Lights, Camera ... Autism

It is estimated that almost three million individuals in the United States have autism spectrum disorder. With this all-time high prevalence rate, pop culture has embraced the disorder and often tries to portray it in feature films and other media. According the largest online database of information related to films and television programs, IMDb, 42 movie titles alone revolve around the theme of autism spectrum disorders.

But do these films portray ASD appropriately?  

One of the more popular films depicting the world of ASD is Berry Levinson’s  Rain Man . Now almost a classic, this film follows character Charlie Babbitt played by actor Tom Cruise as he travels cross-country with his autistic brother, Raymond, played by actor Dustin Hoffman. Charlie Babbitt is upset when he discovers that his late father left $3 million to an unknown individual. It appears that this unknown individual is Raymond, the institutionalized autistic brother that Charlie didn't know he had. The brothers begin a journey cross-country to Los Angeles to meet with Charlie’s attorneys and, along the way, come to understand one another. The film has won 27 awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Dustin Hoffman) at the Academy Awards in 1989.

Over the years, many have argued that Dustin Hoffman’s performance is a perfect depiction of what autism looks like – Raymond is portrayed as obsessive/compulsive, fearful, with minimal interest in people. All these are symptoms of autism in varying degrees. Yet, Raymond also depicts mental traits that are widely viewed as inaccurate in the autism community (“Is  Rain Man  such a bad image of autism ? ,” n.d.).

For example, the film sets up incorrect expectations for individuals with ASD because Hoffman’s character exhibits exceptional skill and brilliance in mathematics and memory. Sure, many on the autism spectrum exhibit exceptional skills and abilities in certain areas, however that is not true for everybody, especially not to that degree and, therefore, was viewed as a very misleading stereotype for individuals with ASD when  Rain Man premiered (Kinder, n.d.). Many moviegoers walked away with the impression that everybody with ASD is a savant and that all savants have ASD.

The 2011 film  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close  directed by Stephen Daldry follows a young boy, Oskar, who is believed to have high-functioning autism. After his father is killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar sets out on a quest through New York City to find the lock to a mysterious key left behind by his father.

Although it is mentioned in the film that Oskar’s screening for Asperger Syndrome was “inconclusive,” his constant commentary, social difficulties, severe anxiety, and overwhelming sensory issues all point toward an autism spectrum disorder (Arky, 2012). According to the director, despite the lack of a diagnosis, he wanted to portray Asperger's realistically, and according to many parents of children with Asperger’s Syndrome, Daldry “nailed” it.

Nevertheless, many reviewers were quick to write about the negative qualities of Oskar’s character. For example,  The New York Times ' Manohla Dargis proclaimed that in real life, Oskar "would be one of those children who inspire some adults to coo and cluck while reminding others of how grateful they are to be child-free." Mick LaSalle of the  San Francisco Chronicle  called the character "creepy," "weird," "snappish," and "superior" (Arky, 2012). This low tolerance for people who exhibit this kind of behavior upset many autism advocates.

Another film that spotlighted ASD hit theaters nationwide in January of 2002.  I Am Sam  directed by Jessie Nelson tells the emotional story of an autistic man whose life changes drastically when he is left to care for his daughter. Actor Sean Penn plays the character of Sam, whose disability gets him caught up in a custody battle for his daughter, Lucy, played by actress Dakota Fanning. Despite the loving and caring environment Sam provides for Lucy, she is taken away because of his limitations.

Many critics believed that this film accurately represented an individual with this type of disability and what he would be like in today’s society. Character Sam was not seen as a misfit such as Raymond in  Rain Man  or Oskar in  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close  but as somebody who, despite his disability, had sense of inclusion in society. For example, throughout the film, Sam is shown holding a job, socializing and eagerly taking part in the world around him. This pleased the autism community because finally a character with ASD was depicted in a positive light (Levy, 2002).

These are just three examples of how ASD has been portrayed by Hollywood. Because autism is a broad disability, families who have a member on the spectrum can relate to some depictions better than others. There are many more films that deal with the subject of ASD in some way, and, depending on the circumstances of those watching, these films are seen as reflecting an accurate depiction of the disorder or not. Thus, whether these films are based on actual events or are entirely fictional, they may have a connection to the audience.

References

Arky, B. (2012, February 7).  Extremely loud and incredibly familiar: Autism advocates embrace the movie, slam critics who disparage the hero . Retrieved from  http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2012-2-7-extremely-loud-incredibly-close-autism

Autism in the movies. (n.d.).  IMDb . Retrieved from  http://www.imdb.com/list/ls000099343/

Is  Rain Man  such a bad image of autism?  (n.d.). Retrieved from  http://debatewise.org/debates/1159-is-rain-man-such-a-bad-image-of-autism/

Kinder, M. (n.d.).  Interacting with autism . Retrieved from http://www.interactingwithautism.com/section/understanding/media/representations/details/38

Levy, J. (2002, February 4).  “I am Sam,” a film that gets it, finally . Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2002/feb/04/entertainment/et-levy4

Tags:

About Us

AAPC Publishing is dedicated to providing practical, research-based solutions and promoting autism awareness through books for individuals with autism spectrum and related disorders across the lifespan. “We take findings and translate them into common sense tools and solutions for our readers. You can pick up any of our books and use the information immediately. The contents of our books and other materials are readily accessible to teachers, parents, and professionals,” Keith Myles, PhD, AAPC president. AAPC Publishing has been providing affordable, easy to use and easy to implement books about autism spectrum and related disorders for over 15 years. AAPC Publishing is the result of a decision to self-publish Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments by Brenda Smith Myles, PhD, a leader in autism research. Publishing high quality, inexpensive books for family members, professionals, and individuals on the spectrum continues to be the driving force behind AAPC Publishing. AAPC Publishing is one of the leading autism publishing companies in the world with more than 200 books about autism spectrum and related disorders. As the rate of autism diagnosis continues to grow, AAPC Publishing will continue to meet the needs of the field by offering books with practical, research-based solutions.

Subscribe

Media

Media

Documents & Links