March 19 2011: As a child Temple Grandin was labelled brain damaged yet she grew up to become a scientist. Now Claire Danes is playing her in a film

Temple Grandin stands very straight and completely still in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. While other Golden Globe attendees, such as Ricky Gervais and Colin Firth, rush past with excitable entourages, Grandin is alone and oblivious. She moves only to smooth her black tie and stare at her mobile phone. As I watch for a moment I wonder what it might feel like to be Grandin: the most well-known autistic person in America, a brilliant animal scientist and now, a little bizarrely, a Hollywood star.

Grandin is here to support an eponymous HBO film about her astonishing life, which has already won seven Emmies. Born into a wealthy Boston family in 1947, young Temple displays what we now know to be the classic symptoms of autism: she resists being held, even by her mother; stiffens and screams if anyone attempts physical contact; doesn’t talk until well into her third year; and, until a hearing test proves otherwise, is thought to be deaf. She avoids eye contact, has wild tantrums, has no interest in interacting with adults or children and has a tendency to zone out by staring into space or rocking back and forth.

In the late Forties and early Fifties, most psychiatrists had a limited understanding of autism. Grandin is labelled as “brain damaged” and as having “infantile schizophrenia”; a psychiatrist suggests that she be institutionalised because no treatment is available and she will probably never talk. He even suggests that these withdrawn kids have mental disorders as a result of their cold, disinterested “refrigerator mothers”. Eustacia, Grandin’s Harvard-educated mother, is horrified; she has longed to hold her child but has been repeatedly rejected.

Unable to hold her daughter, Eustacia resolves to help her. Dignified, brave and emotional, she disregards advice about sending her daughter to the mental institute in favour of finding a speech therapist to encourage her to talk. She insists that people should treat Temple as “different, not less”. She patiently teaches her to read, constantly bringing her back to reality when she zones out.

Although young Temple is clearly super-bright, teachers struggle to find a way of relating to her frustrations and flashes of anger. “I took a chunk out of my teacher’s thigh in third grade,” she tells me, with what appears to be some relish. Then she frowns. “That was bad . . .” In ninth grade she is thrown out of school for hitting another child and her family decide to enrol her in a small boarding school for gifted students with emotional problems.

Here the science teacher, Mr Carlock, is quick to spot her potential: “He got me turned around. Now I had a reason to study; I wanted to be a scientist.” Even Carlock, however, is stunned by his student’s capacity for visual thinking. As the film captures so well, Grandin thinks not in words, like “neuro-normal” people, but in photo-realistic pictures. Type “shoes” into Google Images and you quickly get the idea of how associative her mind is — if she looks at one pair of shoes her mind presents a superfast slide show of every pair that she has ever seen. Exhausting as this seems, Grandin says it’s simply how she is. “If I don’t have a picture, I don’t have a thought. I think completely in pictures. Words just narrate the images in my head. I can either hold the still pictures in my head or turn them into a video recording — at which point it’s like a full-colour movie, complete with sound.”

Grandin’s life, already given value by her mother and Carlock, changes for ever in the summer she leaves boarding school and turns 19. Her mother, mindful of her love of horses, sends her to her aunt’s ranch in Arizona. Here she develops an affinity with the cattle — the film shows her lying spread-eagled in a field surrounded by cows, a blissful grin on her face — and watches how calm they become in “squeeze chutes”. She stares at the metal stalls that press against the cattle’s sides to steady them for inoculation, visualises the precise dimensions and builds herself a wooden squeeze machine to relieve her desire for, but fear of, being held. “Deep pressure is calming,” she tells me later. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted the nice feeling of being held but could never tolerate it. The squeeze machine worked for me because it was easier to tolerate a sensation I could control.”

Grandin takes the squeeze machine with her to university and sets it up in her room. Her roommate appears and stares, horrified at the sight of Grandin lying calmly in her unusual contraption. As Grandin explains that “it feels like a hug”, the roommate flees. The relentless teasing that Grandin experienced at high school — “ninth grade was one of the worst times of my life; I was called ‘retard’ and ‘workhorse’ because I worked in the barn all the time. It was horrible, absolutely horrible” — continues at university. Yet the sheer force of Grandin’s personality carries her through and, after graduating with a BA in psychology, she goes on to complete a master’s degree and then a doctorate in animal science.

