Why Temple Grandin is Not My Hero

Image description: Temple Grandin sits next to a quote in her book, Thinking in Pictures p. 122 that states, “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.” This quote is incredibly ableist as it advocates for eugenics and uses outdated functioning labels that stigmatize autistic people. This is only one of her many problematic quotes, and just one reason why I don’t look up to her.

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. 

17 thoughts on “Why Temple Grandin is Not My Hero

  1. This is an excellent article. I especially appreciate how you dissect several dangerous beliefs and common myths about autism through quotations from “hero.” This is exactly the kind of thinking that’s going to change the world, challenging widely held beliefs. I’m going to be using it in my Introduction to special education class this semester, which I have revised (again) mightily this summer through more of a lens ND and Autism advocacy. Temple Grandin, like all of us, is a product of her experiences. Instead of feeling angry at her ableist beliefs, consider compassion. She grew up surrounded by such powerful ableist beliefs that a brilliant woman was convinced to believe them about herself. She’s literally saying, “I’m disordered, something is wrong with me, I need fixing.” Life is hard enough trying to function in a world designed by and for NTs without believing ableist beliefs about yourself? I imagine her trying to fit in, change, mask, mimic…. How intense was her anxiety and self-hate that she was motivated to mask so well?

    Yes, she’s just like all of us. No hero. Just another Autistic girl, living in an ableist NT world. Everyone is a hero – Fighting their own fight.

    From my perspective, I think, is there anything more ironic (or awful) than an Autistic constantly being followed by the media? The picture snapping, badgering by journalists. Crowds, bright lights, loud noise, flashing cameras. Her life must be torture. my heart races just thinking about it. She’s been exploited by the media, simply a product of her time and experiences like all of us.

    When we know better, we do better (well, most of us anyway 😒). Thanks for sharing your thinking on this. I really enjoy your writing style. It’s entertaining, easy to read, but highly thoughtful and nuanced. I learn something new every paragraph.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Honey, we all got it hard. The additional reason Temple Grandin angers me is that when made aware of the changes in thought about autism, she has fought it with a very neurotypical degree of hubris and ego. She is part of the medical establishment which pathologizes autistic experience and existence. We can honor her past contributions and be angry about how she now misleads Americans about autism. To pat her on her head and say “Poor, Temple” is the extraordinarily ableist c

      Liked by 2 people

    2. actually in her book she talks about how before going on meds she had constant panic attacks (probably at least partially due to constantly masking).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I found an article about what to wear during job interviews from The Art of Manliness. I liked how the article made it easy to follow. Hopefully, it can improve our employment rates. Even the little details count in terms of our outfits. Our clothing style communicates so much that we should look sharp even if it says casual dress code. I view it as an investment.

    Social skills are also functional, and dressing for success works! That means remembering to dress for success during follow-ups, job applications, and meetings with recruiters!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Okay, I apologise, Han-Lin. Because you previously provided no context and your comment is unrelated to the subject of the article, it looks a lot like spam.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That Grandin quote is taken badly out of context. She was arguing IN FAVOR of neurodiversity. Please, read her book and see for yourself instead of listening to some blogger.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Who are you kidding? True Neurodiversity accepts everyone on the neurodiversity spectrum, not just those who obviously have something to contribute to the world. Iknowith an intellectual disability who has never done much since I met him other than claim people are from areas they’re not and obsess about them being ‘German’, but do I think it would have been better if his severe intellectual disability had been prevented, resulting in him never having been born? HELL, NO! I might be the one saying this, but I’m far more of a Neurodiversity advocate than Temple Grandin could ever be.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This saddens me so much! Why do we find it completely okay to be so critical
    Of her??? So she is not your hero, so she said things you don’t agree with, that’s fine, but leave her alone. It’s like a child on the play ground. Wouldnt we teach our children, if you don’t like someone, that’s okay, but let’s not say unkind things and then promote that hatefulness by sharing it all over Facebook. Can anyone imagine how she may feel? Do we even care? How can we teach others to be accepting of our children and then act like this!!??? I may not agree with everything she says, but I would never be so critical of her. Coming on! What if Temple were your daughter? Make you point, that’s fine, leave her out of it. Choose kindness!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. To pat Temple Grandin on the head and say she is not responsible for continuing education in her chosen field is ableist and ageist. She has not revised her views despite research and having these things introduced to her. I have met her and she is the embodiment of professional hubris and ego.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Temple comes from extreme privilege which, unfortunately, for most of the rest of us autistics, isn’t part of our experience. No, we have no sympathy for her. Her views are both dated and incorrect. She seeks and gets profit and accolades for her autism – she profits from it. And is she using these funds and her privilege to help other autistis? No, she is using them for her own ego and profit while damaging the rights of other autistics. Why should I feel sorry for her? What is there to feel sorry for exactly?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In an ideal world, the scientist should find the best methods of helping all autistic people in this normative world, regardless of perceived level of severity, actually, Temple.
    Did I also mention that the ‘good doctor’ totally eschews the use of Person Centred Language, using so-called Person First about everybody on the autism spectrum despite the fact that most of us hate it?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this article. I’ve referred to Grandin a few times in my own blog, but in more positive terms. However, I did mention last time that I don’t agree with everything she says, and that she is a product of her time and upbringing, and has some outdated social ideas. I think she can still be seen as an inspirational figure in some ways – perhaps for some young autistic people who worry they’ll never be able to get a job or make friends, etc. But you are right to point out the flaws in her opinions and behaviours.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This blog is the first time I’ve ever seen an autistic person criticize Grandin and I must say, you make excellent points in this article. I really liked listening to her talks when I first got diagnosed, but the more I looked into neurodiversity, the more something just felt off about her talks. I’m glad I’m not the only one with this opinion. I just have one question: Did you mean to criticize every treatment that Grandin is promoting? In the good segment, you only mention how she spread awareness of autism and in your criticism the only advice of hers that is touched upon is ABA. I might be wrong, but it seems to me like besides her support of ABA, some of her advice leans a lot more towards accomodation than modification of autistic people. For example, softening the effects of auditory sensory overload by having the child be in control of the problematic sound such as a vacuum cleaner.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really appreciate your spelling-out of the problematic areas of Temple Grandin’s ideology, and the many links you provided to your sources.

    Like

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