Celebrities with Special Needs- Part 1

Special needs refer to the individual requirements of a person with a mental, emotional, or physical disability.  People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Down Syndrome, dyslexia, blindness, mental illness, or cystic fibrosis, for example, may be considered to have special needs. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders gives guidelines for clinical diagnosis. 

There are famous people with special needs in nearly every sector of sports, entertainment, politics, and academia. In fact, some of the most brilliant thinkers and artists of our time were diagnosed with special needs, and they’ve gone on to do great things in spite of the odds against them. In this series, we will discuss inspiring celebrities with special needs who won the respect and admiration of millions of people.

In Part 1, we will discuss Temple Grandin, an American doctor of animal science, college professor, bestselling author, autism activist, and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior. Part 2 will cover Catherine Zeta-Jones and her battle with manic depression and activism to increase awareness about the disorder. Part 3 will discuss Chris Burke, an actor and Goodwill Ambassador of the American Down Syndrome Society (NDSS).

 Part 1: Temple Grandin:

“I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out, so I would just scream.”  – Temple Grandin

Mary “Temple” Grandin was born in Boston on August 29, 1947. At the age of 2, Grandin was diagnosed with autism (now called “Autism Spectrum Disorder” or “ASD”), considered a form of brain damage at the time. Grandin’s mother, who was initially blamed by physicians for her daughter’s condition, worked tirelessly to find the best care and instruction for her daughter. Her treatments included extensive speech therapy, which helped to draw out and reinforce Grandin’s communicative abilities.

At age four, Grandin began talking. Throughout elementary school, she had supportive teachers and mentors to help her learn and thrive to the best of her abilities. However, Grandin has said that middle and high school were the worst parts of her life. She was the “nerdy kid” with verbal tics whom everyone teased. At times, while she walked down the street, people would taunt her by saying “tape recorder,” because she would repeat things over and over again. Grandin states that “I could laugh about it now, but back then it really hurt.” To cope with the stress she felt as an autistic teenager, Grandin designed a “squeeze machine” (or “hug” machine). It was based on the containers used to pacify cattle during immunizations. She found that the structure had a significant therapeutic benefit, helping her to manage her anxiety. Similar machines are still currently used as therapy for Autistic children and those with sensory disorders.

Despite her social difficulties and ASD, Grandin achieved considerable academic success. She earned a degree in psychology from Franklin Pierce College in 1970, followed by a master’s degree in animal science from Arizona State University and a doctoral degree in animal science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She then worked as a consultant to companies with large animal slaughterhouse operations, advising them on ways of improving the quality of life of their cattle.

Grandin became nationally known after appearing in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars, the title of which is derived from Grandin’s description of how she feels in social settings. By that time, she had already made a name for herself in autism advocacy. Grandin first spoke publicly about autism in the 1980s, at the request of one of the founders of the Autism Society of America and since has appeared at many speaking engagements about the disorder.

As a high-functioning autistic person, Grandin has been able to make sense of and articulate her unusual life experiences with rare depth. In her books, she has described her hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory stimuli. She is a primarily visual thinker who considers verbal communication to be a secondary skill, which can make social situations difficult. Grandin also has an extreme sensitivity to detail and environmental change, which she credits for her insight into the minds of cattle and domesticated animals.
Personally, Grandin has cited her lack of interest in emotional issues and relationships, including fictional representations of interpersonal relationships. She is unmarried and has no children.

In her writing, particularly her memoir Thinking in Pictures, Grandin explains the ways in which autism shapes her daily life. She wears soft and comfortable clothes to balance her sensory integration dysfunction, and avoids sensory overload at all costs.

Grandin has taken strong positions on autism and the education of autistic children. She advocates early intervention, including the training of teachers to direct each child’s specific fixations. She argues that her contributions to the field of animal welfare would not have been possible without the insights and sensitivities that are a consequence of her autism.

Grandin has been recognized by the academic community and the general public for her work. In 2009, she was named a fellow of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. She is the recipient of several honorary degrees, and has been featured on a range of television and radio programs.

In 2010, HBO released a film entitled Temple Grandin, starring actress Claire Danes. (Watch video about movie.) The movie received 15 Emmy Award nominations and won five, including outstanding made for television movie and best actress in a drama (Danes). Grandin appeared on stage during the ceremony, making her own brief remarks to the crowd. Danes also won a Golden Globe for her role in Temple Grandin.

Grandin regularly takes anti-depressants, but no longer uses the squeeze-box (hug machine) that she invented at the age of 18 as a form of stress relief therapy, stating in February 2010 that: “It broke two years ago, and I never got around to fixing it. I’m into hugging people now.”

Do you or a family member have special needs? Twenty million American families have at least one member with special needs.  Parents of those with special needs are tasked with planning for their children throughout their lifetime, as many of them will outlive their parents but might not be able to support themselves and live independently.

As a parent or guardian, you want to ensure that your child with special needs will remain financially secure even when you are no longer there to provide support.  A Special Needs Trust is a vehicle that provides assets from which a disabled person can maintain his or her quality of life, while still remaining eligible for needs-based programs that will cover basic health and living expenses. We invite you to make an appointment for a consultation with The Fairfax Elder Law Firm of Evan H. Farr P.C. to learn more about special needs planning.


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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.