Every day at school, she dreaded the sound: the loud, deep ring of the school bell. The janitor rang it at the end of each class: CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! Most kids were happy to hear it — but for Temple Grandin, the ringing of the bell hurt like a dentist's drill hitting a nerve. She covered her ears, but she could still hear it. There was no escape.
For Temple, ordinary sensations could be torture. The grip of a stretchy wool hat pulled over her ears made her head feel like it was caught in a vise. New socks and underwear scratched like sandpaper. Wearing a stiff petticoat beneath her church dress on Sunday felt like needles stabbing her skin. Sometimes it felt as if her senses were on fire.
If a teacher wore strong perfume, Temple couldn't even think. The odor drowned out the meaning of the writing on the blackboard, overwhelmed the sound of the teacher's voice. Human voices themselves made little sense when Temple was small: although some noises were painfully loud, words were terribly unclear. If somebody said, "Joe walked to school" she heard only, "oh ah ool." The adults around her sounded as if they were speaking gibberish. Sometimes the only way she could communicate was to throw a temper tantrum. She would howl her frustration wordlessly, break things, flap her hands, and cry.
Nobody — least of all Temple herself — understood what was wrong.
* * *
Almost from the start, Temple's mother knew that her first child was different. Most babies love to be cuddled, but Temple would stiffen and pull away from her mother's arms. Most children look with special interest into people's faces, particularly the eyes. Temple wouldn't meet another's gaze. And while most toddlers begin to talk around age two, Temple didn't speak at all.
Temple's mother loved her. But Temple was a difficult child to love. love them.
She didn't laugh. She didn't smile when tickled. She didn't hug her mother or father or hold out her arms to be picked up. At age two and three and even four, she never said, "I love you, Mommy."
Rather than play, Temple drew on the walls with pencils and crayons. She peed on the floor. Instead of playing with cardboard puzzles, she chewed them up and spat them out. Temple didn't speak until she was five — and even then, her words came out in spasms, not sentences. She might blurt out a word like "ice" or "mine" or "no," but only when she was upset. Most of the time, nobody understood what Temple was saying. No one understood what she was feeling. And nobody could guess what — and some wondered even if —she was thinking. Her own father thought Temple was retarded. He wanted to send her away to live in a mental hospital.
Temple is now in her sixties, but she still remembers the frustrations she felt as a child. She recalls one day in kindergarten when the teacher was showing the class how to sort words according to their first letter. In a workbook with pictures, the teacher asked the students to mark the objects whose names began with a B. The book had pictures of a suitcase, a birdbath, a chair ... By that time, Temple knew the alphabet, and she went right to work. She recognized the pictures immediately and began to sort them in her mind. The suitcase was what her parents packed when they traveled — a bag, or baggage — so Temple marked that picture with a B. The birdbath was shown in a flowery garden, so that surely belonged with the Gs. Temple was pleased with her answers.
But the teacher marked almost all of Temple's answers wrong. Temple couldn't explain what she'd been thinking. She knew she was right. The word "baggage" really started with the letter B, and "garden" really did begin with G! Temple had a good mind. In fact, she was quite brilliant, though no one realized it then. Her mind didn't work the way most people's minds do.
When she was three, Temple was diagnosed with autism (AW-tizm), a disorder of the brain that is still poorly understood. Autism affects people in different ways. For some people with autism, words never make sense. Some never learn to speak, never make friends, never come to understand the world as anything but one painful, random event after another. Others, whose autism is milder, may be nerdy, geeky kids who grow up to make computers in Silicon Valley. Many are very bright, but their skills are uneven.
Like most children with autism, Temple felt assaulted by her own sensory system. Her ears and eyes and nose worked fine, but the information carried to her brain was distorted. Sounds were too loud, scents too strong, words garbled. Sometimes a bright light or a whirring fan was physically painful. She loved flapping flags, but the sight of one was so engrossing, she found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
To escape the painful noises, confusing words, and overwhelming sensations, Temple would twirl. Many kids like to twirl in circles, but Temple would twirl for hours on end. She would also spin coins and jar lids and watch them for hours. By retreating into her own world, she could screen out the confusion around her.
In a sandbox or at the beach, Temple loved to dribble sand through her fingers. She would watch the way the sand dropped through her hands, absorbed completely in the beauty of each grain. She noticed and remembered every detail: the sizes, colors, shapes, the way the light made some grains into beautiful, gleaming gems, and others into glinting shards of gold or silver.
Temple saw almost everything in exceptionally rich detail. She could recall every image almost as if it were a photograph or a movie. When she thought, her mind would run a videotape of images. Each image was specific — not a generic representation or an idea, but the exact image of a thing or event that she had once seen. When she thought, there were no words. Words were difficult and strange. Temple thought entirely in pictures. She still does to this day.
Most of us think mainly in words or ideas. The pictures in our minds tend to be fuzzy. Quick: What color are your best friend's eyes? How many windows are on the front of your school? Do you have freckles on your face? Without looking, can you remember how many? Where are they?
When you hear the words "church steeple," you probably see in your mind a sort of general, tall white pointy structure on the roof of a house of worship. But when Temple thinks "church steeple," she sees a series of specific pictures: the steeple on St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Dedham, Massachusetts, where she grew up; the one with a giant cross in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she now lives and teaches at the university; an odd, round steeple at another church in the same town; a square one made of cinderblocks painted white, with green trim on the slanted louvers, where the church bell hangs. (Temple calls that church "Our Lady of the Louvers.") On and on the pictures go, like a computer search of images projected rapidly inside her head: a succession of real, individual church steeples, in complete and accurate detail.
As a child, and even after she became an adult, Temple didn't realize that most people don't think this way. But her ability to think in pictures, along with the unusual way her autistic brain handled sounds, sights, and feelings, would turn Temple Grandin into an international hero to both people and animals.
Temple, her family, and teachers worked hard to overcome her problems with words. She learned to speak so well that she now travels around the world and lectures in front of thousands of people. She has written more than four hundred articles and ten books. She has outgrown some of the pain of loud high-pitched noises, scratchy fabrics, and distracting lights, and she has learned how to cope with the discomforts that remain. And thanks to lots of hard work, the baby who wouldn't let her own mother hug her has grown up to be warm and friendly in her own way.
But Temple's story is about far more than overcoming a disability. Temple's life shows us the courage and creativity of a person who found the blessings of autism — the blessings of a different kind of brain that, along with its challenges, may also bring extraordinary gifts.
Excerpted from Temple Grandin by Sy Montgomery Copyright © 2012 by Sy Montgomery. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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