Sy Montgomery, Author
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Biography, Apr. 3, 2012
Suitable for: Ages 9 and up, Middle Grade
Themes: Austism Spectrum, Differences are gifts, Revolutionizing livestock industry
Sy Montgomery’s captivating children’s biography about Temple Grandin, speaks to children, especially to those who feel different. It is beautifully crafted and has all the ingredients for a good book with simple chapters, a lot of photographs, informative inserts, and advice for kids with autism. We meet her mother, her lifelong school friends, and teachers. (Depending on the child’s age, parents may want to review the graphic details about the cruelty to animals.) This book belongs in school libraries, as it helps all children understand that abilities may be the result of differences.
For years, Temple, couldn’t speak a word. Loud noise hurt, ordinary sensations were torture, human voices made little sense and the certain odors prevented her from concentrating. Sometimes the only way she could communicate was by crying or throwing a tantrum. Her father wanted to institutionalize her, but her mother refused. It would be years before she was diagnosed with autism, as she was born in 1947, and little was known. But her mother found special schools for Temple with teachers and psychologists who knew how to bring her out. This was surprising, knowing she attended school in the 1950s and 1960s.
Temple saw the world visually — in pictures –much like animals do. And it was animals that eventually saved Temple and helped her learn to calm herself as a teenager. While visiting her aunt’s cattle farm, she would go out into the middle of a spacious pasture, lie down and wait for the thousand-pound steers, to curiously circle around her motionless body. They would walk up and lick Temples face — she was at peace. She was introduced to a cattle chute where calves were vaccinated. The calves heads stick out a hole in the gate head, the operator pulls a rope to press side panel against the animal’s side. It horrified Temple at first, but she observed this squeeze chute calmed the animal. She decided to try it on herself with her aunt helping, and she suddenly felt calm, secure and peaceful. She built a squeeze machine for herself when she returned to school, so she could calm herself. The school psychologist was not happy, but her favorite science teacher supported her. He suggested they build a better squeeze machine and conduct scientific experiments on other students to see it if helped them relax. Success!
These early discoveries and a love for animals were the beginning of a long career studying animal-behavior in college and graduate school, that would open the door to her life work of advocating for more the humane treatment of cattle in the livestock industry. Her breakthrough designs for cruelty-free cattle-handling facilities are used worldwide. These designs have benefited the cattle, ranchers and slaughterhouses. And it was her autism that gave her the special insights and skills to make that difference.
I hope parents with children see possibility in Temple Grandin. She is a strong advocate for autism and works with many young people. Although she has learned coping skills, she has autism like many famous inventors and scientists who changed the world. Temple doesn’t want a brain like most other people have. “A lot of normal people are fuzzy in their thinking,” she says. “I like the way I think. Autism is part of who I am.” Temple uses her experience as an example of the unique contributions that autistic people can make. You see beauty in her autism.
Today, she is a scientist, professor, lecturer, and author of many books. She now focuses on the humane treatment facilities for pigs, sheep, goats and chickens. In 2010, HBO made a TV movie of her life, starring Claire Danes. It won an Emmy.