nonfiction nuggets…about one incredible woman whose profound gift is — autism

temple grandin how the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world cover imageTemple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World, by Sy Montgomery

As a little baby, she would not make eye contact.  As a pre-schooler, she did not speak.  As a child, she twirled in circles hour after hour in order to blur the physical pain she experienced from sounds, scents, sights that most people would barely notice.  Her father vehemently insisted she be sent to a mental institution, but her mother — oh, blessed woman! — advocated fiercely for her, then watched her soar to extraordinary heights.  Today, Temple Grandin “is arguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world.”

When I saw that Sy Montgomery, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, had written an account of Temple Grandin’s life, I was incredibly eager to get my hands on it.  Happily, it’s all I’d hoped it would be, and more.  I LOVED this book and am enthusiastically recommending it for anyone ages 11 and up.  There is so much food for thought here, on such a range of subjects.

temple grandin and sy montgomery

Temple Grandin and Sy Montgomery

With her characteristically remarkable clarity, readability, and thoroughness, Montgomery gives us the story of Grandin’s early years, her development within the stormy world of autism, her education at schools both considerate and painful, her range of teachers — some unable to see her potential, a few who stand out as gems of insightful helpfulness in her life.  We read of Grandin’s pathway into the world she has revolutionized, that of providing humane structures and methods of treating animals in the livestock industry.

Along the way, we learn an incredible amount of fascinating information about autism, education, livestock, stockyards, slaughterhouses — that is an uncommon mixture, isn’t it?

grazing cows by Lisa McCrory of Earthwise Farm and Forest

Montgomery helps us feel the overwhelming sensations experienced by a person with autism, the pain of an incredibly intelligent mind that is misunderstood and minimized by those without autism,  the joy of discovering one’s niche in the world, the beauty of those folks who amend their understanding to make room for brain development and function that is outside of their experience, the grim horrors of animal mistreatment , the brutal actions Temple endured as she made inroads into an all-male industry.  [Warning: Some of the descriptions of the abusive treatment of animals and harrassment of Temple Grandin may be too disturbing for young children. Please use discretion.] Above all, we become acquainted with this uncommonly intelligent, strong, insightful person who has made such stellar reforms in the livestock industry, and hopefully in our understanding of the profound gift factory farm chickensthat learning differences can be.

While not taking away from the importance of Temple Grandin’s life-work among animals, Iwill say that I was profoundly glad to see the degree to which Montgomery engages autism and questions how we consider those whose minds are not average.  It is very troubling to me how as a society we long for innovators, for those who think outside the box as adults, yet struggle to affirm the very traits in children — including different developmental timetables and ways of thinking — that are often precursors of ingenuity. We label children “learning disabled” who are often extremely keen, apt learners.  We are surprised when they demonstrate brilliant capacities despite their “disability”, when in fact, as Thomas Armstrong argues, their adroitness arises because of the differences in the way they think.   Thus, this book raises for me many issues I feel passionate about.

Questions like:

What if differences in minds were seen as positive?

What if innovative thought-processing was viewed as positively at age 7 as it is at age 37?

What if standardization goals were subordinate to the nurturing of an individual’s unique mind and talents?

temple grandin

What if thousands of people like Temple Grandin are being bruised by our false suppositions?  What riches does our world lose by this?

What if, for starters, we ditch the term “learning disability” and use a term such as “learning difference” or “distinct learning style”?

Of course, Grandin and Montgomery also force us to think deeply about other grievous issues related to cruelty to livestock.  It seems impossible to me to read this book without being completely distressed over the treatment of these animals and pondering how we can play a small part in pressing for change.

As I say, I loved this book.  I’m tremendously grateful to Sy Montgomery for her excellence in research and writing, and to Temple Grandin for her life-long courage.  Highly recommended.

Here’s the Amazon link:  Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

For another wonderful story about learning differences, accessible to younger children, check out The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco, which I reviewed here.