For those who, like me, saw the film during middle school and rarely mingled with special-education peers, Dustin Hoffman's protagonist seemed like both a medical anomaly and a screenwriter's concoction — we marveled at the split-second math skills and the "Who's on First?" memorization as much as we empathized with his plight.
Years later, as an education reporter for the Daily Pilot, I got a real-world introduction to autism. I attended a school district panel discussion in which a well-spoken young man talked about his filmmaking career. He had completed a documentary on fireworks and had gotten a job as a cameraman for a Costa Mesa insurance company — no small achievements for anyone.
It was only afterward, speaking with the filmmaker's family, that I learned Tyler Norman was autistic. I wrote a profile of him over the coming months, and he told me remarkable stories about how he trained himself to communicate, listen to directions and ignore classmates' taunting.
The revelation I came away with was not only that autism takes many forms, but that I could easily stand in line with an autistic person at the store and not even realize it. It's that simple truth, in part, that inspired the HB Reads committee to select Temple Grandin's "Emergence: Labeled Autistic" as Huntington Beach's citywide book selection for 2012.
HB Reads, for those unfamiliar, is an annual program in which people across Huntington Beach read a book about diversity and human rights. The first four years, the committee chose selections that spotlighted racial or geographical groups: "Three Cups of Tea," about Central Asian schoolchildren; "The Kids from Nowhere," about rural Alaskans; "They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky," about Sudan's Lost Boys; and "Barefoot Heart," about Mexican-American migrant workers.
For this year, the group focused on a minority group of a different kind. "Emergence," which Grandin first published in 1986, details her childhood at a time when autism was little understood by the general public and her years of painstaking adjustment as a teenager and young adult.
Grandin may be well-known as a woman who triumphed over autism, but her life story is about more than overcoming disability. Much of "Emergence" follows the start of her career as an animal scientist, which actually stemmed from her condition. As a child, Grandin found that she could relax her nerves by fitting in a squeeze device used to calm cattle, and she later designed livestock-handling equipment that led to more humane treatment in the fast-food industry.
Like past HB Reads authors, Grandin will address students and community members March 21 and 22 at the Huntington Beach High School gym. Before then, the program will offer film screenings, children's events and more; visit http://www.hbreads.org for a full schedule.
"She's just an amazing person," said Fred Provencher, the chairman of HB Reads. "We're looking forward to having her here."
After reading "Emergence," so am I.
City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at email@example.com.