Person of the Week: Autistic Scientist Temple Grandin Inspires Children, Champions Animals

Woman who stole the show at the Emmys inspired many before hitting small screen.

September 3, 2010, 5:58 PM

September 3, 2010 — -- Temple Grandin stole the spotlight at the Emmys, standing up right in the middle of the awards show again and again, smiling far wider than the Hollywood stars beside her.

Temple is not a movie star, but an HBO biopic about her life has thrust her into the spotlight.

Long before her life made it to the small screen, Temple became an inspiration to so many. She is a renowned scientist, credited with single-handedly improving the lives of cattle. She's also autistic.

"She was one of the first people to challenge these completely absurd and very accepted theories of autism. Autism was meant to be the product of a frigid mother," said actress Claire Danes.

Danes portrays Temple in the HBO film, "Temple Grandin."

Temple was born in 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts. At just three years old, doctors diagnosed her with autism. Her mother, like so many parents at the time, had no idea why her daughter wasn't talking, wasn't smiling and wasn't hugging.

Doctors told Temple's mom, Eustacia Cutler, that a lack of love might be the reason for her daughter's behavior. Doctors said that there must have been a lack of bonding with the mother, that she hadn't given Temple affection when she most needed it.

Temple's mother knew that wasn't true. She refused to give up.

She took her daughter to a neurologist, a speech therapist and later, a private school. Her mother staged an intervention for her child that was unheard of at the time, a move that Temple said changed everything.

"It's absolutely awful mothers went through all that pain. They were blamed for something they didn't cause," Temple said. "You know, autism is a neurological disorder of the brain. It varies from someone who is non-verbal all the way to the geniuses of Silicon Valley. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of early intervention education."

Temple: "My Mind is Like Google Images"

As she grew older, Temple's family would recognize she had a remarkable mind able to catalog images, fixate on moving objects to pick apart how they work.

Then came the summer that changed her life. Temple was 16 years old when her family sent her to visit her aunt's ranch out west in Arizona.

She was able to see in the animals at the ranch what most of us could not. Temple noticed little things, like how a horse's ears moved in the direction they were looking. That scene came to life in the HBO film.

"I love that scene with the horse ears. One of the things that helped me in my work with animals is I'm a visual thinker," Temple said. "The movie did a fantastic job in showing how my mind works visually. My mind is like Google for images."

Temple and those around her treated her unique mind as a gift. At Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, she graduated with honors. She went on to get a Masters and a Doctorate degree in Animal Science.

Temple has authored several books, becoming a champion for the children who have followed her path and the animals she befriended along the way.

One of her books, "Animals in Translation," argues that both autistic people and animals are hypersensitive, a theory that began back on that ranch so many years ago.

Temple's ability to understand animals' feelings helped her create animal welfare guidelines that have become a standard in the meatpacking industry.

And all these years later, after the movie won top honors, Temple bursting with joy hugged the producer. This from the little girl who once didn't hug.

"Oh, absolutely, I was hugging everyone that night," Temple said.

As she stood at the podium, she had a message for that determined mother who is still cheering her on.

"Stand up, ma," Temple said.