD in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne.

    Grandin became well known after being described by Oliver Sacks in the title narrative of his book “An Anthropologist on Mars (1995); the title is derived from Grandin’s description of how she feels when she is trying to decipher subtle human emotion. Oliver Sacks, like the makers of the HBO film, deserve a lot of credit for bringing Temple Grandin’s life story into the public eye.

    One of the most disturbing parts of the film was when the  psychiatrist in 1950, presumably after evaluating a four-year old Temple who had no expressive language, says coldly and firmly “Temple needs to be institutionalized.” The tears could not stop streaming down my face. How could the psychiatrist  be so sure of himself? Why did he not describe what he saw as Temple’s strengths and weaknesses and then conclude that the family should wait and see how development progresses? Why did he not recommend language therapy to see if intervention could have an impact on Temple’s development? Why did he not understand that Temple’s mind was still expanding and as such, he could not predict the future? Sure, this scene, however accurately it was portrayed in the movie, was sixty years ago, but sixty years ago psychiatrists understood that a brain is not fully formed until adolescence. Once again, I took this doctor-patient interaction as sad evidence of the arrogance that I see so often in my profession.

     Temple Grandin describes herself as a primarily visual thinker and she has said that language is her second language. She describes most people as “neurotypical”. One of the most moving parts of the HBO film was the scene in which she made friends with her blind roommate. The roommate had developed extraordinary capacity to listen to her environment, while Temple had an extraordinary capacity to see her surroundings. They each understood each other because they could both relate to having a sensory capacity which far exceeds the neurotypical person, while at the same time having other sensory capacities which were absent. Although the scene in which they begin to understand each other is so touching, I felt enormous sadness. Most neurotypical folks need to be around other neurotypical people. In the face of different brains, or different skin colors, or different religious beliefs, people, especially adolescents, get very mean.  For example, Temple often repeated herself, to which her high school colleagues would say “tape recorder”. I felt this cruelty to be  both crushing and unbelievably common.

      Many of my patients are “neuroatypical”. I really like that word. It means that they have brains which are outside of the bell of the bell curve. These clients know, like Temple Grandin knows, what it feels like to have only a  few people who can relate to their brain.  This isolation is devastating and long-lasting. The way I see it, these neuroatypical people are like any other minority group in that society needs to have respect, tolerance and acceptance of difference. How a society takes care of their minority groups says a lot about the culture’s moral fiber.  Sometimes, quite painfully, psychiatrists have a role in this victimization. Any one of us can be targeted for being different. Temple Grandin’s story is a good reminder.

9 Responses to “Temple Grandin”

  1. Shelly said

    Parents of neuroatypicals feel that their children will never be understood and worry that they are lonely and unhappy. Society never understands our children and expects them to be like everyone else. As you note, neurotypical children are nonaccepting of anyone not like themselves. Only the psychiatrist who treats neuroatypicals and their families can ever appreciate the agony that these families go through. Thank you for a thoughtful glog.

  2. i always look for a good movie review first before watching new movies ..

  3. Tony said

    I am confused. You describe “neurotypicals” as a minority group, but as someone with aspergers, I am confused by this. The term neurotypical is used to describe someone who doesn’t have autism, and is an alternative term for “normal”. In what way does this make them a minority?

    • Neurotypicals are “normals”. You are right. I was saying that Temple Grandin described most people as “neurotypicals.

      • Tony said

        Ah, i think I was confused by a few statements.

        “I see the acceptance of neuroatypicals as a civil rights issue” (Since neurotipicals aren’t in need of acceptance and are the norm) and things like “Many of my patients are “neuroatypical”. I really like that word. It means that they have brains which are outside of the bell of the bell curve.” They aren’t outside the bell curve, they define it. And that was followed by a discussion of how they know the isolation of being different. Again, confusing since neurotypical = the norm, the standard, status quo. I apologize if I am misreading, but it looks very much, at multiple points, that the word was being used improperly. I apologize for my focusing on that and probably hammering it in, welcome to being an aspie, and our inability to just walk by and let it go. Yet another reason people tend to be put off by many of us, in cases like this the obsession comes of more as… rudeness. *sigh* I need to work on that.

  4. thanks…

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