Stephen, at home, explaining how you know when you're in love
Film History

More Than Rain Man: Autism Portrayals on Screen

January 08, 2016 by Noel Murray in Beyond the Films

For a long time, the Oscar-winning 1988 drama Rain Man wasn’t just the best-known representation of autism on film, it was a lot of people’s only frame of reference for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in general. But over the past decade or so, as more and more kids have been diagnosed as on the spectrum, the culture at large has become more aware of what autism and Asperger Syndrome really means — and popular culture has gotten up to speed, too. Rain Man remains a touchstone, as a depiction of certain common ASD tics, but television and movie screens have also been crowded in recent years with a wider variety of characters and experiences, more reflective of the real world’s neurodiversity.

Autism in Love is a case-in-point. Matt Fuller’s documentary tells the story of a small handful of autistic adults who’ve been trying to make sense of relationships and sex, and trying to figure out if there’s room for the messiness of romance in their rigid daily routine. These men and women are more articulate about their emotions than Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man; and their lives aren’t defined by whether or not they’re a burden to someone like Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt. Fuller shows them as complicated individuals, who understand their own considerable challenges.

Watching something like Autism in Love is a reminder of how far the movies have come with autism in so short a time — especially given how long it took for filmmakers to tackle autism spectrum disorder at all. For the longest time, the dominant impression of ASD in cinema and on television was of an impossible problem, ripping innocent families apart. Or, conversely, autists were reduced solely to savants, wielding their extraordinary memories and pattern-recognition like superpowers.

The way the media has engaged with the spectrum over the decades has been a study in good intentions and gross misunderstandings, ultimately resolving into the more nuanced take we see much more often today.

Here then is a rough, abbreviated sketch of what the past 50 years have been like, starting with a handful of films so skittish about the topic of autism that they can’t even call the disorder by name.

Autists on the Margins

One big reason why not many ASD kids (or adults) made it into the movies pre-Rain Man was that the public awareness of the disorder was limited, and medical science’s explanations for autism were fairly crude. People on the spectrum were sometimes misdiagnosed as mentally retarded or mentally ill — with the blame for the latter falling on parents who were accused of being too emotionally cold. (For a good documentary on that subject, check out David E. Simpson’s 2003 film Refrigerator Mothers.)

But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t some characters clearly on the spectrum who appeared in films, even as early as the 1960s. One of director John Cassavetes’ rare Hollywood projects, 1963’s A Child Is Waiting, stars Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster as therapists working at an institution for the mentally handicapped, where they get deeply involved with the case of an uncommunicative, tantrum-throwing 12-year-old whose symptoms point to an ASD diagnosis — even if Garland’s character thinks that all the boy needs is a loving home with two committed, married parents.

This was the prevailing way to represent autism in the 1960s: as a persistent condition that turned children into temperamental, traumatized mutes, needing only the right prodding from a caring adult to start healing. That take on the disorder popped up only occasionally, but thanks to pieces of popular art as varied as The Who’s rock opera Tommy (about an abused child who becomes a pinball champion and religious guru) and Richard C. Sarafian’s arty, pastoral drama Run Wild, Run Free (about a rural English kid who ignores his parents and scampers around the wilderness like an animal), the autistic were often were looked as deeply spiritual savages.

Disorder of the Week

In October of 1978, The New York Times ran an item about a then-upcoming episode of the medical mystery series Quincy, “A Test for Living,” on which Jack Klugman’s Los Angeles coroner would tackle “a little-known affliction,” autism. The article goes on to describe how Klugman’s interest in the disorder stemmed from an appearance on a telethon, and how he hoped “A Test for Living” would teach people not to confuse autism with other developmental and mental handicaps. The actor also hoped to drive more resources toward education and therapies for ASD kids.

That Quincy episode turned out to be ahead of its time, given how common it is these days to get children diagnosed early, and to get them into as many therapy programs as possible. “A Test for Living” aired on NBC not long before the network showed the TV movie Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love, which tells the true story of how a family created their own still-in-use (albeit controversial) methods of reaching out to their autistic son, whom they effectively cured. These were unusually optimistic depictions of ASD on television for that time.