If the story were to end here it would be remarkable enough. But Grandin goes on to become the poster girl for autism and the bestselling author of more than a dozen books. Oliver Sacks, the highly respected neurologist who wrote about Grandin in his 1995 book An Anthropologist on Mars, is unequivocal about her impact. Of her 1986 book Emergence: Labelled Autistic, he wrote: “She provided a glimpse, and indeed a revelation, that there might be people, no less human than ourselves, who constructed their worlds, lived their lives, in almost unimaginably different ways.” In other words, Grandin gave a voice to autism when most people were too scared or bewildered to really talk about it.

Yet Grandin’s day job is not as an autism expert but as a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and as a world-renowned expert on cattle psychology and behaviour. In the Seventies she was smart but also brave, marching into the alpha-male world of cattle-handling and dealing with antipathy that often verged on outright aggression. There’s an unsettling scene in the film in which bull’s testicles are smeared on her car; I mention this and she nods furiously. “Absolutely true. The fact that I was a woman was a big, very difficult thing, very definitely — although not everywhere I worked. Some of the men were open to me being there. Anyway, a few things helped me: I started writing for a cattle magazine and they could see I wrote good, accurate articles. I also started showing them some of my drawings for suggested changes to the cattle-handling systems. It slowly got easier when I got a few things designed. I started to build up a portfolio I could show people. Basically I had to sell my work and not myself.”

She persevered — “my determination is just kind of innate” — and went on to design the humane cattle-handling systems in which half the cattle in North America are now processed. She fiercely believes that slaughterhouses should be transparent about their procedures — she recommends installing glass walls so that visitors can observe — and continues to advise companies such as McDonald’s on animal handling and slaughter. It came as no surprise when Time magazine voted Grandin one of its 100 Most Influential People last year — and featured a photo of her nose-to-nose with a glossy black cow.

Before meeting Grandin, I watch the HBO film and read Thinking in Pictures, the 1995 memoir on which the film is partly based. Temple Grandin is resolutely unsentimental and the central performances — Claire Danes as Temple, Julia Ormond as Eustacia and David Strathairn as Carlock — are perfectly judged. Yet, despite Danes’s unselfconscious and utterly convincing performance as an anxious young Temple struggling to find her place in the world, I don’t know quite what to expect of my meeting with Grandin.

The pre-interview protocol is unlike anything I’ve experienced before: Grandin rings me at home before I leave for Los Angeles and we arrange a time and place to meet. She says that both are subject to last-minute changes but doesn’t explain why. Her voice is odd — loud, urgent, unmodulated. In LA a few days later she does indeed ring several hours before the agreed interview time and asks if I can meet her in the Four Seasons, not in an hour or so, but right now. I abandon lunch and go straight there.

Conscious that Grandin is still wary of human contact, I’m not even sure if I should offer my hand. But she returns a strong, assured shake and I remember that Eustacia always insisted that her daughter shook hands, even if it made her jittery. Leaving behind the circus in the lobby, we stand in the lift, just the two of us, as the strangers we are. Yet Grandin stares — rigorously honest and self-aware in Thinking in Pictures, she knows that she does this, but sometimes forgets not to — and starts to say something about my stripy top but stops abruptly. I wonder if I should admire her red shirt embroidered with cows and bulls or the cattle-head buckle on her belt, but instead I simply smile.

Once in her hotel room Grandin relaxes instantly. Magazines are strewn across the bed: Time, Fortune, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Mysteries of History: Secret Societies and what I assume is a hotel copy of InStyle. A yellow legal pad sticks out of a bag stuffed with academic papers. She sips tap water, scowls and complains that it tastes of swimming pool; the complimentary bottled water, flavoured and sugary, elicits a wince. The Times photographer asks her to pose on the tiny balcony and then the bed and she looks appalled. “I’ll just sit here,” she says, rather sternly, before sitting upright on the edge of an armchair and smiling.

Photos done, Grandin proves to be great company. She has a dry sense of humour and a streak of mischievousness — I didn’t expect either; not so much because of the autism but rather because she’s such a highly regarded academic — and an apparently insatiable enthusiasm for anything related to autism, cattle, neuroscience and facts. “I get bored with conversations that don’t contain information. Social chitchatting for the sake of it I find very boring. But I have taught myself how to chit-chat with someone about the weather.” Her autism is defined, in part, by a directness that can be inappropriate. “And I’m still direct, but I’ve learnt where I can and can’t be direct. I stop myself by thinking logically. What might happen next if I say this or that. It’s logic, logic all the way. It’s why I related to Mr Spock as a pure logical being the minute I saw Star Trek for the first time.”

