This biography of the famous autistic scientist Temple Grandin is educational and entertaining. Claire Danes's acting is remarkable and the direction gives a good visual indication of how her mind works. The move is 108 minutes and in that time shows Grandin's childhood, her different perspective on the world, her sensitivity to sounds, the prejudice she experienced from people who did not understand her, and her creativity and persistence. The DVD comes with a commentary with Jackson, writer Christopher Monger and Grandin, and this shows that she was very involved in the making of the movie and she is very appreciative of how well it showed her life. Most remarkable are the sequences that show how her mind associates on a range of images when someone mentions an idea. For example, when a man tells her she is a cowboy, she gets many images of different cowboys she has seen, and that's what her understanding of cowboys amounts to. She has a very precise understanding of some geometry and this is shown by her directly seeing angles and shapes in her mind when she is thinking that way. This is a valuable resource as a way to help people understand high functioning autistic people and the problems they face.
What is confusing about the case of Grandin is that while she is autistic, and so she lacks empathy for other people, she has a great deal of empathy for animals. She has difficulty understanding human emotions but she has better understanding of the feelings of cows and horses than most other people do. If autistic people are "mind blind," it is hard to understand why Grandin is so attuned to the feelings of animals. But it is clear from the story that she is so attuned and she is able to work on creating better conditions for them using her exceptional ability to imagine their minds. She says that her mind is more like that of animals because she thinks purely in pictures, but then it is not clear what the relation is between these pictures and the emotional state of the animals. Does she have direct empathy with the emotions of cattle or is her understanding of their discomfort more intellectual? The movie and Grandin's remarks on the commentary leave it hard to tell. Either way, she seems to have a far better understanding than nearly anyone else. This particular ability of Grandin is one of the things that makes her so unusual, and this film brings this out well.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York