Autism on Film
Living With Autism
By Melissa BEE July 2000
Autism on Film
The history of autism on film is fairly sketchy. As far as I understand there is no film analysis of how autism is presented. This article is my attempt to do just that.
How autism is seen in the media and on film is very important in how the autistic population as a whole is viewed, understood and treated by lay persons and professionals alike.
The first references to autism are made in a 1969 US Presley vehicle, where an unconvincing Dr. Presley ministers to a questionably autistic child, aided by nun Mary Tyler Moore in a substandard drama. Another film made the same year in the UK unfortunately seemed to set the trend for autistic related films for the next thirty years. The film portrayed a mute child who becomes ‘cured’ or ‘saved’ in this instance by old man, a young girl and a falcon. The child is seen cured at the end because he talks to the horse. Also called The White Colt it gives the impression that autism can be ‘fixed’ or made to disappear in some way as if by magic, or by a white pony. This nonsense seemed to become a universally held belief as film after film for the next thirty years portray autistics as abnormal, aliens, freaks or the sole focus of the film was saving or curing the child.
Of the fifty films released only nine deal with adults with autism or autistic like behaviour. In every case these adults are seen as mentally defective, abnormal or freaks, rejected by their families, sent away as children to institutions of some kind and with an obvious lack of care, love and respect afforded normal human beings. In each case it is up to the individual to fight for independence and establish some form of normal existence and acceptance from everyone around them. In some movies the story line is manipulated to portray the ‘happily ever after’ a curing or a saving, so they become normal and thereby accepted by society. But in two films the autistic person dies, one by hanging themselves in a prison cell (Criminal, 1995) and the other almost of a broken heart after being institutionalised against his will. After his death his mother celebrates by shouting “I’m Free!” (Family Pictures, 1993)
A general population unaffected by autism had never heard of the condition until a 1988 film ‘Rainman’. The larger than life lead character Raymond Babbitt was created by Bernard Rimland (of the Autism Research Institute, whose own son is autistic) and played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman, sadly became a model for non understanding people to base their knowledge of autism on. How many autistic adults have cringed when they have been told “But you’re not like Rainman!” Raymond was manipulated by his brother (Tom Cruise) with no thought for his needs or his welfare. This, sadly is a reflection of real life. Misunderstood and rejected as unwanted until his savant abilities become a way for Cruise to save his own hide. Even Bernard Rimland in later years remarked that to be believable on the big screen he had to amalgamate all the worst possible features of three people to make Raymond, but people still believe that Raymond reflects what autism really is.
Those characters showing more promise on film (The Other Sister, 1999) or brilliance or even genius (Little Man Tate, 1991) are not credited with having autism (and probably have Aspergers Syndrome – a form of autism that is more higher functioning). In the 1999 film Molly (described facetiously as Rainman meets Charly) she has an experimental operation which turns her into a genius… On the whole true and pertinent information is withheld, so the general public is misinformed about the nature of what autism REALLY IS. So in the mind of society a myth of autism = mentally defective has emerged.
Almost all films made to date depict anyone with autism as being a child. It is almost as if there is a misguided belief (The boy who could fly, 1986) that the autism magically disappears and by adulthood it is no longer a problem.
Except in the case of Raymond Babbit, and Molly who was subjected to a medical experiment to cure her, no other autistic makes it to adulthood, and no film has EVER shown a functional autistic adult. Those films who do show an adult only two of the five acknowledge the person has autism (Rainman,1988 and Molly,1999)
Autism has been very poorly portrayed both in the cinema and in documentary feature type movies whether based on fact, fiction or a mixture of both which is now termed ‘faction’. Books of this type are published in the hundreds each year, but cinematography does not reflect this.
Celluloid autism is either seen as a grandiose and puzzling childhood mental illness where the child is very disturbed, totally uncommunicative or violent and the child’s problems are depicted as monstrous and bizarre and he (45 of 50 films are he, 5 instances of she) is a liability to all of those around him, except those who wish to use him solely for their own gain [Rainman,1988 Criminal,1995]
In ‘The Innocent’ (1994) and ‘House of Cards’ (1993) the autism is triggered by an emotional trauma, and miraculously goes away when the child is made to face that trauma.