More common have been TV movies like 1993’s Family Pictures (about a couple who divorce after their child is diagnosed), 1994’s Cries from the Heart (about a severely autistic boy who learns to communicate and then accuses his caretaker of sexual abuse), and 1994’s David’s Mother (about a parent grappling with the decision to put her teenage son in an institution). These films — all, notably, post-Rain Man — fold autism into common “problem plays,” serving an uneasy mix of education and sensationalism while playing on the public’s sense of the disorder as terrible and incurable.

In recent years, TV movies have become more sensitive about the way they portray autists and Aspies, although emotional manipulation is still the primary goal. The acclaimed, effective 2006 British melodrama After Thomas tells another true story, about a boy who learns to speak and to express his needs and feelings through the bond he develops with the family dog. Like too many films about autism — again, like Rain Man After Thomas is more concerned with a mother’s feelings of helplessness and alienation than it is with an autist’s interior world. But it does reveal a lot about Thomas’ daily life, and it’s ultimately filled with more hope than despair.

Spectrum Power!

It’s not really fair to keep knocking Rain Man, which is a well-acted, well-directed, entertaining film that gets a lot about autism right. Still, that movie was undeniably responsible for painting a picture of people on the spectrum as unreasonable and distant. It also had a lot to do with propagating the idea that autists and Aspies are magical geniuses.

There was some precedent for this in cinema. In 1986’s The Boy Who Could Fly, an eccentric, uncommunicative kid changes his neighbors’ lives when he convinces them that he can zoom off into the sky at any time. But after Rain Man there was a noticeable uptick in movie characters with autism, many of whom were presented as oddly exceptional. In 1994’s Silent Fall, a young boy on the spectrum is also a skilled mimic who holds the key to a murder case (the film was written by Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind). In 1998’s Mercury Rising, a codebreaking savant flees rogue government agents. In the horror-thriller Bless the Child (2000), an autistic girl wards off an ancient evil. For a while there, ASD was starting to become a corny plot device in pulp thrillers.

To some extent, that’s still the case on television, where post-2000 there’s been a glut of highly skilled, high-functioning autists and Aspies fighting crime. Sometimes the ASD diagnosis is overt, as in the uplifting fantasy Touch and the cult superhero SyFy series Alphas. And sometimes the condition is merely implied, as on procedurals like Sherlock and Bones. Either way, the suggestion is that being on the spectrum is a gift worth celebrating — which is at the least a step up from the days when TV movies treated the disorder like a de facto curse.

Character Studies

Perhaps due the popularity of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — told from the perspective of a bright, sympathetic spectrum kid — beginning in the late 2000s the movies started to push away from the plots where a neurotypical person is saddled with a disordered relative or friend, and instead leaned more toward stories where ASD adults are the actual protagonists. Sigourney Weaver in 2006’s Snow Cake, Hugh Dancy in 2009’s Adam, and even the voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the strange 2009 stop-motion animated feature Mary and Max all created memorable characters, who were active participants in the plots of of their films.

Meanwhile, Dancy’s wife Claire Danes took home a shelf-full of well-deserved awards for her portrayal of author and advocate Temple Grandin in the HBO movie Temple Grandin — a well-made biopic that’s also one of the best attempts yet to explicate what’s going on inside the brain of someone on the spectrum. And in the smash hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons has been making his fussy scientist Sheldon Cooper’s Asperger-like condition palatable and comprehensible to one of TV’s biggest weekly audiences.

Real Life

But some of the best work being done toward advancing a truer understanding of autistic spectrum disorders has been happening in documentaries, which have been letting the directly affected speak for themselves. Autism in Love is an example. And so is 2009’s The Horse Boy, about a family who travels the world to help their animal-loving autistic son learn to connect; and Autism: The Musical, about the use of theater as therapy; and 2015’s How to Dance in Ohio, about autistic adults preparing for their own prom. These are beautiful, touching films, which don’t sugarcoat what their subjects are going through, but which also capture humor, personalities, and all the emotions some still think autists lack. These docs are changing the popular conception of what autism is, by introducing millions of viewers to some complicated, amusing, flesh-and-blood human beings.

Autism in Love trailer:

Noel Murray

Noel Murray is a freelance writer who has contributed regularly to The Dissolve, The A.V. Club, The Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone. He lives in Arkansas with his wife, two children, and a TV that is never off.