‘Why do they have to be brilliant?’ The problem of autism in the movies

A quick experiment. Close your eyes, and think of autism in the movies. I bet you’ve got an image in your head of Dustin Hoffman being driven by Tom Cruise in a Buick Roadmaster Convertible, repeatedly saying: “I’m an excellent driver.” Or Hoffman glancing at a box of scattered toothpicks and announcing there are 246 of them. Or Hoffman learning the phonebook to “g” off by heart in a couple of minutes. Or Hoffman doing miraculous mental arithmetic.

Rain Man was released in 1988. Watch it now, and it seems like a throwback to a simpler world where autistic people were geniuses, and no cliche about the idiot savant was left unturned. Hoffman tic-d, squinted and stuttered his way to an Oscar in a fabulously mannered performance.

It’s easy to be dismissive of Rain Man, but a little unfair. The film was genuinely groundbreaking. Back then the word autism wasn’t even common parlance, and Raymond, the character played by Hoffman, wouldn’t have had a chance of being diagnosed aspergic for another six years. Asperger’s Disorder was only added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1994.

Times move on. By 2013, Asperger’s Disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders had been replaced with the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (basically a posh name for autism). Autistic people find communication and social interaction difficult, display repetitive and restrictive behaviour, and may be over or under sensitive to light, sound or touch, have highly focused interests, and experience extreme anxiety and meltdowns. Most importantly – and obviously – all autistic people are different. Something not always recognised in the movies – the all-tic-ing, eye-contact-avoiding, robotic-sounding weirdo genius is still the autist of choice for Hollywood.

This month, the Barbican in London is presenting Autism and Cinema: An Exploration of Neurodiversity. The season is accompanied by talks in a series of relaxed screenings. The season is short and sweet, consisting of a cult classic (Mulholland Drive), mainstream hit (Temple Grandin); a romcom with a largely autistic cast, obscure indie films, shorts and documentaries. It is imaginatively and knowledgeably curated, but still inevitably reflects the shortcomings of autism in the movies.

As with Rain Man, exceptionalism is at the heart of so many films about autism. The most obvious example of this is Temple Grandin, the 2010 TV biopic starring Clare Danes as the eponymous heroine an outrageously gifted woman who has led a fascinating life. Now 74, Grandin was labelled as an infantile schizophrenic. This is how autism was described in 1953 by the DSM, and it was said to be the result of cold parenting.

Like Raymond in Rain Man, Grandin sees life in pictures that she then memorises. As a little girl, she was violent, self-harming, friendless and mute. When she finally began to talk, it was in a shouty, discordant, no-nonsense monotone. Danes’ impression of Grandin is impeccable. We cheer as she defies the odds, finds herself a kindly mentor at college, obsessively develops her engineering skills, fights off the ableism and sexism in the farming industry and goes on to invent a humane conveyor restrainer system for holding cattle during stunning at large beef slaughtering plants.

One of my favourite films in the series is the Oscar-nominated documentary Life, Animated. It tells another remarkable story – that of Owen Suskind, who had been a talkative, sociable toddler and then, at three years old, stopped sleeping, his motor skills deteriorated and his language broke down until he was left silent. As far as his distraught parents were concerned, their beloved son had disappeared. His father, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, said it felt as if Owen had been kidnapped.

The one thing Owen had left were Disney animated films, which he watched obsessively. One day his father saw a puppet Iago, the sidekick to Jafar from Aladdin, in his room. He lay on the floor where Owen couldn’t see him, raised the puppet and began talking to him in the voice of Iago. “Owen,” he said, “how does it feel to be you?” For the first time in many years, Owen responded. “Not good because I don’t have any friends,” he replied.

They discovered Owen had been relating to the world through his films, that he knew the dialogue from every Disney animated movie perfectly, and he recovered his speech. As the father of an autistic daughter, I found myself relating to this film. Many autists relate to puppets and furry toy animals. As Owen explains they are comforting and unthreatening; they don’t answer back or make demands. Autistic people often enjoy the role-play because they can dictate the terms of the relationship – for example, they can hug them as tight as they want without the worry of having to be hugged back.

While my daughter, Maya, has never been non-verbal, at school she rarely spoke and found it difficult to talk to people other than her closest family. So she certainly related to Life, Animated. With a big caveat. The same one she has about most autism films. “Why does he have to be brilliant?” she says. “Most autistic people don’t have that photographic memory.” Maya believes that the public is mis-sold a version of autism in movies that results in people expecting all autists to have a special skill.

One of my favourite films featuring an autistic character is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, starring Johnny Depp as Gilbert and a young Leonardo DiCaprio as his autistic younger brother. I can’t stand DiCaprio’s acting on the whole, but he is wonderful in this film. The “science” behind the movie is ridiculous – at the beginning we learn that the family were told Arnie may not live till 10 and could go any time. Since when did autism kill? Yet I love this film – largely because it’s not a film about autism. It’s a warm-hearted romantic rite of passage featuring an autistic character.

