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Temple Tantrum: The Passion of Being Autistic and Not Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin and the Autistic Supercrip Narrative

Banner from the Denver Airport Sponsored by Colorado State University. Grandin appears to the side in a red and black patterned western shirt with her hand on a black cow. The text above her photo reads: “The World Needs Unique Perspective. CSU Professor Temple Grand overcame autism to be named one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ by TIME magazine.”

Almost every day I meet another new and fabulous #ActuallyAutistic person. From gifted poets like David James Savarese and Tito Mukhopadhyay; to scholars like Melanie Yergeau, Nick Walker, and Ibby Grace; to activists like Lydia X. Z. Brown and Amy Sequenzia; to journalists like Eric Garcia, I meet new and amazing Autistic people all the time. I’m proud to call all of these people, and many more, friends. And yet… aside from our Autistic experiences, we have at least one other experience in common: stepping out of the shadow of our own Autistic supercrip narrative embodiment, Temple Grandin.

For those not in the know, disability studies scholars refer to some narrative embodiments, life stories, of certain disabled people as “the supercrip narrative.” A supercrip is a disabled person touted by the non-disabled for their perceived extraordinary-ness — often this is their extraordinary ability to be utilized to assuage non-disabled guilt at the exclusion of disabled people from society by cheering for one disabled person who doesn’t make them feel too bad about their contributions to structural, society ableism. It’s true that not every supercrip is complicit with their manipulation; however, it can be difficult to determine the line between appreciation and exploitation, especially for those of us with Autism who find it difficult to determine the motives of other people under normal circumstances.

The supercrip narrative alone has harmful consequences. Each supercrip narrative is also a story of “overcoming.” But what is it that this disabled person, refined and diluted down to a mere symbolic representation of herself, has to overcome throughout the narrative? Well, they’ve always “overcome” their disability. The narrative obscures the societal bigotries, barriers, and prejudices consolidated into outright discrimination that must be faced by disabled people daily. The non-disabled are absolved of all their guilt in reifying societal ableism, all for cheering on one crip. For the price of reading one article, seeing one sign at a Denver airport and nodding approvingly, you too can reach absolution… cheering them on for leaping over the hurdles that you helped put in their way in the first place.

That’s not to say that Grandin, and some in her orbit, haven’t done their own share of damage completely willingly. We are all products of our respective times and cultures, and Grandin is no different. Thus, some of Grandin’s “sage” advice is straight from the 1950s — it reeks of real undercurrents of sexism, racism, unapologetic biases all around, and some of it is just plain bad. For example, Grandin has willing fed into the stereotype that all Autistics are techies — despite counterevidence in her own life as an animal scientist — in her TED talk in 2010 where she surmises that Autistics should be sent to Silicon Valley to “solve the energy crisis.” Even more egregious is an article penned by Eustacia Cutler, her mother, in a 2013 Daily Beast article in which she unfairly and without any substantiation whatsoever links Autistic men with child pornography. (I won’t do it any favors by linking to it here.)

These paranoia-fueled, prejudice fever dreams seeking to rationalize bigotry are nothing new. We see such tactics used against many marginalized communities, and we have for centuries. African American men were often stereotyped as nearly incapable of refraining from raping white women, and LGBTQ people have been accused of universally being pedophiles. It’s as if Ms. Cutler lifted the tactic straight from a page of the How to Do the Most Harm with the Least Reason textbook. And she would not have even had a platform for such malarkey were it not for Grandin’s omnipresent supercrip status.

And that’s the real problem: the repercussions of underrepresentation. However, we must acknowledge the unfair burden of being a supercrip. Sure, it can have its perks — money, fame, and a willing audience. But it also comes at a price. If you’re a supercrip, and I argue that Grandin has become one, people listen to your every word. You will, inevitably, get it wrong. What’s more, people around you may be given a platform to get it wrong from their end, too. It’s not only unwise to elevate Grandin alone, to make her the lone voice of Autism whereby both her accomplishments and mistakes are reproduced and magnified, it’s also unfair to the rest of us.

Until things change, until there’s real and varied representation for Autistic people everywhere, us Autistic folk will have to get used to hearing her name from stranger after stranger. We have already gotten used to being measured, silently, against her example. We are used to being mentally compared, and offered her advice, no matter how out-of-touch, prejudice, or downright wrong. We are used to your use and abuse of her narrative inquiring about why we can’t just shut up and “overcome” our Autism. But the thing that’s hardest for us to overcome is what you think Autism must be, and who we must be along with it.