Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 22, 2010
Last night, I watched the HBO documentary entitled “Temple Grandin” . http://www.hbo.com/movies/temple-grandin/video/trailer.html 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. http://www.oliversacks.com/books/anthropologist-on-mars/. 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.