'Can't You?': Temple Grandin, Montage, and Thinking Styles

Curator's Note

The 2010 HBO film, Temple Grandin, succeeds in demonstrating the different thinking styles of individuals on the autism spectrum. Television and film often sideline characters with autism by focusing on neurotypicals’ reactions to the condition. Examples of autistic characters functioning as catalysts for others' narratives include Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Tommy Westphall in St. Elsewhere, and Jake Bohm in the fantasy-oriented Touch. As we saw earlier this week, even complex characters, like Max Braverman in Parenthood, are viewed through the perspective of neurotypical characters. The audience relates through the ongoing narrative of Max’s parents.

In the last decade, more major characters who are on the autism spectrum have emerged. The explicitly autistic Adam in the eponymous film and the undiagnosed Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory may be viewed with some empathy. Nonetheless, audiences will more likely identify with other more easily relatable (and neurotypical) protagonists.

However, in the biopic Temple Grandin, the main character dominates the narrative, with no supporting character appearing in more than a few scenes. As a result, the audience is forced to identify with both her struggles and successes.

Furthermore, the frequent use of montage conveys the complex differences and strengths of the autistic mind. Through montage, individual shots edited together create new meaning. Temple Grandin uses this technique to convey the visual orientation of people with autism. The repetitive shots of horses and shoes in this clip create a filmic representation of Grandin's thought process, focusing on the advantages of a strong visual memory and the ability to organize and classify.

By creating a visual depiction of her thinking processes, the neurotypical audience comes to better understand Grandin’s perspective. The film’s repeated use of montages and motifs, including doors opening (which transport Grandin metaphorically to her next achievement), serves to create a rapport between the character and the audience and offers a glimpse into her modes of thought. The movie gives Grandin a voice to explain why she feels and behaves as she does.

Temple Grandin succeeds uniquely; any subsequent film that uses the same techniques to explore autism will likely be labeled as derivative. Nonetheless, this film’s use of montage gives us valuable insight about those who think differently.


As the montage here also exemplifies, autistic people often lack the native tendency of neurotypicals to generalize. Most of us hear "shoes" and conceive of a vague or even cartoonish image of shoes (almost like a Platonic ideal of shoes), rather than think of any specific (let alone all specific) pairs of shoes that we have seen. The speed of the montage further demonstrates the "all at onceness" of these images in the ASD mind.

Interesting theme this week! It strikes me that the depiction of the reasoning process of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock has a similar feel to that shown with Grandin's montage. The rapid fire movement from one clue to another with the interpretation flashing on the screen next to the clue as well as scenes when Sherlock is in his "mind attic" moving rapidly through information, sifting and sorting, seems to hold common ground with the clip posted here. Some have even suggested that Sherlock is an Aspie. Another depiction of Asperger's comes in Shah Rukh Khan's film My Name Is Khan. It is one of the rare films where the individual with Asperger's is the lead and remains of central focus throughout the film, driving the entire plot. The character, Rizwan Khan, has his challenges (one of which relates to understanding the larger American culture -- while the film was set in and released in the U.S., it is a Bollywood film and its target audience is Indian, including non-resident Indians), but he also makes a life for himself. I don't know if Khan (the actor) personally knows individuals with Asperger's but I do know he did quite a bit of research into it when preparing for the role. Some people with Asperger's have written that they felt SRK captured the nuances of it well and in a way that matched their own experience; others felt he was presenting more as a high-functioning autistic and that it was thus exaggerated. I suspect the judgements come from calling one's own experience the "right" experience, which, of course, is the problem in ever playing a role as a character with Asperger's -- the particular cluster of traits gets seen as THE prototype rather than just one type amongst many.

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