Autism Movies for Winter Break
Holiday breaks and chilly winter days are great for movie lovers. While the rest of the year may be hectic, many of us find ourselves with some down time this time of year, and a movie provides the perfect diversion.
I decided to review just a few autism movies that span several decades with an eye toward how autism is presented in film. I could have reviewed more than four movies. A major weakness of my study is that I did not select autism movies randomly. Instead I picked four that have had a palpable impact on our culture’s perception of autism. These movies are easy to rent or buy, so that you can catch them while you are still on vacation or on short notice when the weather turns nasty.
“Rain Man” stars Tom Cruise as Charlie Babbitt and Dustin Hoffman as Raymond, Charlie’s autistic brother. Charlie only discovers his brother after their father’s death, when Charlie learns that Raymond is to inherit all of their father’s vast wealth.
Charlie tracks Raymond down at the Walbrook Institute. What ensues amounts to a road trip of sorts. Charlie kidnaps Raymond from Walbrook in a complex plot to bring Raymond to Charlie’s hometown of Los Angeles, where Charlie thinks he can pull legal strings to take over Raymond’s inheritance.
The movie won four Oscars, including Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, and was widely acclaimed as inspirational and ground-breaking. The character Raymond is loosely based on the real Kim Peek, a savant discovered at a disability conference by Barry Morrow, a screenwriter looking for a good story. Movies with autistic characters existed before the debut of “Rain Man” in 1988, but this was the first time America was introduced to an autistic adult in a widespread way.
Dustin Hoffman does a superb job portraying Raymond and the autistic world in which he lives. Raymond, a savant capable of memorizing thick books he will never truly understand, is otherwise completely incapacitated. He lives out his life isolated from his community—even from his own family—and is cared for around the clock like a child. The movie suggests that this is necessary both for Raymond and for society; an incident involving Charlie's safety as an infant prompted Raymond’s transfer to an institution.
This movie raises many thought-provoking questions that will give you plenty to talk about. Do we still view autistic adults as needing to be sheltered from society and vice-versa? “Rain Man” increased the public’s understanding of autistic adults, but perhaps gave a stereotyped view—only a few of us are savants. The hope is always that movies like these increase the public’s compassion and dedication to the most vulnerable amongst us. As you watch, ask yourself just how close are we to the goal of full community integration? How has our understanding of disability, and our understanding of autism, changed since the late 1980s?
Flash forward more than a decade and we are invited into the lives of a bunch of autistic adults living in Phoenix. Specifically, “Mozart and the Whale” explores the emerging relationship between Donald (Josh Hartnett) and Isabelle (Radha Mitchell), loosely based on the real-life couple Jerry and Mary Newport, and their friendships with other autistic adults who come to a local support group meeting.
In direct contrast to “Rain Man,” this movie shows autistic adults living life in society. Jerry Newport explains in interviews and at autism conferences that “Rain Man” allowed for the discovery of his own autism and motivated him to develop the Phoenix-area support group. Though not without a range of difficulties and mishaps, the adults portrayed in “Mozart and the Whale”—supposedly character composites based on actual people—are holding down jobs, renting apartments, taking buses, sharing dinner with each other, attending a Halloween party, and falling in and out of love.
Interestingly, reaction to “Mozart and the Whale” is often incredulity: Truly autistic adults could never function so well, the logic goes. Some viewers walk away feeling that the cast of characters do indeed represent the full spectrum of autism, and that the movie accurately portrays the vocational challenges, sensory issues, and relationship complications so prevalent on the autism spectrum. But others feel the movie does not provide a just representation of life as an autistic adult. Whether you find the plot thin or romantic, whether you find the characters valid or lacking in authenticity, the movie begs us to analyze how much has changed since 1988. Raymond simply would not have had access to such a wide range of experiences. What the adults on the autism spectrum do in this movie—essentially, form a community of their own—would have been unfathomable 17 years earlier. A provocative shift in thinking, perhaps more than great art, is this movie’s gift.
A full 22 years after we met Raymond, a television biopic of Temple Grandin’s life pulls our thinking about autism a full 360 degrees. Claire Danes portrays the real Grandin as adeptly as Dustin Hoffman portrayed the fictional Raymond, for which she also received an award (an Emmy). The viewer is again invited into the world of autism. What is unique about this movie is that, for the first time, viewers are also invited to understand this world. Whether Grandin is figuring out social dynamics by testing sliding doors at the supermarket, or seeing a stockyard from a cow’s perspective, at last how autistic people think and feel is given expression.
