In my 2013 novel Rogue, my autistic protagonist Kiara receives a copy of Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation from a family friend. Reading the first chapter, she recognizes herself in Grandin’s stories about her childhood, and even though she is horrified to learn that Grandin was sent to a boarding school for teens with emotional disabilities (a possibility for Kiara as well) she continues reading because “if Temple Grandin wrote a book, she must have turned out all right.”
Even before my diagnosis on the autism spectrum as an adult, I knew about Grandin, her work with animals, and her life with autism via Oliver Sacks’s 1993 article in The New Yorker, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” I recognized pieces of myself in this scientist who revolutionized the treatment of farm animals before going public as an autistic person. She took a big risk to do so. Would people be less likely to hire her or take her seriously? But autism is so much of who she is and how she has been able to see the world from the perspective of the animals that she has devoted her life to studying.
I also hesitated before coming out as autistic. I worried that, because I have had trouble connecting emotionally to other people, my books would not connect emotionally with my readers. Or people in the industry would see me as “difficult” in the same way that Grandin spoke too honestly about some concerns she had about an animal handling team and lost her first job as a result.
Being asked to write Temple Grandin’s biography for the acclaimed She Persisted series was a supreme honor for me. Not only had I known about her work for almost three decades, I had also met her in person shortly after Rogue was published, when she was touring to promote her own book The Autistic Brain. That year was a hard one for me; stung by some harsh reviews for Rogue, I questioned my abilities and whether I belonged in this profession. Grandin’s advice, “When you’re a weird geek, you’ve got to learn to sell your work,” resonated with me. I may not have the interpersonal skills, charisma, or clout to get people to buy my books, but I can raise the quality of my writing, so people pay attention to what I can offer them rather than who I am.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Temple Grandin, 2013
Writing a biography, especially one for young readers, means selecting the most important episodes to include. The episodes I include may not necessarily be the ones another writer would include. In fact, I read several biographies of Grandin by neurotypical authors as well as her own books that contain a wealth of autobiographical details. The episodes I chose were the ones that meant the most to me as an autistic person.
That does not mean these scenes had to do with specifically with autism. Quite the contrary!
The principle of “When you’re a weird geek, you’ve got to learn to sell your work” was at the forefront as I wrote. Young animal lovers will appreciate She Persisted: Temple Grandin because I spend a lot of time on how she faced being the only woman on animal handling teams – and took sweet revenge on the men who tried to drive her away! Being attuned to inconsistencies between words and actions, I addressed how she could facilitate the slaughter of animals for food if she cared for and respected these creatures so much. (She explains this eloquently and convincingly in her own work.) I describe how she went “through the back door” when the established ways of breaking into her chosen profession were closed to her, and the collection of hats and conference badges she has amassed from her grateful clients and colleagues. I have my own collection of conference badges as well as mugs and sweatshirts from schools I have visited to talk about my books.
What gives a biography heart is the personal connection the author makes with the subject. While I only met Temple Grandin once for a brief moment – long enough for her to sign The Autistic Brain – her life and work have inspired and guided me. Autism is central to who she is and how she sees the world, and her perspective is unique, fresh, and important. It’s what has brought her to the pinnacle of her profession and changed the lives of non-human animals as well as us human ones. As an autistic writer with a particular interest in human rights, I follow in her footsteps.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann is an author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers as well as a translator of children’s books from Portuguese and Spanish to English. Her biography She Persisted: Temple Grandin will come out from Philomel on April 5, 2022. She is the author of three more books due out in 2022. Her middle grade verse novel Moonwalking, co-authored with Zetta Elliott and featuring an autistic boy newly arrived in Brooklyn in 1982, will be published by FSG on April 12. Her biography of 15 women directors, Film Makers, co-authored with Tanisia Tee Moore, will launch on August 16 from Chicago Review Press. On November 1, Carolrhoda Lab will publish her YA historical novel Torch, which portrays an autistic teenager in communist Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion.