Welcome to the sixth and penultimate part of the Autism Awareness Week series, touching on various aspects of autism in the hope that people walk away feeling a little more aware… either that or satisfied that we’re not mathematical lunatics.
When it comes to demonstrating autism to people, you always have the difficulty of painting a picture of the condition without generalizing it. A problem shared with cinema.
When films are not bringing classic superheroes to life or showing robots beating each other into submission, they can be practical loudspeakers for a number of pivotal issues. That may seem perplexing, but let’s be honest; how many people have had their knowledge of people and history enriched from ‘seeing it in a film’? As someone who has taken 72% of their general knowledge from cinema, I can attest to that.
But even if a film depicts autism, does it depict it correctly? This is a question we shall be looking to find out, glancing at some of the most significant portrayals of the autism spectrum in cinema.
Now, I imagine we have to start with perhaps the most significant portrayal of autism: Rain Man. Released during a time when autism awareness was still on the rise, Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award-winning performance as Raymond Babbit was nothing short of masterful, capitalizing on a lot of the key traits of autism (the social difficulties) the positives (mathematical aptitude). However, these traits depict autism on the more extreme side of the spectrum, with many of the traits going hand-in-hand with savant syndrome (prodigious brain capacity despite developmental difficulties). At times, you feel like you’re watching a condition, not necessarily a character. I myself remember seeing the film for the first time as a teenager and once I’d gotten over the emotionality of seeing my own traits displayed in front of me, I found myself thinking, “That guy really likes K-Mart underwear.”
But because Rain Man was, at the time, one of the only autistic portrayals, and to this day, remains the most notable, a lot of people seem to latch onto Rain Man as a stereotype, failing to realize that the condition is far more varied than that.
After Rain Man, cinema delivered us a string of portrayals that played up the notion of autistics as socially incapable human calculators in films such as the 1997 sci-fi horror Cube and the 1998 action thriller Mercury Rising.
Notably, as the nineties turned into the noughties, a contrast became more evident. More high-profile films like Rain Man and Mercury Rising played the anti-social counter angle, with autistic people thrust into OTT scenarios, beyond your typical day-to-day life (yes, I consider a road trip a little OTT. I feel dull). And yet, when you look at the more low-key independent films that had limited releases and weren’t known to wide audiences (the type of films you wouldn’t normally see decorating HMV), they tended to go for a more… homely portrayal of autism.
They focused on the day-to-day aspects of autism, living with their conditions on a regular basis, which made them much more relatable.
Key examples include Mozart and the Whale, starring Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell. This film emphasizes that not every autistic comes pre-packaged with pre-determined traits. Everyone is affected differently. Josh Hartnett’s character Donald, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, runs a support group for people on the spectrum who are affected more severely. He enters into a relationship with fellow Aspie, Isabelle (Radha Mitchell), where their personalities clash, on account of both having separate preferences for routine and day-to-day living (ironically, the film is loosely based on real-life couple Jerry and Mary Newport). It may be a little-known film, but it is crucial in demonstrating the diversity of autism in individuals.
Autistic people need relationships, just like normal people. Granted, we may not be able to express ourselves like everyone else and sometimes, trying to forge a connection can feel like a treadmill workout, but we all need them, a point fantastically touched upon in the 2006 drama Snow Cake, another brilliant, criminally-underseen film, featuring Sigourney Weaver and the late Alan Rickman. Weaver plays an autistic woman unable to comprehend the loss of her daughter, while Alan Rickman plays a British tourist who befriends her. The film is very much a down-to-earth portrayal of autism, and Weaver had clearly done her research into the condition, depicting a character taking refuge in playful routines such as sparkly balls and trampolines. (come on, who doesn’t love a trampoline!), while her bluntless proves for some comical moments, “If you try to touch me, I will shoot you. I have a gun.” Intriguingly, Rickman chose not to research autism, making his reactions to Weaver’s perplexities completely genuine. Weaver’s character Linda had a positive relationship with her daughter, best illustrated when Rickman’s character refers to Weaver’s daughter as ‘not just any daughter, one who would have helped her make sense of all this’. Even if we’re all comfortable in our own routines, autistic people need those conduits in those lives.
Sometimes, it’s not enough for us to be ourselves. As we dive into the social stratosphere, even if the outside world appears to us as a sea of sharks (not literally, life is not a Jaws scenario), a part of us does yearn to forge meaningful connections with people and overcome our social barriers, best illustrated in one of the best films to feature autism in recent memory is the 2014 British drama X+Y (released in the US as A Brilliant Young Mind for some reason, it’s not like people are going to confuse it with X-Men). Starring Asa Butterfield as autistic maths prodigy Nathan, given the chance to compete in a prestigious maths competition. Yes, the film does revisit the whole ‘autism+maths=brainbox’, but it takes viewers on an emotional tour on comprehending typical emotions and developing social skills. It also shows the struggles of an autistic person’s loved ones, such as Nathan’s mother (Sally Hawkins) who feels unloved by her son as he refuses to open up either to her or for her. For any parent who has tried to understand their autistic children, the film is a difficult eye-opener, but ultimately a rewarding, life-affirming one, nonetheless.
Autism portrayals are certainly improving. The biggest balance has always been between showing individual people, but getting across points people can relate to. And it seems to be coming along. Filmmakers are putting as much emphasis into depicting characters as they are into depicting conditions. Portrayals are increasingly self-aware of the stereotypes that come with autism and are taking steps to show varied portrayals. The Accountant (my review of which can be found here: https://hiddentalent643.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/the-accountant-film-review/) can be seen as a crossing point, representing both the best and the clichéd of autism portrayals, playing up certain stereotypes while crafting individual characters.
I have seen many films featuring autism, but I will never see one that depicts the definitive portrayal of autism. Because if the definitive autistic doesn’t exist, then neither does the definitive autism portrayal. The best cinema can do is give a portrayal that is true to the condition and true to people on the spectrum.
If you have enjoyed this blog, check out the other articles in the Autism Awareness Week series!