At no time has a child or adult with autism ever been portrayed as an able, independent and functional (even partially) human being at odds with the world, instead s/he is always painted as a freak. Those who help them or struggle to break through the barriers to make emotional contact and to love an autistic person is applauded as ‘brave’ or heroic, but no autistic person (aside from Temple Grandin) is ever given any credit for achieving anything of their own accord.
Autism is a life long condition that cannot be cured or made to go away. In the same manner that Diabetes can be controlled, so too do autistic adults learn to control the worst features of their autism. Some folk are more fortunate and more highly functioning than others, and in many cases autism is accompanied by other conditions. I have a saying that “autism likes friends”. Autistic people often feel rejected by society and desire inclusion and acceptance. This need is more important to AS folk, who are more socially adaptable than those with Kanners or Early Childhood autism and find too much social contact overwhelming.
But autism rarely comes alone in an individual. Quite often it brings ‘friends’ In my case it is endogenous depression. Others may have Attention Deficit Disorder (Little Man Tate,1991) Cerebral Palsy (Touched By Love,1980) intellectual disability (Rainman,1988) or a host of other conditions, all of which interplay WITH autism. I personally think that it is the overlap of all these conditions and the lack of understanding about autism itself that has film makers confused about autism, and the reason for gross misrepresentation on film to date. I hope in the future that movie makers become better educated about autism and that is reflected on film.
The following is a comprehensive list of the films that portray Autism Spectrum Disorder in some form. Many of these films are very enjoyable and entertaining, but not a true reflection on what autism is – and can be.
Full length films and made for Television telemovies where autism is the main focus or plays a major part of the theme of the film. In some instances the lead character is not actively identified as having autism, but has been ‘recognised’ to have clearly distinguishable autistic like behaviours and mannerisms to warrant inclusion. eg: Forrest Gump.
A=cured (film centres around the discovery of and ‘cure’ of the autistic person)
B=saved! (the autistic person is saved from themselves or from abuse/society)
C=freak (autistic person portrayed as a freak)
D=queer (unexplained brilliance/genius)
E=tragedy (emphasis on suffering of others unwittingly caused by the autistic person)
F=token (film contains a token autistic child for no logical purpose)
A Circle of Children (1977) USA 100min (Tele Movie)Rating=G Plot=A,B
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1971) UK 106min Rating=MA Plot=A,C,E
Backstreet Dreams (1990)[aka Backstreet Strays] USA 96min Rating= Plot=A,E
Being There* (1979) USA 130min Rating=PG Plot=C
Boy Who Could Fly,The (1986) USA 114min Rating=PG Plot=B,C
Boys Next Door,The (1996) USA ?Length (TV Feature)?Rating Plot=C
Change of Habit (1969) USA 93min Rating=G Plot=F
Circle of Children,A (1997) USA 100min (TV Feature)Rating=G Plot=A,B,E
Crazy Jack and the Boy (See Silence)
Cries from the Heart (See Touch of Truth)
David’s Mother (1994) USA 89min (TV Feature) ?Rating Plot=A,B,E
Down in the Delta (1998) USA ?Length Rating=PG-13 Plot=F
Family Pictures (1993) USA 200min (TV Feature)Rating=PG Plot=C,E
Forrest Gump* (1994) USA 142minUS/136minAUST Rating=PG-13 Plot=C
House of Cards (1993) USA 109min Rating=PG-13 Plot=A,B
Innocent,The (1994) USA ?Length (TV Feature)Rating=MA Plot=C
Journey of the Heart (1997) USA 120 min (TV Feature) Rating=PG Plot=C
Little Man Tate (1991) USA 99min Rating=PG Plot=C,D
Little Voice (1998) UK 96min Rating=R Plot=C,D
Lovey: A Circle of Children,2 (1978) USA 100min TeleMovie Rating=G Plot=A,B,E
Mercury Rising (1998) USA 108min Rating=R-18 Plot=C
Molly (1999) USA 89min Rating=PG-13 Plot=C
Nell (1994) USA 1994 114min Rating=PG-13 Plot=C
Other Sister,The (1999) USA 129 min Rating=PG-13 Plot=C
Perfect Prey (1998) (TV) [AKA When the Bough Breaks II] Rating=R-18 Plot=C
Pit,The (1981) Canada 97mins Rating=R Plot=C,E
Rain Man (1988) USA 140min Rating=R Plot=C,B,E
Relative Fear (1994)[aka Child] Canada 94mins Rating=R Plot=C,E
Run Wild, Run Free (1969)[aka The White Colt] UK 100min Rating=G Plot=B
Silence (1974) USA 88min Rating=G Plot=B
Silent Fall (1994) USA 1994 100min Rating=R-18 Plot=C
Son-Rise,A Miracle of Love (1979) USA 96min (TV Feature)Rating=G Plot=A,B
Spoonface Steinberg (1998) UK ?Length Rating=PG Plot=C
Teddy (See The Pit)
To Elvis with Love (See Touched by Love)
Touch of Truth (1994) USA 90mins (TV Feature)Rating=MA Plot=B,E
Touched by Love (1980) USA 95mins Rating=G Plot=C,B
Under the Piano (1995) Canada ?Length (TV Feature)Rating=PG Plot=C,B (autgirlsavedbysister)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) USA 117min Rating=PG-13 Plot=C
When the Bough Breaks (1993) USA 105min Rating=R-18 Plot=C
When the Bough Breaks II (1998) TV [AKA Perfect Prey] Rating=R-18 Plot=C
Wizard,The (1989) USA 99min Rating=PG Plot=C
*Autistic adults identify strogly with these characters.
