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 Manpremiered (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.


Arky, B. (2012, February 7). Extremely loud and incredibly familiar: Autism advocates embrace the movie, slam critics who disparage the hero. Retrieved from

Autism in the movies. (n.d.). IMDb. Retrieved from

Is Rain Man such a bad image of autism? (n.d.). Retrieved from

Kinder, M. (n.d.). Interacting with autism. Retrieved from

Levy, J. (2002, February 4). “I am Sam,” a film that gets it, finally. Retrieved from


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