Different, Not Less

Grandin
Danes 1So we saw the HBO movie Temple Grandin this weekend. For those who don’t know, that is the name of a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Her designs for slaughterhouses have revolutionized the beef industry, and she is an outspoken advocate for the humane treatment of cattle. She has become a household name among ranchers and cattle handlers, and her book, Thinking in Pictures, is a best seller.

Temple Grandin has autism. She didn’t speak until she was four. She was expelled from elementary school, and bullied in high school. She hates being touched by anyone, even her mother. She eats only yogurt and Jello. She insists on wearing cowboy shirts and jeans everywhere she goes. She can’t stand loud noises. And she developed a special “squeeze machine” that she used for decades when she would feel overwhelmed or close to melting down.

Katie and I had seen the movie before, but we wanted our older kids to see it this time. We wanted to expose them to someone on the autism spectrum who has made a successful life for herself, someone we consider a true hero in the world of ASD.

The kids enjoyed the movie, and our two oldest were able to see some of their own lives in this woman’s story. But honestly, I think Katie and I learned more than they did. We have been working so hard lately on getting the kids through school assignments, helping them work on their social skills, and managing melt downs that it was good to be able to step back and get a big-picture perspective. Watching the movie’s portrayal of some of the emotional toll that ASD takes on a family was difficult at times, but the tough stuff was overshadowed by the portrait of a young woman who pushed through numerous deficits to find her way in the world and make a real contribution. It also portrayed a mother who simply would not give up. “Different, not less.” That’s how she constantly described her daughter to skeptics and scoffers. She held on to the vision of her girl making it through college and living independently, pursuing a career, and she imparted that kind of determination to her daughter.

This may sound like a feel-good, moral-of-the-story type of movie. And to a certain degree it is. But what it did for me was remind me that all the work we’re doing for our kids has a purpose. It can be so hard just getting through a day sometimes that I can forget how much potential these kids have. The tunnel vision that results from daily battles can make me lose sight of the future that is available to them—a future that is just a bright and promising as any neurotypical child.

You see, psycho-educational testing has shown that our kids are all very bright. There’s not a dim bulb among them. Some are absolute geniuses, in fact. But their ASD can make it hard for them to want to test their limits. It can keep them locked up in themselves. And it puts them at a disadvantage in a school system that, despite its high ratings, still relies far too much on a cookie-cutter approach to education. But watching this movie again helped me see that my kids really do have a lot to offer. It’s bottled up inside, and it’s up to Katie and me to find ways to get it out in the open. It’s also up to us to convince teachers and administrators that they’re worth the effort. (Believe me, we’ve had to deal with more than our fair share of naysayers. And something tells me we’re not done with them yet.)

But the other thing the movie did was to help me see that it’s not all up to Katie and me. Yes, we have a ton of work to do to help them face a world that won’t readily understand or accept them. But our kids are also capable of discovering their own passions and chasing them down, if we can just set them on the right footing. I am a worrier by nature; I’ve always known that. Sometimes in my worrying and trying to get everything just right, I can forget that my kids are making their own plans and developing their own visions quite independent of me. And that’s okay, as long as Katie and I can give them the foundation they need to pursue these visions—and the skills they will need to live in a world that can seem so alien to some of them.

Anyway, here’s a link to the final scene from the movie, where Temple and her mother attend a conference on autism, and Temple gives an excellent summary not only of some of the major challenges that people with ASD face but also of her mother’s hard work on her behalf. It’s really quite touching to see the different emotions that play across her mother’s face as Temple unwittingly gives a huge, long shout-out to everything her mother did for her. Watch it, and you’ll see why this is the scene never fails to put a lump in my throat.

Yes, our kids are different. At times, very different. Quirky with a capital Q different. But they are not in any way less. That’s something I have to keep telling myself. But it’s also something that they’re beginning to tell me.

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