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How Temple Grandin Can Change Sunday School

June 8, 2010

I seldom watch movies and I do not subscribe to HBO.  So it seemed a bit of divine providence that I was recently held captive on a cross-country plane ride at the same time the HBO produced film, “Temple Grandin”, was offered as an in-flight movie choice.  Somewhere over and between Tennessee and Nevada I laughed, learned, and cried watching one of the best films I have ever seen (true, it may not be saying much for a person who rarely makes it to the movies).

Temple Grandin is the true story of a quirky and fascinating young woman’s unusual and almost magical ability to understand cattle.   Grandin’s gift for deciphering the language and predicting the movement of a cow would ultimately lead to her genius design of a more efficient and humane way of handling cattle.  Her contributions to cattle farming are in effect today on ranches all over America, including those run by fast food companies like McDonald’s.  Currently Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University and carries an influential voice as a consultant in the meat processing and animal science industries.

The movie’s star actress, Claire Danes, brilliantly captures the endearing, prickly and oftentimes unintentionally entertaining character of Temple Grandin.  What makes Grandin extraordinary is the way she channels her unusual way of thinking, and what most of us would perceive as a neurological curse, as the means to developing a solution that would become a breakthrough practice in her professional industry.  Grandin was diagnosed with autism after her fourth birthday, when she had yet to begin speaking.  The movie gives the audience the opportunity to sympathize and understand Grandin’s unconventional behavior and innate needs:

  • Grandin’s “bizarre” desire to experience full body pressure and her invention of a body-hugging machine;
  • The piercing and almost paralyzing sounds she experiences in simple everyday life, such as from the clank of silverware while washing dishes;
  • The seemingly benign interactions that would  prompt violent behavior in Grandin (especially when she was young), sometimes hurting innocent bystanders;
  • Grandin’s discomfort and challenges in engaging in light-hearted small-talk.

The movie takes the audience inside the mind of a person with autism while evoking feelings of compassion, empathy, admiration, and respect.  In just under two hours I felt like I understood certain aspects of autism better than ever before, and without reading the sometimes dry content of a scholarly article or education publication (which I do occasionally read).  I think this movie should be a recommended part of every church’s special needs training program for lay volunteers, especially those lacking exposure to individuals with neurological or developmental differences.

In the meantime, not every children’s ministry volunteer is called to serve children with autism, or any other special needs diagnosis.  And that is okay!  (Romans 12:4 – 6:Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”  NIV).  However every children’s ministry worker can be a cheerleader to a child with special needs and to the other volunteers who are called to advance the spiritual development of that child. The movie depicts numerous people in Temple Grandin’s life who served as unintentional obstacles on Grandin’s journey to personal and industry successes.  Understandably, family, friends, educators and co-workers failed to appreciate Grandin’s differences and often unconventional behavior.  Where this movie may be most helpful is by promoting its viewing among children’s ministry volunteers who serve in the typical environments where children with special needs are included.  While typical setting volunteers may not always work one on one with the Temple Grandins of this world, the movie may provide a better appreciation for any child exhibiting unusual sensory needs or failing to conform to the expected conduct.  For many children with special needs, removing the obstacles of attitudes may be the greatest step toward successful church inclusion.

For the New York Times review of movie “Temple Grandin” see

P.S.  August 30th update:  Congratulations Claire Danes on the Emmy!

Like this post or any of its content?  See the blog entry Rules for Repost

Amy Fenton Lee

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