Dear Storytellers: There Is No ‘One Autist Limit’
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In 1988, Dustin Hoffman portrayed the character Raymond Babbit, a man with autism, in the movie Rain Man. The plot of the film consists of Raymond, who is also shown as being something of a math genius, journeying across the country with his brother Charlie, played by Tom Cruise. At first, Charlie tries to use Raymond to get half of their father’s inheritance, but grows closer to him as the film progresses.
Hoffman went on to win Best Actor in a Leading Role at the 61st Academy Awards, and the film itself went on to win Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director for director Barry Levinson. It was the first ever mainstream motion picture portrayal of an autistic person. And it may have been the most damaging.
Autism is a widely varying and diverse spectrum of neurological, pervasive developmental disorders, brought about genetically from birth. The basic symptoms include difficulties in social interaction and the reading of nonverbal cues, higher sensitivity to sensory input, and the tendency to think logically or literally, among others. Standard, or “classic” autism describes the variation that was originally written about by Dr. Leo Kanner back in 1943, and was the only variation until 2013.
At that time, the American Psychological Association created The Autism Spectrum, adding Asperger’s Syndrome, a relatively milder form of the disorder (also known as “High-Functioning Autism”), Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, a rarer version that appears more slowly (also known as “Regressive Autism”), and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a somewhat of a catch-all diagnosis for more vague cases (also known as “Atypical Autism”). I myself have Asperger’s Syndrome, having been diagnosed back in the second grade.
Rain Man is not, by most accounts, a bad portrayal of autism, which is surprising since the two people Hoffman’s character was based on, Kim Peek and Bill Sackter, have no autism diagnoses whatsoever. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks even served as an advisor on the film, but in the almost 30 years since, the autism community has grown divisive over whether or not the movie did good for the spectrum.
Raymond Babbit was arguably not the first fictional character with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but Rain Man did (albeit unintentionally) create a stereotype. More often than not, movies and TV shows about autism are centered, not around the autistic person (who is usually portrayed as a “static” character; one that doesn’t change), but a “Neurotypical” (i.e. a person without neurological disorders) person who must learn to understand and appreciate the autist, who is usually portrayed as a super-genius who simply has “endearing” personality quirks.
This framework isn’t necessarily bad, but it becomes problematic when it results in the majority of works about autism featuring only ONE autistic main character.
In 1985, the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For brought attention to the apparent rarity of movies that feature two named female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. Written by Alison Bechdel, the strip was the genesis for The Bechdel Test, which judges films on those criteria. As of April 2015, 58% of films reviewed by bechdeltest.com passed all three.
If someone were to make a similar test for autism portrayals that only counted works with two or more autistic characters, the results could be counted on two hands: The films Mozart and the Whale, Henry & Verlin, and The Story of Luke, the Lifetime TV movie Miracle Run, and the novels Speed of Dark and Viral Nation.
If the test only counted works that had two or more NAMED autistic main characters, the results could be counted on one hand, eliminating Speed of Dark. If it then eliminated works in which the autistic characters were related, Henry & Verlin and Miracle Run would be disqualified.
If it got rid of works in which the autistic characters are romantically involved, Mozart and the Whale would have to go, leaving us with just Viral Nation and The Story of Luke. And if the test was rewritten to make having THREE or more named autistic characters the only requirement, Viral Nation would be the only one to make the list.
Wikipedia lists over 130 works with a named autistic character in them. Only six have more than one. And only one contains more than two.
This is a problem.
It’s important to note, however, that while works that feature only one autistic character are not bad automatically because of that (see Mary and Max, Temple Grandin, and others mentioned in this article), in a world where autistic support groups are almost commonplace in schools, where cross-disorder friendships can flourish, and where the autism spectrum itself has developed its own subculture (and subcultures within that subculture), there needs to be more diverse media representation of the disorder that currently affects 3.5 million people in the United States alone.
On Twitter, @AprilSpectrum, an autism self-advocate, stated in regards to this topic, “We need representation.”