Grandin has, effectively, learnt how to manage her autism. As well as learning how to make chit-chat, she also forces herself to ask other people questions instead of talking non-stop about herself. Her confidence has improved dramatically, socially and professionally: she ran out of her first lecture before realising that “really, really, really good” slides always help (she tends to be overly emphatic, often using certain words at least three times to make her point). “A lot of people have said to me that my talks are better now than they were when I was 50. An autistic person can keep changing if they keep getting out and doing different things.”

I ask what she makes of Temple Grandin; I imagine the film reminds her of exactly how far she has come. She glances in the mirror and smoothes her hair. She talks even more rapidly than before. “Well, I’ve changed a lot. A lot. They did a very, very nice job, I thought. Watching the film was like going in a real, real weird time machine. I thought, ‘Oh boy, they got inside my head!’ Claire Danes became me in the Sixties and Seventies. I spent half a day with her and she video-taped me talking. Then I gave her all the tapes I could find; I had some ancient tapes from the late Eighties and early Nineties which she transferred on to her iPod and listened to for hours and hours and hours.”

The way she tells it, Grandin has made some relatively simple decisions to ensure a shift away from those painful early years. The first is to not engage in romantic relationships. “Sean Barron and I co-wrote a book called The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships. He was really bummed out that he didn’t have romantic relationships.” She pauses for comic timing. “I’m happy just to be a pure nerd.” Sex might be out, but she enjoys the kind of friendships that once baffled her. “My close friendships usually revolve around some kind of shared interest.” And, one presumes, very little chit-chat.

The second decision was to keep the anxiety that plagued her in her teens and twenties at bay by taking prescription drugs. “Us visual thinkers tend to be anxious. When I entered puberty I became so anxious that I was in a state of hyper vigilance. I was looking for danger all the time. As I went through my twenties it got worse. The movie shows me eating yogurt Jell-O every day: I actually did. Eating yogurt Jell-O for three to ten days at a time was the only way to get the colitis under control. When I started on a course of low-dose antidepressants, the colitis stopped, the headaches stopped. The anxiety and panic attacks eased. I don’t dare come off them now. I’ve seen too many people try and it’s been a mess.”

Grandin says that the difference between the management of autism now and when she was a kid is like “night and day”, simply because of early intervention. But it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to bring up an autistic child — or to be one. She receives dozens of letters and e-mails every day asking for advice and help. “If there’s a phone number I just call them up. Yep, they’re surprised. And if they don’t leave a number, I often refer them to things in my books. I try to respond to everyone, but it’s hard. Making a change in the real world is all that matters to me. A mom might say to me that her kid went to college because of Thinking in Pictures. Or a kid might e-mail to say he’s really motivated to learn even though he’s being teased. That’s the kind of stuff that turns me on.”

Many of the geeks she got along with in the Sixties, when she was in her teens and early twenties, displayed symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome (in other words, were mildly autistic) but never had the condition diagnosed as such. “There is no dividing line between geeks and nerds and mild Asperger’s. It’s a true continuum. It’s like asking when does blue become depression?” She laughs and says that she has to change her indigo jeans for a “better pair of pants” because she’s meeting her mother, who has flown in for the Golden Globes, for dinner.

I wonder how Grandin will deal with the Globes — the noise, the crowds, the chit-chat and the unexpected celebrity that has come with the Emmy success of Temple Grandin. “Ah well, two people on the plane recognised me on my way over from Denver.” She smoothes her tie, stares at me and smiles. “A lot of people look up to me and it’s a responsibility. It’s not easy. I’ve got to be on good behaviour all the time. There’s always a chance someone will take a photo of me being rude at the airport and post it online.”

She said earlier that an autistic person can keep changing if he or she keeps getting out and doing different things, but how does she manage this new public life without the squeeze machine by her side?

She shrugs, but is clearly pleased with herself. “Oh well, it broke down a while back and I didn’t bother to fix it. I’ve been hugging more real people lately.”

The next evening I watch the Golden Globes. When Claire Danes wins a Globe for her portrayal of Temple Grandin she stands up, apparently stunned, as the applause from the audience intensifies. Grandin, standing right next to her in a colourful cowgirl shirt and white tie, awkwardly places a hand on each shoulder and congratulates her. And then, with a huge grin, Grandin suddenly grabs Danes and hugs her really, really tightly. At 63, she is no longer on the outside looking in.

Temple Grandin is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on April 3