Some viewers wish the movie covered in greater detail her transformation from a disordered child who could not speak into a world-renowned animal scientist. Whatever the movie lacks chronologically is more than made up for by how well the movie captures Grandin’s unique understanding of the world and her struggle to live in it. Again, like the adults in “Mozart and the Whale,” she lives with her family or in the community, attends school, goes to college, and builds a decent life for herself with the support of her family, peers, and professors. An added bonus is that viewers can glimpse her valor as a woman in a male-dominated field, and her strength as an autistic woman in an autism community that is also still quite focused on the experiences of autistic men.
Critics say that this movie puts the burden and the blame for autism back onto parents: It is somehow the parents’ fault if an autistic child does not turn out to be as functional and gifted as Grandin. Others feel that the movie serves to demonstrate what can happen when someone is given a chance. In either case, the movie made me wonder about Raymond. How much of his total and almost infantile dependence was a reflection of low expectations and lack of opportunity? Would the adults in “Mozart and the Whale” live isolated lives like Raymond if our attitudes had not begun to shift dramatically sometime in the 1990s? And what is society’s comfort level with imperfection? Perhaps the critics of “Temple Grandin” have a grain of the truth—not all autistic adults can get a Ph.D. and single-handedly change the meat processing industry. But maybe that is not a problem. Maybe the brillance of “Temple Grandin" as a movie is the suggestion that, when given the chance, autistic adults can be as imperfect as everyone else.
Landing squarely in cinemas this year was the oddly titled “Wretches and Jabberers,” a documentary about Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, two autistic adults from the United States who embark on a global tour to raise awareness about autism, communication, and dignity. Yet again the portrayal of autism shifts completely.
Unlike Grandin, Thresher and Bissonnette do not speak. They did not go to college. They lived in and out of institutions in their youths. Thresher is homeless and has meltdowns in hotel lobbies. Bissonnette has obvious cognitive issues but finds relief in his art. Everyone presumed that these men had no, or very little, inner life. That is, until they were given the controversial intervention termed Facilitated Communication. Now, both men communicate by typing—sometimes independently, sometimes with a little assistance from Harvey Lavoy and Pascal Cheng, their teachers, coaches, and fellow travelers.
One can watch “Rain Man” and wonder if perhaps Raymond’s life at Walbrook isn’t that bad, considering Raymond’s challenges, and one can watch “Mozart and the Whale” and “Temple Grandin” and think that at least this cohort of autistic adults deserves a chance at life in the community because they do speak, take public transportation, live in apartments, study at college, produce works of art or music or science, and befriend and even marry one another. Maybe life in the community and independence are possible for some autistic adults but not others. Maybe some autistic adults need to be sheltered and protected. “Rain Man” on the one hand, and “Mozart” and “Temple” on the other, polarize the autism community. “Wretches and Jabberers” blows this polarization to the moon.
Bissonnette and Thresher’s unique diction and insights are captured in a musical score that features their words as lyrics. This alone made me teary. Imagine being unable to express your intelligence for decades, and then to hear the poetics of your mind splashed into notes of moving music.
Critics of Facilitated Communication claim that the autistic person isn’t really communicating because a facilitator is guiding the person’s motor movements in order to operate an electronic or digital communication device. But as Judy C. Bailey, a consultant and behavior support specialist in Centreville, Virginia, succinctly notes in an email correspondence, “… Having no effective communication is a risky way to spend a life, too …”
Thresher and Bissonnette teach us that maybe we’ve had autism all wrong. Instead of looking at an autistic person and deciding if he or she either lacks skills, or has them, they teach us to see whole people instead. Not only may we be imperfect but successful on our own terms like Grandin, or different but happy like the adults in “Mozart and the Whale,” now we can also be human. When Larry is asked at a conference what he does to calm down, he says he has a beer. The audience laughs, and the comment is funny. But what Larry means is what he underscores when he says, “More like you than not.” This insight alone will move our understanding of autism another full circle closer to authentic community integration, a chance Raymond never had and something that still, unfortunately, eludes many of us. Twenty-three years after Raymond, Bissonnette and Thresher and their new allies on the World Intelligence Magnified Tour prove that autistic adults are not just imperfect like the rest of you, but completely like the rest of you.