When I disclose being autistic, a common (and dreaded) question I receive is, “Have you heard of Temple Grandin?” For those of you who do not know Temple Grandin, she is an American animal science professor and public speaker and author, and is widely considered to be the “face” of autism. When many people think of autism or autistic people, they first think of her, which is why many autistic people are asked if they have heard of her. In past social situations when asked about Temple Grandin, I avoided the question or pretended that I haven’t heard of her. In reality, I have strong negative feelings about Grandin, and this may surprise a lot of people, including other autistic people, that look up to her or call her a “hero” or an “inspiration.”
Before I delve into my feelings about Temple Grandin, I will first acknowledge the positive things she has done for the autistic community. When Temple Grandin was growing up, it was still believed that uncaring or unloving mothers, or “refrigerator mothers,” caused autism, and many autistic people were institutionalized, and she had to spend her whole life fighting against discrimination and ableism for speaking publicly about being autistic. Grandin was also undiagnosed in her youth, as many autistic women today still struggle to receive a formal autism diagnosis. She was instead diagnosed with “brain damage” at age two, was not able to speak until age four, and was not able to receive an autism diagnosis until her forties. Autism was heavily pathologized and compared to diseases, and the medical model of disability was prevalent in Grandin’s time (and still is today).
Temple Grandin was among the first of openly autistic people, especially autistic women, who were previously mostly unseen (and unfortunately, are underrepresented to this day). She helped to dispel stereotypes about autistic people, including the misconception that autistic people are incapable of receiving an education, by obtaining a doctorate degree in animal science. She used her education and experience to become an advocate for animal therapy for autistic people, as animals communicate nonverbally, as many autistic people do, and give their owners unconditional love and affection, which can reduce loneliness and encourage social interaction in autistic children and adults. The loving and calming nature of animals can also help to soothe autistic people during a meltdown or when having sensory overload. Grandin’s advocacy led to service and therapy animals being used for autistic people and other disabled people.
In a world that believed refrigerator mothers caused autism, Temple Grandin was ahead of her time. Through her lectures on autism, Temple Grandin worked to spread awareness of autism, which was desperately needed. But the same cannot be said today, when many people are already aware of autism, but still discriminate against autistic people. What we need today is autism acceptance, and this is where Temple Grandin is no longer the progressive and fierce advocate she was in the past.
Temple Grandin’s views about autism and autistic people have not evolved or changed since she spoke about autism decades ago. In this quote from her book, Thinking in Pictures (p.122), Grandin advocates for eugenics of whom she calls “low functioning” autistic people: “In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive.” Grandin uses ableist pathologizing language to speak about autism and still believes functioning labels for autism exist, although they have been removed from the autism diagnostic criteria, and more researchers today are dropping functioning labels. Functioning labels for autistic people divide, invalidate, and stigmatize autistic people, and oversimplify autism. They invalidate “high functioning” autistic people who may not be seen as “autistic enough” to receive services for their needs, and they invalidate “low functioning” autistic people by assuming that they are incompetent if they don’t socially mask or communicate verbally. The autism spectrum is not linear or binary or a sliding scale from low to high functioning, but is a range of needs and ability in executive functioning, verbal and nonverbal communication, motor skills, sensory sensitivity, perception, and social interaction.
As a believer in functioning labels, Temple Grandin believes in preserving “high functioning” autistic traits while eliminating “low functioning” traits through Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and cures and even special diets for autism, such as wheat free and dairy free. ABA is a harmful early intervention that causes PTSD in autistic adults and attempts to eliminate autistic behaviors and replace them with neurotypical behaviors, which causes distress and emotional and psychological harm in autistic children and adults who undergo ABA. The Association for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABAI) even endorsed electric shock therapy at the Judge Rotenberg Center, the only care facility in the United States to use this horrific form of “treatment.” The fact that Temple Grandin divides autistic people into those that should be “preserved” and those that should be “cured” is a very harmful and ableist belief, and this view is damaging to the pro-acceptance and neurodiversity movement.
Temple Grandin also falsely believes that people can become “less autistic” over time, which is why she also advocates for ABA therapy and ridding of autistic behaviors. She has said, “The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic, because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play,” as well as saying that she had become less autistic herself: “I am much less autistic now, compared to when I was young. I remember some behaviors like picking carpet fuzz and watching spinning plates for hours. I didn’t want to be touched. I couldn’t shut out background noise. I didn’t talk until I was about 4 years old. I screamed. I hummed. But as I grew up, I improved.” What Grandin described is not getting “less and less autistic,” or being “less autistic now,” but is social masking, or hiding autistic traits and behaviors from others to avoid societal stigma. This did not make Temple Grandin any less autistic, but it was an attempt to convince others that she wasn’t “as autistic” or as others may view it, “disruptive” as she was in the past. Because autism was mostly unknown and heavily stigmatized in Temple Grandin’s time, she “learned how to behave” from others to avoid being bullied and discriminated against by others who did not understand or accept autism. She “improved” as she calls it, only because she was conditioned to stop stimming as a child (humming, watching spinning plates and picking carpet fuzz), and copied the behaviors of others to replace her own autistic behaviors. This is not “improvement,” and it is sad that Temple Grandin has internalized ableism growing up to believe that it is.
