|Temple Grandin and Internal Resources|
|Posted on November 3, 2010|
The two things I reflected on as a parent-child therapist after viewing HBO’s movie on Temple Grandin, a highly accomplished autistic woman, author, teacher, innovator and animal lover, was her internal resources and her relationship with her mother (her relationship with her father is not depicted in movie).
I identify internal resources as: the ability to problem solve, delay gratification, motivate self, emotionally regulate, set-goals, complete tasks, self-discipline and be responsible for self. I believe the development of internal resources is critical for one to actualize their potential even when struggling with a disability or mental health diagnosis. I believe Temple Grandin’s success results from her internal resources, her investment in her own life and her ownership of her Autism diagnosis.
These two points of focus, the parent-child relationship and internal resources, go hand in hand. In my observation as a parent-child therapist, the 2 essential ingredients needed in parenting to instill internal resources in young people are: 1) emotional attunement and 2) behavioral boundaries. With attuning to children’s feelings while still holding behavioral boundaries, parents are teaching kids that it is safe to struggle and allowing them to problem solve, emotionally regulate and navigate their own life.
At least how the relationship is portrayed in the movie, it was clear to me that despite the limited knowledge I imagine her mother, Eustacia, had in 1950 when Temple was diagnosed with Autism, she did not try to remove struggle from Temple’s life. She compassionately held Temple to all the ideals that perhaps a parent of a “normal” child would: to learn to talk, to learn rules and manners, to complete high school, to become educated and go to college, and to pursue her potential. With this, despite many obstacles she faced due to her Autism, Temple learned the necessary life skills to go from one stage in her life to the next.
One of the first scenes in the movie, Temple reveals her learned life skill of greeting others. “Hi, I am Temple Grandin, it is nice to meet you.” This greeting was played over and over because this was her set greeting; she was taught this and it was expected of her despite her social anxiety, discomfort with people, inability to read subtleties, and inability to tolerate loud sounds. With this “skill,” Temple was able to meet the people she needed to help her uncover her potential and gifts. It may sounds small, but this simple social skill of “greeting” others literally and figuratively opened doors for someone with Autism.
Temple struggled greatly in school for 2 reasons: 1) she was a visual thinker 2) she lacked ability to read social cues and was teased, bullied, and misunderstood. People would call her “tape recorder” because she would repeat things over and over. Yet, she is extremely bright and was urged to stick with it. In high school, her mother found an alternative school which worked with gifted and alternative learning styles. There Temple met a teacher, who taught her a critical lesson, “life is about opening new doors and walking through.” For Temple, this was a visual metaphor which was an essential. When she faced the many fears in her life such as socializing with others, applying to college, going through a mechanical door at a grocery store, asserting herself professionally or public speaking, Temple visualized a door and opened it. She added this to her “tool box” for navigating life.
After high school, Temple went to live on her Aunt’s cattle farm in California. There she realized that she could relate to and understand cows in a way the “neurotypical” people did not. She noted that distressed cows relaxed when they were squeezed in a metal grate which was used to still cows when they needed to be inoculated. She could see and feel the muscles in the cow relaxing and their bodies becoming quiet. Temple filed this away in her picture box of memories. One day when something was askew in her room, as small things could set her off, Temple erupted into one of her tantrums. Yet, as she ran around screaming, she was also problem-solving. She ran straight to the metal grate and pulled the walls to squeeze her like it had the cow. With this, Temple relaxed. She soon devised her own “squeeze machine,” to help regulate her emotions. Temple developed another internal resource and put this tool in her toolbox.
After a free-spirited summer spent with cows and away from people, Temple felt happy and alive and was not interested in going back to the East Coast for college. Even her Aunt admitted to the fun they were having and confirmed the merits of the “squeeze machine.” She said Temple could stay, but her mother knew Temple was bright and needed to continue her education and yes, to keep struggling.
Reluctantly, Temple started college and there were many, many bumps along the way, yet she continued to use her intelligence to solve her problems. She would openly talk about her Autism and talk about how she saw the world differently to help “neurotypical” people understand her. She just kept moving forward. She got her BS, her MS, and eventually her Doctorate. She is an innovator of cattle ranch design and professor and one could argue she has actualized her potential.
At a moving moment at the end of the movie, Temple attended one of the first Autism conferences. When she stood up and began to speak, the people thought she was a mother of an Autistic child. Temple said, “No, I am Autistic.” She began to tell the group about why kids can’t tolerate loud noises, and why they spin and rock to soothe themselves, and many in the audience asked how she had become so successful. Temple said, “Well my mother.” “She taught me manners and rules and sent me to school even if I didn’t want to and I just kept opening new doors.”
Asking kids to struggle, to do something hard, even when they themselves have some emotional sensitivity or disability enables kids to keep developing and keep moving forward in life. Parents can’t skip these steps by trying to take away obstacles, removing struggle, and rescuing their kids. Kids need to develop their own internal resources, own their problems and become invested in their own life, regardless of their diagnosis, learning disabilities and other struggles they face. Temple is an inspiration.
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