From Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man to Abed Nadir in Community, autism has had a complex and diverse history on screen, that is not always depicted accurately.
This year at the annual Festival of Social Sciences, Hannah Ebben, a Ph.D. student at The Autism Centre, shared her research on the different ways in which the autistic spectrum is conceptualized in film.
Hannah began in 1969 with the musical drama Change in Habit, starring Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore.
Set in an impoverished neighbourhood, the film depicts a doctor who struggles to treat a particularly challenging patient: a young girl who doesn’t talk, Amanda, has episodes of rocking back and forth, and who shrinks away from human touch.
The film employs an outdated perception of autism by suggesting that Amanda is autistic because of a lack of maternal warmth – referred to at the time as a ‘refrigerator mother’.
The young girl is later ‘cured’ of her autism when a doctor and nun treat her with ‘rage reduction therapy’. During this treatment Amanda is held firmly as she kicks and screeches, all whilst she is told that she is loved and should let go of her anger.
As Hannah points out, the way autism is presented in Change in Habit has developed and become more nuanced as our knowledge of autism has grown. However, some contemporary films still continue to cause offence to some people in the autistic community.
Indeed, for many people, the 1988 film Rain Man will be the first association they make when they hear the word ‘autism’.
It is by far one of the most recognizable films depicting autism and as a result, some contend that it may create misleading stereotypes of what a person with autism is like.
Hannah suggests that some see Rain Man as offensive because “it is made for an audience who doesn’t know what autism is.”
She adds: “As we know disabilities are not always visible. But because it’s a film, and it’s a Hollywood film, it serves the audience’s needs so as not to alienate them. Therefore, disability is made as physical as possible.”
During an audience discussion, a member of the public asked Hannah if she thought films could be truly reflective of the autistic spectrum. She said: “I realise that autism has meant different things, for many different people, throughout time. That is why I didn’t ask the question whether the film is true to reality or not. I think that the answer to this question will always be that it is relative because the lives of autistic people are so multi-faceted and diverse. They cannot be encompassed into one perfect movie.”
Autism is by its very nature a spectrum disorder, affecting millions of people in various differing ways. Therefore, it seems a somewhat impossible feat to illustrate autism in one neat plotline; it simply isn’t something that can fit into a box.
What this discussion proved, more than anything, is that if we want to truly understand autism we need to listen to the narratives created by people with autism, not Hollywood.