This past weekend saw the cable TV premiere of a movie about animal behavior expert and autism advocate Temple Grandin. WVFC contributor Tamar Bihari writes about watching the film with her son, who had been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.
Whenever I watch or read an account of someone with autism, I have one of two default reactions. If it rings false to me, I feel angry. Betrayed. I threw a bestselling novel across the room a few years ago because the depiction of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome felt hollow and contrived, all tics with no sense of what it would actually be like to be that boy, to wrap yourself in his skin.
If, on the other hand, it rings true, I cry. I’m not even sure why. Tears of recognition, maybe. A feeling that the creators get it. This is the way it is.
I suspect most parents who have nurtured a child on the autistic spectrum feel similarly. There’s autism from the outside, what the mass media usually portrays: strangeness, awkwardness, a sometimes otherworldly quality. A sense that people with the condition are other, not like us. That’s wrong. People with autism are very much people like the rest of us, but with some neurological quirks, some hyper-sensitivities, some processing difficulties and some unusual strengths. But very much human. Not other.
The fact is, we’re all on a broader spectrum of normalcy. Some of us can’t handle loud sounds, some tap our pens incessantly or chew our cuticles to the quick, seeking that sensory input, trying to self-regulate. People on the spectrum do so with more intensity, and in more situations. A great many autistic traits are simply reactions to an overwhelming world.
When a movie or book hits that right, shows what it’s like from the inside, well, I cry. Because it’s rare. Because it’s important to get it right, to show everyone else what some of us — like me, with a son who’s come so far—have seen up close.
On Saturday, a few minutes after starting to watch Temple Grandin, the new HBO movie starring Claire Danes, I had tears running down my face.
Yeah. They got it right. A few beats felt inauthentic, pushed for sentiment, but mostly? They got it.
I’m not going to talk about the storyline; you can go elsewhere for that. I already felt the deepest respect for Temple Grandin as a person, and this movie enhanced that feeling. She’s done remarkable things with her life. But beyond that, back to the autism piece of it, I felt deeply satisfied because so many moments felt right.
I loved how they depicted the moments of sensory overwhelm, with a cascade of sounds layering on top of each other in a not-quite-cacophony. And Grandin’s acute visual perception, cataloging details in a room that most people don’t observe. The way she saw turns of phrase as the images the words represented (animal husbandry = a man marrying a cow). And the way her autistic traits (lack of eye contact, need to be squeezed, loud rushed voice) waxed and waned according to how stressed she felt.
It all captured how it would feel to be her. Her responses — overreaction, under-reaction, unexpected reaction — make sense once you see the world from her point of view. Her fear of sliding glass doors, seen from the outside, looks bizarre. But once you see what she sees, the guillotine slicing down, you get it. I loved that the movie showed the world the way she sees it. Beautifully done. Truly.
About fifteen minutes in, my son Damian sat down beside me to watch. He seemed entranced, and also, more important to me, comfortable with what he was seeing. We watched for about half an hour together, then it was time for him to go to bed.
When I turned the TV off, I asked him what he thought, whether any of what he saw seemed like him. He considered it, and said, “Not now, but maybe how I used to be, when I was younger.” Which made sense. He’s no longer exactly on the autistic spectrum, so most of the descriptions don’t fit anymore. As he mused Saturday night, he still has some traits, but the diagnosis isn’t him anymore.
But the movie triggered a memory, he said, of sitting with a speech therapist in her office. She was offering him M&Ms, but he could only get one if he said, “please.” I know exactly what he was talking about; he was just barely three years old at the time. He was tickled that he remembers that far back. For me, it’s almost surprising to hear that he does. Back, then, it was so hard to get him to communicate, to be fully in the world. But he was obviously acutely aware the whole time, just in his own way.
When he went to bed, Damian seemed fine with the Grandin movie. But an hour later, he was still awake. Movie-induced insomnia. I went into his room, sat down on his bed, and talked it through with him. The movie was a little too real, it seemed. He told me he found some parts scary. What parts? The times Grandin felt overwhelmed, as in the school cafeteria, or at a party. When the world became too loud and too frantic, and she needed to retreat. The depiction was vivid, immediate. Real.
For me, it was a positive thing: see, this is what it feels like. For him, it was harder: yes, this is what I go through when I want to curl up in a ball and shut out the world.
Late on Saturday night, he talked to me about an incident just two weeks ago, when we went to an open house for a program at the local college for gifted children. Too many people, too much noise, too much going on. He shut down. I brought him to the lobby, where he relaxed and regrouped before going back inside the main room. Last night, we talked about that, and about other coping mechanisms, like Grandin’s hugging machine. The sensitivities will always be with him, a legacy of the autism, but Damian, like Temple Grandin, can learn and grow and be part of the world. And in so doing, maybe he, like Temple Grandin, can show the rest of us what it is to be human, just a slightly different flavor. As Grandin and her mother say in the movie, “Different. Not less.” Never less.
Tamar Bihari graduated from Harvard University with a cum laude in History & Literature. A native New Yorker, she lived in Los Angeles for several years before returning east, and edited low-budget features and high-profile TV shows, including Northern Exposure and LA Law, before turning to writing full time. She wrote for WVFC her story of sharing her brilliant and talented son, Damian, with her Harvard reunion; she’s also written about her family for Autism Speaks and has published articles and personal essays in various other venues. As a screenwriter, Bihari was a quarter-finalist in the prestigious Nicholl and Austin screenwriting competitions and had three screenplays optioned by producers. She, Damian, and her husband Dan Valverde now live with their two cats in a picturesque carriage house in Northern New Jersey.