Temple Grandin also looks down on unemployed autistic people and believes that they are “lazy.” She has said, “Young adults with autism need to get their butts out of the house and get a job!” This statement is ableist as well as ignorant and classist, and she needs to be reminded of her own privilege, as she grew up in a wealthy household and was able to afford college, and had the resources to obtain her prestige in society. Many autistic people do not have such privilege and opportunities as Temple Grandin did growing up. In this article, the very first thing Temple Grandin says to this autistic speaker is, “Do you have a job?” as if the amount of work or productivity we have is indicative of our worth. She goes on to say, “Way too many young adults with autism and Asperger’s have never had a job or only make a living speaking on autism without real life work-experience. What type of work do you do at the hospital?” Temple Grandin, who made most of her living speaking about autism, is now invalidating autistic people who make money publicly speaking as she did. If this is not hypocritical, I don’t know what is.
She then tells the autistic speaker, “Since you are autistic and have a career I will come and listen to your breakout session. The other day I met a mom and her sixteen-year-old son with autism. He is verbal and has never gone shopping on his own. I am glad your mom unlike her helped you to be independent not babying you.” Well maybe, Temple Grandin, shopping is overwhelming for some autistic people and not all of us are able to do it on our own. You of all people should know about sensory overload and executive functioning difficulties that can make entering a grocery store and following a list and finding groceries a challenge for many autistic people, speaking or nonspeaking. The combination of harsh florescent lights, dinging cash registers, the loud intercom, the numerous colors and scents, and the sheer amount of people makes grocery stores unaccommodating nightmares for us. I’m a twenty-two year old autistic person, and entering a Walmart and other such stores are sensory hell for me. Also, Temple Grandin, don’t shame autistic people who are not independent, that is ableist. Not all of us can be completely independent and we need places and people to accommodate us, and that is okay.
Temple Grandin also needs to realize that employers actively discriminate against autistic people, especially during the interview process if autistic people do not meet expected social cues, such as giving a firm handshake or eye contact, or not nodding at appropriate times. Many autistic people are afraid of disclosing their autism to employers, due to a risk of them being invalidated or seen differently by their boss and coworkers. And even so called “simple jobs,” such as mowing the lawn or babysitting, require an amount of energy or “spoons” that not every autistic person has. So no Temple Grandin, the high unemployment rate of autistic people is so much more than us “sitting on our butts in the house,” or being lazy, but is a product of ableism and societal discrimination against autistic people, and is what autistic advocates are attempting to change today, and it is a shame that you don’t use your own privilege and voice as a well known and famous autistic person to fight with us.
Among many problematic quotes of Temple Grandin, one that stuck out to me (and one she said recently in 2017), was, “I don’t define myself as autistic first. I don’t want to be a professional autistic. I think it’s important to have a real job.” Temple Grandin doesn’t even consider autism advocacy to be a “real job,” yet that is what she devoted her whole life to. This is likely a product of internalized ableism from what other people told her growing up, that being a speaker about autism was not enough, she had to have a “real profession” or degree attached to it, so she wanted to be known more for her work in animal science than for her work as an autistic advocate. I disagree with Grandin and I myself do want to define myself as autistic first, because this is what helps rid of societal stigma and ableism against autistic people. Autistic advocacy and speaking about autism is too a “real job,” and no one, not even Temple Grandin, can tell me otherwise.
While I will give credit where credit is due for being one of the first openly autistic people and for helping autistic people obtain accommodations such as service and therapy animals, I do not look up to Temple Grandin or call her my “hero” or “inspiration” as other autistic people may do. I don’t need Temple Grandin to be my hero, because there are many autistic advocates and activists, and many of whom are autistic women and nonbinary people, who I look up to and who inspire me to write and speak about autism and help to cultivate a culture of autism acceptance. Just because Temple Grandin is autistic herself, this does not give her a free pass for ableism, and I cannot excuse the harmful and ableist rhetoric that Temple Grandin has spread. If she motivates or inspires other autistic people to speak publicly or to advocate and is a role model for them, then that is great, and more power to them. But Temple Grandin is not my hero, and she won’t be until she changes her ableist views about autistic people.