Temple Grandin movie hints at something polite society avoids

I stayed up all night watching three movies on the plane ride home, one of which was Temple Grandin, an HBO movie starring Clare Danes. Temple Grandin is a scientist at Colorado State University who focuses on the humane treatment of stockyard animals. She is more widely known for also being on the autistic spectrum, showing characteristics of Aspergers Syndrome. Autism, like schizophrenia, used to be widedly seen as a reaction to an unnurturing mother.

The movie begins in 1966 when Temple enters college for the first time and then flashes back and forth through her early life and her growing sense that her Aspergers allowed her greater understanding of the psychology of stockyard cattle. I haven’t read Grandin’s book, so I don’t know how closely the movie followed it, but it is the relationship with her mother that shows that the old view of autism may be making a comeback. This is more a cause for hope, not despair. In one scene in the movie, the doctor giving the original diagnosis of autism, or juvenile schizophrenia, as he called it, when pressed by the mother, said that the origin of autism was thought to be a lack of physical warmth on the part of the mother. The mother replied in words to the effect that she was the same mother to her other child who was fine, but that Temple was unresponsive. Though linking autism to a lack of the maternal mothering instinct has been roundly dismissed in the era of the biochemical brain disease model of the “illness,” lack of physical responsiveness is a childhood clue that someone may develop schizophrenia or autism. Certainly, this was my experience with Chris, and Dr. Abram Hoffer has noted the same kinds of observations from mothers of his patients.

We could conclude that the theory of emotionally distant mothers has been overturned by science, as most of this generation believes. But the movie hints that the emotional bonding connection to autism is valid. It shows this at least two ways. First, the mother (Julia Ormond) definitely comes across as cool. The director could have insisted that the mother be portrayed as palpably warm, the type of mother seen in TV commercials giving out chocolate chip cookies and kissing bruised knees, but instead the mother played it cool. Not that she wasn’t well-intentioned, not that she didn’t love her daughter, but she was educated, rich, and well, cool in demeanor. I’m assuming that Temple Grandin herself had a lot of say in the content of this film and how her mother was portrayed.

The second way of showing that Temple had failed to bond with her mother (it’s a two-way street, of course) is the rather startling way that Temple had of calming herself down when she got violently agitated. She built herself a containment box, just as she had seen in the stockyards to calm down the cattle. Wikipedia describes it below. Note the amusing term “sensory integration dysfunction,” newspeak for mother/child bonding, but trying to make it look like it’s all about the biochemistry.

During Temple’s college years, she conceptualized the squeeze machine, which was designed for herself because she had a sensory integration dysfunction and disliked physical affection by people. The machine hugs both sides of her to calm her down, as she controls the pressure, and it makes her relaxed whenever she becomes tense.

The reason I’m promoting and endorsing, to some degree, this unpopular stereotype of the mother is that the importance of mother/baby bonding has been deliberately sidelined when it comes to understanding and treating autism and schizophrenia. Mothers are understandably sensitive on this issue and, knowing this, pharma has been quick to seize a market opportunity. What have we given up by doing this? Lots. Real help is the most important thing. We are afraid to even look at the family environment, the impact of our ancestors on the present generation, and how we repeat patterns of behavior without even being aware of it. We shouldn’t be so afraid. Confrontation with ourselves can subtly change family dynamics, for the better. There are several psychotherapies that fill the bill in this respect and wonderful sensory integration therapies like the Tomatis Method, that can help the individual flourish in body and mind. But we lose all of that by being overly sensitive to the truth, that mothers (and fathers) do matter in the child’s personal landscape.

Mother/child bonding may be only one contributor to the expression of schizophrenia and autism, but I have noticed that seeking out certain kinds of psychotherapies and body/mind therapies has done Chris a world of good and I get good reports from others about what it did for their relative. Non-pharmaceutical alternatives are a valid avenue to explore. Diet matters, too, though diet is not the focus of this particular post. Temple appeared to exist on yoghurt and green jello. There’s obviously something biochemical going on, that the psychology of nutrition (is there a psychology? there must be!) could address. Many people have reported that their symptoms cleared up or were greatly alleviated by rigorous attention to diet.

This movie may be an example of how the accepted view of schizophrenia and autism over the past fifty years is now changing.

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