One of the better modern inventions is the Netflix account. Rent DVDs by mail for a small monthly fee. No running to the video store to avoid a late charge — and no postage to pay on the mailers. You can even sign up for movies you want before they're released. And you can discover TV shows you like without being pummeled by ads.

Through this nifty mechanism, we recently saw the biopic "Temple Grandin," about the animal behaviorist, author and autism activist, who is played beautifully by Clare Danes. I hope readers will check it out for themselves.

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Grandin, diagnosed at around 4 years old as autistic, was deeply attracted to the animals on her aunt's farm, where she spent a number of summers. Her mind was very sharp and she enjoyed science, particularly when she could make practical applications of it. She could remember a scene or a page of print with photographic accuracy, and described herself as thinking in pictures.

However, she had no understanding of social cues, often took metaphors literally and could become extremely upset by what most of us would call trivial changes in her environment (a sign with her name on it falling off her bedroom door when she was an adolescent). Her family loved her, but were often frustrated by not being able to understand her, and by her unpredictable temper.

I was impressed and moved by two things in particular: Grandin's deep belief in herself, which fueled a passionate drive to accomplish her goals, and her ability to make an asset of what others, even those who loved her, regarded as a handicap.

As an adolescent, Grandin identified with the cattle on her aunt's farm, and the movie portrays her as having an intuitive affinity for them. She was also a keen observer, and thought about why the cows behaved as they did. In her book, "Animals in Translation," which I read several years ago, she explains that, like cows, many people with autism are hyperaware of details that non-autistic people don't notice: movement, color, light and shadow. And they may be bothered by small changes in their environment that "normal" people wouldn't pick up. So, in effect, she is able to think like a cow (or a horse, or other farm animal).

This ability was very valuable to Grandin in designing feedlots and humane slaughter systems, and in understanding animal behavior generally.

It's easy to see how confidence, drive and a refusal to give up can be assets — they're all qualities our culture prizes. I find it more difficult to imagine how someone like Grandin — who didn't speak until she was 4, who medical experts thought should be institutionalized, who battled skepticism, cruelty and outright discrimination — how she developed such a powerful belief in herself.

I think a partial answer may lie in the love of her mother and aunt, and the encouragement of her high school science teacher, whom the movie shows as her first mentor.

But she doesn't just overcome autism to achieve what she wants; she excels in her chosen field because of her autism. Talk about playing the hand you're dealt! And eventually her ability to talk lucidly about what she calls "the gift of autism" impels her to become a spokesperson for people with the same gift.

I wonder what hidden gifts I, or you, or anyone walking down the street might have to offer if we looked at our differences, the ways we don't fit in, with new, more compassionate eyes? Could my years of working around anxiety translate into an ability to put others at ease? Could your difference or weakness be transmuted into a strength?

If Temple Grandin is anyone to go by, I think the answer is yes.