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How good are Hollywood's depictions of autism?

Movies

How good are Hollywood’s depictions of autism?

Not always great, but getting better?

Many mainstream movies have had neurodivergent characters in both supporting and lead roles. While sometimes the way these conditions are portrayed on screen are accurate, or at least relatively in line with what our current understanding is, many take liberties with stereotypes and exaggerate them for cinematic effect. Often these conditions produce behaviors that are difficult to define, so it’s understandable if not every nuance is shown accurately.

Yet if you were to ask someone what it meant to be autistic just based on movie characters, they might tell you it’s someone with borderline superhero level intelligence, has their own personal bully, and doesn’t know what empathy is. Here’s what it really means to be autistic.

The word autism was coined by psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler around 1911. The condition has since been referred to as autism, autism spectrum disorder, or autism spectrum condition. Within the autism community, it’s not always considered a disorder, as much as a part of natural human neurodiversity. It mostly describes people with a neurodevelopmental condition that delays or otherwise affects their ability to understand interactions and pick up on social cues.

In more recent years, autism has been used as something of a catch-all for many behaviors that exhibit delayed intellectual developmental and social behavior, and can share symptoms with other diagnoses like ADHD. The cause for autism is thought to be mostly genetic, with some ability to treat behaviors with therapy. There is no known “cure,” with many adamant that there’s nothing to cure in the first place.

There are some common traits of autistic behavior. Some children have proficient speech ability, while others have delayed speech, and some are nonverbal. Some children rarely make eye contact, seem indifferent to others, have a strong adherence to routine, play with toys in unconventional ways, use repetitious phrases (echolalia), etc. Some individuals possess only a few common characteristics.

The accumulated displayed behaviors and their severity can be used to diagnose where an individual may fall on the autism spectrum. A higher percentage of people on the spectrum experience savant syndrome than do neurotypical people, which is described by having not just exceptional cognitive skills, but also significant social or intellectual impairment.

Hollywood does not always depict this characterizations well.

In 1988’s Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant who has an extraordinary memory, is gifted mathematically, and can count exceptionally fast. He’s also shown to lack empathy and an understanding of social cues. The character was partially based on real life “megasavant” Kim Peek. Peek was reportedly capable of reading books in an hour, and memorizing what he read. He could also be given a date quickly know which day of the week it fell on. What’s problematic is that while savant syndrome occurs at much higher rates in people with autism, it’s still pretty rare, and it’s hardly an accurate description nor a defining characteristic of autistic people.

The only emotional expression Babbitt exhibits is during bouts of distress, perpetuating the misguided trope that the feelings of autistic people are only on the far extremes. Despite these misconceptions, the film did significantly increase autism awareness and the need for funding of research, diagnosi,s and treatment.

In singer Sia’s directorial debut, Maddie Ziegler plays a young, nonverbal autistic woman named Music, in the 2021 film … uh, Music. Despite seemingly good intentions, the critical reaction to this film was not kind, garnering a miserable 7% rating on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes. “Cringey,” “offensive,” and “over the top” were some of the words used to describe the film. Most of the criticism stems from a neurotypical actress portraying the character, with exaggerated mannerisms that could be interpreted more as caricaturist mockery than sincere realism.

There doesn’t really seem to be a narrative or arc to Music, and the only point of view from her you see is through musical sequences in her head. The character is one-dimensional, and it’s pretty obvious what’s supposed to define her. The movie shows the use of physical restraints as a way to deal with meltdowns and tantrums, which is dangerous if viewers consider this an appropriate response. Music also contains loud sounds, colors, and bright lights, which can be difficult for people with sensory sensitivities to process. It really makes you wonder who the intended audience for this film was. Autism proponents push for an understanding that the condition makes people different, not weird.

Night Clerk autism

A year earlier, The Night Clerk starred Tye Sheridan as Bart Bromley, a young autistic man who works at a hotel and secretly installs hidden cameras in the guest rooms, in an attempt to view and better understand their social interactions, with the goal of seeming more neurotypical. The character is described as voyeuristic, perpetuating the stereotype of autistic people being creepy and dangerous. One night, Bromley witnesses a woman being murdered, and because he hurries to the room to intervene, he becomes the prime suspect when police arrive. When the detective on is asked if he thinks Bromley, committed the murder, he replies, “These kids on the spectrum, you know, they could also be very violent.”

The Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has stated that not only is this not the case but, In fact, studies of court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared with the general population.” More dialogue from the detective mocks Bromley, insinuating that he needs his mom to take care of him and fix things for him before he “explodes.” This type of infantilization of autistic people is patronizing, and presents them as if they are not capable adults.

A villainous character bullying an autistic character isn’t necessarily the problem here, as hard as it may be to watch, since it creates interest and drama. The problem is that the story arc never comes to a satisfying conclusion. No redemption, no comeuppance, and no truthful take-home message for the audience.

Then there’s 2018’s The Predator. You’ll need your boots to watch this one. Again, it features an autistic boy named Rory with savant-like abilities and social awkwardness, who’s bullied by other kids at school. Rory has an impeccable memory, can decipher Predator language, and understands how to use their technology. He’s considered so special that aliens from another planet see him as an advancement in human genetics, and want to take him for hybridization purposes with their own species.

So lock up your kids, folks. Autism now equals the next step in human evolution, which evidently is highly desirable among extraterrestrials. Of course this is a science fiction movie, but godd*mn.

The mere presence of autistic characters in media can be a positive for the community, in that it raises awareness of the condition and the challenges autism creates in many peoples lives. Sadly, if the portrayals are inaccurate, such inclusion can lead to even more misunderstanding.

For better portrayals of autism, you can check out The Reason I Jump, Temple Grandin, and the Netflix reality series Love on the Spectrum. Autism is a tricky subject to understand, even if you have personal experience with it yourself or with a loved one. Perhaps the best way to approach the topic and community is to realize that if you’ve met one autistic person, well, you’ve met one autistic person. Maybe Hollywood will learn to do the same.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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