Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So simple, an autistic can understand it

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching the film Temple Grandin. It is based on the real-life experiences of a woman diagnosed with autism at a time when it was considered practically a psychosis. Rather than have her institutionalized, Temple’s mother insisted on doing everything she could to give her daughter a normal life. While her family and mentors eventually realize that there is no “normal” for people like Temple, they do enable her to become a successful professional and a world leader in not one, but two entirely different fields.
I like the movie for a number of reasons.

First of all, the movie almost stands alone as inspirational where most sources on autism offer heaps of pessimism. Having a daughter with autism, you can bet I appreciate that. Also, through Temple’s hyper-literal and often naïve point-of-view, some very profound observations are made. Her experiences offer some of profound revelations as well.

My favorite scenes revolve around Temple’s design of a revolutionary curved corral and dip vat for cattle. A reporter from a prominent trade magazine wishes to see the new system in action, but cannot come to the official unveiling, so a private demonstration is arranged a day early. The cattle are released into the corral and the process—one that typically involves lots of pushing and prodding—works perfectly without a single handler present. The reporter is duly impressed and promises a glowing article, which he later delivers.
The next day, the handlers arrive and see the newfangled corral for the first time. It is unlike anything they have ever seen; they don’t understand it. They are used to prodding stubborn cattle through straight chutes, not cows that compliantly walk through curved passages on their own. (Earlier in the film, Temple notes that cows have a natural tendency to move in circles, which she later exploits in her design. But at the moment, she is chided for making such an obvious remark.) So the handlers dismiss it. Without even trying it first, they pull apart Temple’s design, make their own alterations so that it more closely resembles what they are used to, and go about haranguing the cattle.

By the time Temple arrives, several cattle have been drowned in the dip and the remainder is hopelessly backed up in the dismantled corral. Upon seeing her, the men set upon Temple, blaming her and her design for the failure. Gratifyingly, Temple throws the failure back in the faces of the men, angry that they tampered with her design and calling them stupid. Her full vindication comes in the fact that her designs are now widely used at livestock handling facilities around the world. All from a girl that the experts would have seen in an institution!

Of course, me being me, I have to draw a larger analogy. Whenever you turn on the news, it seems another failure is declared: the free market, the justice system, religion, democracy itself, even the climate! It seems like everything is falling apart. But are we really surrounded by endemic system failures? Or have these systems been misunderstood and taken apart?

Our supposedly free market is actually highly regulated. Unenforced laws are bolstered by additional laws which also go unenforced. Religious beliefs are besmirched by those who claim them but don’t follow them. Democracy isn't even our system of government. And the climate is too complex to reasonably claim a full understanding of it.

Temple Grandin’s profound ideas were simply the result of observing the natural way of things. That is exactly the approach taken by our Founding Fathers in framing the Constitution. As James Madison said in Federalist № 51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. … It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

Just like the cowboys who couldn’t understand Temple’s corral, today’s experts and leaders routinely tear apart perfectly fine systems, fitting them to their own preconceived notions. When they don’t work, they declare them failures. But the real fault lies in their limited perceptions.

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