Last year the pop star Sia was criticised for making Music, a film about an autistic character played by her muse, non-autistic dancer Maddie Ziegler. In a way it was unfair – after all, DiCaprio and Hoffman are not autistic. The real problem was that the film was a shocker. As well as being half ditzy musical, half kitchen-sink drama, Ziegler’s bug-eyed autist bore no relationship to anybody human, let alone autistic. It also indulged the narrative trope most common to movies about autism. Both Rain Man and Music are named after their eponymous autistic heroes, but the dramatic arc focuses on the brother and sister respectively evolving from selfish bastard to milk-of-human-kindness carer. In both films, the autist is merely a MacGuffin enabling the regular guy/gal to achieve spiritual growth.

The most heartening film in the season is Keep the Change, a New York-set romcom featuring Brandon Polansky as David and Samantha Elisofan as Sarah. Both actors are autistic, as are the actors playing the autistic group they attend. The movie allows autistic characters a sex life (a rarety in autistic films), and is laugh-out-loud funny when Sarah discusses her knowhow and David’s naivety in front of his brother. Keep the Change is as much about elitism as autism. When David tells his frigid, snobby parents he wants to marry Sarah, they decide she’s not good enough for him because their family belongs to high society and she is, well, just an autistic nobody. Director Rachel Israel constructed the script with Polansky through hundreds of hours of improvisation. Keep the Change has the believability, humour and acuity of the best Mike Leigh films.

Maya liked it greatly, but again she had qualms. “Why do they nearly always depict characters or choose real people who speak in that monotone and have all the tics? When I went to my autism group, few of us were like that.” Again, she says it makes it harder to accept autistic people who don’t have instantly obvious autistic traits as genuinely autistic. So many movies are all about the external – the visual. And that visual is always extreme – an autistic chatterbox or a mute. The reality, Maya says, is most autistic people are somewhere in between. So much of autism is about what goes on internally – the confusion, the anxiety, the self-consciousness, and the attempt to decode the distorted noise of the outside world.

One film Maya loves is The Reason I Jump, an adaptation of the book that 13-year-old non-verbal autistic boy Naoki Higashida wrote by pointing to letters on an alphabet grid. Higashida has pathological demand avoidance syndrome (like Maya) – a condition on the autism spectrum, characterised by an overwhelming need to avoid or resist demands. The Reason I Jump is set entirely in Higashida’s head. Maya says it was life-changing for her, as was Can You See Me?, a novel co-authored by Rebecca Westcott and 11-year-old Libby Scott who also has PDA. Can You See Me? is begging for a cliche-defying movie adaptation.

The films that do explore this inner world in the Barbican season are little-known shorts and documentaries. A is for Autism is an animated 11-minute film in which a number of autists look back on their school experience. We never see these people, but in a way we get to understand them better through a single powerful sentence than a whole movie of melodramatic convulsions. One man says that when he was at school people talking sounded like thunder or muffled silence. We hear from the real Temple Grandin, who says: “As a child I craved tender touching, but at the same time I withdrew from touch.”

Another film that gets into the inner world of autistic people is the virtually wordless documentary Illuminating the Wilderness. The film, which was shortlisted for this year’s Turner prize, depicts a trip to the wilderness Glen Affric in the Scottish Highlands. As the camera pans over the lochs and mountains and gorgeous expanse of emptiness all we hear are drips of rain, wind rustling through trees, bird song, silence, and the occasional human voice, sometimes coherent, sometimes not. By the end we have been transported inside the heads of the autistic people on the trip.

One of the most striking and creepy films in the short series is called The Mask, which follows Sharif Persaud along a coastal footpath to the theatre of a neighbouring town. The mask is literal and metaphorical – Persaud wears the mask of his favourite celebrity (Al Murray, as the pub landlord), and it enables him to talk to others in a way he couldn’t if he was exposing his own face. As he walks he lists his endless obsessions: “Weather, sneezing hospital programmes, gangrene, vomiting and that’s gone, kids and anoraks, road blocks, burping, slides, piers, cities, SpongeBob SquarePants … going to the toilet, fake sneezing, fake nose blowing, fake hiccuping.” The Mask is funny, dark and revealing.

This fascinating collection of films will give people an insight into autism, and prompt nods of recognition from those intimate with the condition. But Maya says there’s still plenty to be done in the way autism is depicted on screen. She is looking forward to the day when autistic people are regularly cast in movies playing characters who just happen to be autistic.

She’s got a point, of course. But in the meantime, I’m going to introduce her to The Bridge, that great Nordic crime series about Saga Norén, the homicide detective who struggles with tact, social niceties, metaphors, intimacy, humour and chatup lines (“Do you want to have sex?” is the best she can come up with). The great thing about The Bridge is that autism is never mentioned once.

Comments are closed.