Two years ago, Eric and I had an opportunity to see Temple Grandin speak at Old Colony Regional High School in Rochester, MA. A few of the teachers from the South Coast Educational Collaborative had seen her speak and highly recommended going to see her. I’m glad we did.
But if you know me at all, I had to read everything about Temple. Even worse, I watched the HBO movie entitle “Temple Grandin” on top of just about every YouTube video ever posted. I was ready. I had no idea I would leave Old Colony’s gymnasium completely mind-blown.
Let me say this first, for any parent, when you have babysitting, you take advantage of every last second. We dropped the kids early at my mother’s house and headed to Rochester for 10 am. Good thing we arrived 45 minutes early to beat the rush; it was open seating, after all. There wasn’t a single car in the parking lot when we arrived. Eric and I both thought maybe we were supposed to be at Old Rochester Regional…nope…this was it. We went in.
There’s something kind of cool about large gyms that are empty and unlit. We were the first two there with the exception of one other person sitting in the third row. Figuring it would be kind of impudent to snag seats in the front row, we sat behind the person who was already seated. They were bent forward with their head in their hands, obviously deep in thought. We tried to respect their contemplative silence. I can’t ever be quiet. I don’t have it in me. I jibber jabber.
As it turned out, it was Temple Grandin herself sitting in the third row. She stood up, fixed her handkerchief that was tied around her neck and then said, “I’m supposed to introduce myself and then people want to take pictures with me. Take your picture now. I’m Temple Grandin.” I loved it! Stupidly, however, I put my hand on her back when we awkwardly posed for a picture. I could feel her bristle. It’s like taking a picture with Tommy. I know better, I don’t know what I was thinking.
Once the auditorium was packed and the talk began, I quickly realized she scripts. Stick to the script. I didn’t learn much from what Temple Grandin said that morning, but I learned a great deal about how she thinks, scripts, interacts and tries to function in a neurotypical world. There was so much to be learned in this short hour and a half.
The presentation was verbatim per YouTube and I was okay with that. But nothing could have prepared me for the question and answer session after the talk. Temple Grandin, like so many others who are autistic, have great difficulty veering from the script. Her responses to audience questions was nothing short of awesome! I’ll highlight three of my favorite exchanges.
First, a teacher from the Middleborough district stood and asked a question. I can’t remember what that young teacher asked, but even she could not have anticipated getting lit up, I mean flamed, in front of that packed field house. Temple asked her why she wore an “Autism Awareness” t-shirt with “Nichols Middle School” sprawled across the back. I died. Temple went on to explain that wearing t-shirts don’t do anything. Anything. Ms. Grandin went on to ask what the teachers were doing. Gahhh, this was great!!! Tell me what you do, not that you know there’s a problem.
Second, someone I know, I won’t say who, asked Temple Grandin if she had any advice for the siblings of children with autism. Eric, that question was not part of the script. Stick to the script! If only he had watched the movie and all the YouTube clips. Temple did not answer the question, at all. I can’t recall her response, but she demonstrated that she does not have the ability to think flexibly (if you know what I mean) and conversing on the fly is not likely. I know a little boy who is very similar. Eric had been fooled, as were other members of the audience, by Temple Grandin’s ability to talk you through a narrative that is well rehearsed. After that, it’s close to over.
Lastly, I roared laughing when Temple exposed the superintendent of Old Colony Regional by listing all the medications he was currently taking and the dosages. According to Temple, he told her his medical history in the car ride from Logan Airport to her hotel in Raynham. How that comes up in conversation, I’ll never know. That poor gentleman jump up, leapt over three people, and adroitly grabbed the microphone, but to no avail. I already had gasped loudly enough to make folks turn and look at me. Out of complete empathy, I laughed hysterically. In our house, Tommy doesn’t keep secrets. He has no filter, speaks loudly and struggles with boundaries. Trust me, it’s not out of malice. I was glad someone else was eating a piece of that pie, as terrible as that is.
When I left Old Colony that March morning, I was in fact, mind-blown. It was humbling to meet someone who has faced so much adversity yet overcome and accomplished so much in spite of their disability. I haven’t been able to go see Temple Grandin speak again since then, but I intend to. I know the story. As empowering as it is, the greater story is that you experience how hard she works to live in our world while trying to invite you into hers.