@DigiRanger1994 said, “No one can think of a work with two autistic characters. Not even a story with a classroom”
@Noriegajpg said, “It’s ridiculous, they make it seem like [non-autistic] people are the heroes of the story for ‘looking after’ us and it’s silly”
Stories about autism can’t simply be relegated to “quirky person works with bewildered/charmed normals.” There are almost endless possibilities to be mined that haven’t been used as much as they should or to their full potential. Autistic people can become friends with each other, they can fall in love with one another, they can form cliques with each other and other mentally disabled folk, and there can even be whole families on the spectrum. Children can be autistic, teenagers can be autistic, young adults, the middle-aged, and even the elderly can be autistic, and all of them can have almost infinite variations with their symptoms, their diagnoses, and their backgrounds.
It’s an oft-repeated phrase within the autism community that “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” That phrase can be equally applied to autistic fiction: “If you’ve seen one story about autism, you’ve seen one story about autism.”
The story of how an autistic person adapts to society and how those around them adapt as well is admittedly a good one, but very rarely do audiences get to see what happens AFTER an autist becomes well-adjusted, which can be just as entertaining and gripping if done well. And only having one autistic character per work can give the audience a false impression that the portrayal they just saw was the only way an autistic person can act.
People with autism are sometimes told that they couldn’t possibly have it, because the person telling them only saw Rain Man or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or the NBC show Parenthood, and they didn’t fit into the neat little boxes those works unknowingly set up for them.
This may be why some portrayals of autism in the media go unconfirmed by their creators, such as Abed Nadir on Community, Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, or Christopher Boone in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. They don’t want people to force their characters to fit preconceived notions, or for their works to become the “textbook” example of those notions.
It’s important to note that, as the old saying goes, writers write what they know. There is no doubt that writing an autistic character is relatively difficult, since autistic writers/filmmakers/actors/etc. are pretty hard to come by. But they aren’t impossible. And writers of autism portrayals don’t have to necessarily be autistic, or know any autists (it helps, but it isn’t required). They just have to have an open mind and be willing to do a bunch of research (or not even that much; Mark Haddon of the aforementioned Curious Incident barely did any research but received massive praise – It can be considered an outlier, though).
The Autism Spectrum is not a flat bar with “high functioning” at one end and “low functioning” at the other. It’s more like a color wheel; An autist may have only few symptoms, but those symptoms are very severe. They may have a lot of symptoms but they’re actually pretty mild. They might have some symptoms that are severe, others that are mild, and some they don’t have at all. There are many, many symptoms and variations of autism, and each one has almost infinite variations in and of itself.
An autist may come from the city, another may come from the country. They could be from other nations, other religions, broken homes, stable homes, foster homes, and so on. Their family could be autistic. Their family could just have autistic traits. Their family could be abusive. Their family could be understanding. Their family might have other disorders. They could be good at math, they could stink at math. They could love history, they could hate history. They could be great at art, they could utterly despise art. They could have more than one interest, they could have only one interest. They could have rotating interests. They might be bad at speaking to people, they might be just okay with speaking to people, or they might be great at speaking to people. They might belong to a group of friends, or they might just have one or two friends. Those friends might have autism, too, but are all radically different, kinda different, similar in some ways, or the same in a lot of ways. An autistic character can be the hero of the story. An autistic character can be the villain. They can be diagnosed at age four and have nothing done about it, they can be diagnosed at age forty and have everything possible done about it.
They might go to good schools, bad schools, public schools, private schools, charter schools, vocational schools… They might go to college and get a good job. They might go to college and get a bad job. They might not go to college at all and get either or due to luck, skill, or a little bit of both. They might end up living in a home, unable to take care of themselves. They might end up living perfectly well on their own. They might live on their own but struggle a bit. They could be proud of their autism, they could be ashamed of their autism, or they could be simply okay with their autism. They could lack social empathy entirely or have a complete and utter excess of empathy (the latter being, contrary to popular belief, the more common symptom). They might have a whole bunch of other disorders simultaneously with autism, but are still well-adjusted and prosperous. Or maybe not.
Some of these variations may have been covered in some way by a work of fiction at some point, but there has yet to be one that features multiple, distinctly different autistic characters in lead roles simultaneously. Where are the autistic trios? Where are the autistic quartets? Where are the autist vs. autist conflicts? Where are the autistic families? The sitcom ensembles?
Dear storytellers: There is no One Autist Limit.
Rain Man (Film)
Barry Morrow’s audio commentary for Rain Man from the DVD release.
The Big Bang Theory (TV)
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon (Book)