Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Meeting Temple Grandin


temple grandin aged 9 with her mother and younger siblings

temple grandin aged 9 with her mother and younger siblings

When Nobody Nowhere was about to be published in 1991, I was terrified. So I wrote to Temple Grandin as the only published autistic author before me. It was written by a ghost writer, Margaret Scariano in liason with her and titled Emergence: Labeled Autistic. It was with a therapy book publisher and not yet in mainstream – though it was rewritten in 1991 and published in the mainstream in 1996). I got a form letter from her minders.

By 1995 I had two bestsellers, four published books, was starting out as an autism consultant, and an international public speaker. It was a good year for Temple too. She had just had Thinking In Pictures published and Oliver Sachs had just launched her in the mainstream through his chapter about her in An Anthropologist on Mars. So when Temple Grandin and I met on the talk circuit in 1995, we now met as two celebrated public speakers and authors.

It was just about the most ludicrous meeting of two people with autism you can imagine. Temple’s publisher at that time, Future Horizons, hosted not only lectures but ‘Meet The Speaker’ sessions. They had picked up the rights to my first poetry book (since lost those rights which are now held by Jessica Kingsley Publishers). It was all about marketing. Audience members paid separate fees for each. These sessions struck me as being like an ‘Autism Circus’, a ‘Human Zoo’. I found them bizarre, like Lord Greystoke (Tarzan) being shown off at a dinner party.

Temple and I had done our talks at the Florida conference. I was told I had to attend the Meet The Speakers session. It was about marketing. Audience members paid separate fees for each. They had picked up the rights to my first poetry book (since lost those rights which are now held by Jessica Kingsley Publishers). Temple was by now used to these, but I was certainly was not.

I arrived to a large hall which ironically felt more like a resembled a cattle shed to me, and inside it were a large, looming, milling, chatting crowd. Glasses in hand, hand shaking, back patting and torrents of endless blah. Amidst the crowd, mingling, was Temple, 14 years older than me, taller, broader, with a booming monotone. I was just over five foot tall, a twig of a thing whose voice went to a near Selectively Mute whisper when socially confronted.

My visual perceptual fragmentation took in a scene from hell full of disembodies hands, faces, legs. My meaning deaf ears took in the unfiltered clutter of what sounded like an army of frenetic chickens. Temple saw me and made her way over to meet the new kid on the block and fellow author. Hands were touching me, faces blahing, people gushing. I felt in danger of striking myself or slapping out. I felt I was going to vomit or scream. Temple was blahing and her loud words mingling into the auditory mess of the crowd around us. I said ‘sorry, gotta go’ and headed out of the hall.

Out in the foyer it was quieter, few people, some long tables covered in white cloth awaiting food. People followed me out, they had paid for their meet and greet so seemed determined to pursue it. Temple came out with them. I climbed onto the long white table and sat cross legged in the middle of it like a human wedding cake. People gathered around the table as if this was ‘normal’. Temple was among them, determined to continue chatting with me. Not sure if I called her up onto the table with me, but eventually climb up upon it she did (all those years with cattle, she was willing to go with the animals 😉 and there we sat, the tall, lanky, cowgirl with the booming monotone, and me the twiggy, socially avoidant skittish cat. “If only we had a Cone of Silence“, I said at Temple, drawing on a line from the 60s sit com, Get Smart. She was good enough company and at least she didn’t try and shake my hand.

I wrote to Temple when she claimed all Facilitated Communication was fraud as I knew several people for whom FC was essential and who had progressed through it to independent typing. I wrote to her re visual thinking and how those with severe visual agnosias may be wrongly deemed ‘retarded’ if they are presumed visual thinkers yet fail in every way to work with PECS etc. I wrote to her re her belief all with autism required more stimulation and how those with Exposure Anxiety required small doses as they lived in chronic self protection responses and this worsened when relentlessly pursued. I wrote to her when she spoke publicly that those with Williams Syndrome (a form of autism) were all mentally retarded. I also called her number, but it would go through to an answer message. It may well be a number that is just for that purpose. She never replied. Maybe I was a Thorn in her Pocket 😉

I found the most reliable way to get dialogue with Temple is for me to present alternative perspectives on the lecture circuit or via blogs or books and ultimately Temple eventually acknowledges the public presence of views that run counter to her own. But it is certainly slower than snail mail. Usually 1-2 yrs after I lecture or blog publicly on these issues she’d alter her public line or revise her last book, often taking some account to what I was putting out there.

And yet, for all our lack of contact as colleagues, we still got along just fine at the conferences we’ve both been speakers at. The last time was in 2002 at the International Autism Expo held in Melbourne. We were again at the same dinner table that evening, around 6-10 of us seated there, including Wendy Lawson. I had to take space breaks because with language processing disorder there’s very poor filtering of incoming auditory stuff so I needed silence to avoid my nervous system going into panic. I was exiting every 20 min or so from the animated enthusiastic discussions at the table when I bumped the drinks from the waitress’s tray next to me. Glass crashed on the floor and I was triggered into PTSD. I began to pick up the chunks of glass and next thing voices and hands converged on me increasing the disorientation. Seems Temple, me and dinner parties make for unusual encounters. Maybe that’s why she’s never replied to me. I would certainly be glad to interview her, but maybe she’d just rather climb onto a table with me under a Cone of Silence 🙂 and who’d blame her.

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.