Written by Joe Scotchie Friday, 17 December 2010 00:00
The Roslyn Special Education Parent Teacher Association (SEPTA) held one of its most successful events ever as it hosted Eustacia Cutler, author of A Thorn in My Pocket: Temple Grandin’s Mother Tells The Family Story. On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Ms. Cutler lectured on autistic children to an audience of over 150 people, which included parents, teachers, administrators, and therapists.
Since SEPTA, as its name suggests, is an organization dedicated to encouraging children with handicaps such as autism, the talk was of significant importance, not just for the subject matter but for the successful story that the speaker came to relate.
Ms. Cutler gave birth to her daughter, Temple in 1947, at a time when the professional community was divided on the causes of autism and the prospects for its patients. Recalling that as a parent she took a “long, traumatic, complicated journey” in assisting her daughter to achieve a fulfilling life, Ms. Cutler said that the first duty of a parent is to understand the disorder and then to decide what to do about it.
Ms. Cutler admitted that when her daughter’s behavior was troubling, she wanted improvement, while her husband didn’t think that was possible. This, she added, possibly had to do with guilt on the part of a parent. If a child is autistic, then a parent often feels that they are “no good as parents and no good as people.”
During the 1950s, when there was increasing candor about mental illnesses, Ms. Cutler also recalled that many professionals considered autism to be the fault of the parents. Autism, some of them reasoned, was the result of children having “frigid, distant parents,” most likely parents who were involved in highly intellectual professional work. This, Ms. Cutler recalled, was the “refrigerator” theory, with most of the blame directed at the mother of the child.
Ms. Cutler refused to accept such bleak theories. “I bet on Temple’s growth,” she said. She believed progress was possible and was encouraged by several Boston area doctors. First, there was the understanding that autism is not the result of parental indifference, but instead is a neurological disorder that must be treated since it may evolve into a social disorder as well. Autistic children, Ms. Cutler said, must figure out “one moment” and then apply to the next moment. Since people, she added, are fluid progress is not impossible.
Early intervention, Ms. Cutler said, was important as the family hired a nanny who used turn-based games to make Temple more communicative. At a summer camp, a stern Englishwoman enforced a degree of discipline. The local environment, Ms. Cutler said, also aided Temple’s progress tremendously. Temple grew up in Dedham, a town outside of Boston with a population of over 23,000. After summer camp, Temple was allowed to enter kindergarten as a mainstreamed student. In such a classroom, she quickly learned what was expected of her, Ms. Cutler said. Since Dedham was a small town, Temple grew up in one of those tightly knit communities where families knew each other. If children misbehaved, other children would practice the tried and true line, “I’ll tell your mother.” “The neighborhood schools were very helpful,” Ms. Cutler said, adding they were more beneficial than a special education program.
“That small inclusive neighborhood held children to a pattern of behavior,” Ms. Cutler said. “We need to figure out ways to duplicate that today.”
Mostly, Ms. Cutler came to Roslyn to tell a success story. Temple eventually earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D in animal science. Today, she is professor of animal science at Colorado State University. One of the most effective and sought-after spokespersons for autism in America, Temple has authored or co-authored several books, including those about her personal journey and her professional interests. In 2009 alone, she published The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Aspergers and Animals Make Us Human: Creating The Best Life for Animals. This year, Temple’s story achieved national attention with the release of Temple Grandin, an HBO film starring Claire Danes, one that earned five Emmy awards, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Best Actress In a Drama.
“I love the way Temple has changed,” Ms. Cutler said. “The other day, she said, ‘the older I get, the less autistic I will be.’” The main goal, Ms. Cutler emphasized, is fulfillment. “Temple is as fulfilled as she would like to be,” Ms. Cutler said. “Real hope is not wishful thinking.” It comes, she said, through memory, hard work, courage and a sense of “you-me negotiations.”
SEPTA officials were delighted with Ms. Cutler’s presentation.
“This was the most dynamic and inspirational events that Roslyn SEPTA has ever had,” said Sandi Greenfield, SEPTA president. “Our school district was so honored to have Eustacia Cutler come to speak for us. We had 150 people attend. As a mother of a child with autism, it was so inspiring to meet her and listen to her words of wisdom. It was an amazing day.”