In Search of the Savant

HBO just produced an excellent biopic about Temple Grandin starring Claire Danes.  Grandin is a professor of Animal husbandry at the University of Colorado and has made name for herself for her innovative designs for humane slaughterhouses.  At first glance that might seem like an oxymoron, but her premise is that if we are going to raise animals for food, we need to treat them with respect and make their lives as pleasant as possible right up to the moment, as she says, “they become meat.”  Grandin’s designs come out of her unique empathy for animals and her ability to understand their visual and sensory perspectives, and she credits her ability to do this to her autism.  HBO’s film portrays key moments in Grandin’s life with remarkable clarity, not allowing the extraneous details of her childhood and family life infringe unnecessarily upon the heart of the story, which is the discovery and nurturing of Grandin’s gift for thinking in pictures and translating that skill into workable solutions for real-lfe problems.  Her voluminous photographic memory permits her to draw on virtually every single image she has ever encountered, and to process that information into something useful to her, and often, but not always, others.  She has documented her life well in several books, and she lectures far and wide at autism conferences, doing her best to impress upon families, teachers, doctors and researchers the importance of cutting through the sensory static and literal translations that can nag at the autistic mind.  Several years ago she was profiled in The New Yorker for her work designing the slaughterhouses, and I carried it around with me for months as an example at meetings and support groups, saying “this is what I want for our children with autism, for it to be both essential and secondary to who they are.”  Or as the movie’s tag line goes, “different but not less.”  Temple Grandin is extraordinary in so many ways, and she’s as energetic and industrious in pursuing the interests that drive her as well as the obstacles that autism throws up in front of her.  She can’t stand being touched by people so she devised a hugging machine that fulfills her sensory need for direct pressure; she has a sensitive digestive system and texture issues, so she eats lots of yogurt and Jell-O.  She is a fascinating mix of rigid and adaptive.

I hope that Grandin’s story will supplant the Rain Man imagery attached to autism even though I embrace the glamour and intrigue that comes with the concept of a savant as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in that film.  It is impossible to say whether the person in that story would have benefitted from the kind of education that Grandin did.  There is no denying that some people are more hobbled by their autism than others, and that the gifts exhibited by some are more striking than others.

By the book, a savant is someone who is an expert, and in even today some append the term idiot savant to those who have dazzling gifts accompanied by startling deficits in other realms.  Many parents with children on the autism spectrum have had the maddening discussion with people who simply must know if their child is a math whiz, a brilliant musician or an organizational genius; I keep waiting for someone to ask about x-ray vision.  There should be a way to have that conversation without putting people in a position to justify the disability.  What the HBO version of Grandin’s story ignited in me is the realization that we all hope for an inner savant, in our children and in ourselves, and the beauty of Temple is that she has found a place where her inner world and the outer world that so confounds her can merge.

I understand that autism can manifest itself in ways that can be unsettling, disruptive and painful, but it takes only a small leap to see the universality of Temple Grandin’s journey.  Anyone trying to get a job, applying to college or thinking of a career change asks themselves the same question – what do I do well?  What is my destiny?  Why am I here?  Does anyone out there see the real me?  Some people go though their lives not knowing for sure if they found their niche.  Autism writes that problem on the wall in stark relief, and in that process presents some of us with a niche that finds us.

And, to extrapolate even further, it occurs to me that greatest moments in time are populated with people who nurtured extraordinary gifts in tandem with staggering weaknesses.  There is little room for mediocrity on the lists of Nobel, Pulitzer and in the annals of History.  And yet we strive for children who fit in, for people who meet the established standard of achievement, for uniformity and acquiescence.  To take a small but colorful sample, and because I have just finished reading the real-life potboiler Game Change, I cannot help but think of all of the politicians who are brilliant strategists and personal goofballs.  Bill Clinton is nothing if not a political savant, a Rhodes Scholar who claimed he never inhaled pot, and he joins a group of folks both brilliant and crazy in similar fashion:  Gary Hart (smart enough to change his name but not to stay off the Monkey Business?), Eliot Sptizer (pimp buster and escort service client), John Edwards (populist hero with the Armani labels ripped out of his suit), Mark Sanford (he tried to give back the stimulus money and he gave his wife half a bike for her birthday).  These people are almost autistic in reverse – social skills savants with a startling deficit in linear thinking.  I’m being flip, I know, but my point is that we take great pleasure in parsing the strengths and weaknesses of our public figures, so why aren’t we better at identifying the same things in our kids?  There are parts of autism that need to be managed, even fixed, but what we really need to do is mine the brilliance, harness the energy, bring more tools to the table that allow people with hidden gifts to find them, even if, for some of them, in the end, it just means ending some of their frustration and giving them some peace and happiness in a world that mystifies them.

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