Just ask for any reviews.
I’ve started putting the reviews here.
Short Films where Autism is a secondary focus.
Au Pair (1993) Germany/UK 92min Rating=MA Plot=F
Brother Carl (1971) Sweden 95min Rating=R Plot=C
Child’s Cry (1986) USA 100 min (Feature)Rating=PG Plot=B
Criminal (1995) UK 76min Rating=R Plot=C
Cube (1977) Canada 90min Rating=R Plot=C
Mimic (1997) USA 105min Rating=R Plot=C
Nightworld: Lost Souls (1998) USA Rating=R Plot=C
Possum (1997) New Zealand 15min ?Rating Plot=C
Silence of Adultery,The (1995)Canada ?Length(TV Feature)Rating=R-18 Plot=F
Summer (1988) Germany 108min [AKA Sommer] Rating=PG Plot=E
Films by YEAR:
1969 – Change of Habit, Run Wild Run Free
1971 – A day in the life of Joe Egg, Brother Carl
1974 – Silence (Crazy Jack & the boy);
1977 – A Circle of Children, Cube
1978 – Lovey: A Circle of Children Part 2,
1979 – Being There, Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love,
1980 – Touched by Love,
1981 – The Pit
1986 – The Boy Who Could Fly, Childs Cry
1988 – Rain Man, Summer
1989 – Real Rainman, The Wizard,
1990 – Backstreet Dreams
1991 – Little Man Tate
1992 – House of Cards, Little man Tate (TV)
1993 – Family Pictures, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? House of Cards, AuPair,
1993 – When the Bough Breaks,
1994 – Silent Fall, Nell, Forrest Gump, David’s Mother, The Innocent,
1994 – Relative Fear, Touch of Truth,
1995 – Under the Piano, Criminal, Silence of Adultery
1996 – The Boys Next door, George
1997 – Journey of the Heart, Mimic, Possum
1998 – Mercury Rising, Down in the Delta, Spoonface Steinberg, Little Voice,
1998 – When the Bough Breaks II, Perfect Prey, Nightworld: Lost Souls,
1999 – Molly, The Other Sister,
2000-2001 – ? -> Due for one…
Major Feature Films based on a true story or a biography of a person with autism.
From the autobiography by Mary MacCracken: A Circle of Children (1977)
and a sequel: Lovey: Circle of Children Pt 2 (1978)
Film: Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love (1979) USA 100 min. Feature Film.
Director: Glenn Jordan.
Produced by: Filmways / Rothman-Wohl Productions
Genre: Docudrama – Made for TV. Originally telecast as an “NBC Theater” presentation, as part of the network’s 1978 ‘Year of the Child’ celebrations.
Cast: Hal Erickson, Michael Adams, Stephen Elliott, James Farentino, Kathryn Harrold, Henry Olek, Erica Yohn.
Description: The true story of Barry and Suzi Kaufman and their autistic 3-year-old son Ruan. The boy is high-functioning but erratic, with long periods of hyperactivity followed by lengthy interludes of withdrawal. Predictably, the ‘experts’ give up, but the Kaufmans don’t. They decide to monitor their son 24 hours a day to figure out what makes him tick, to discern his likes and dislikes, and to try to find some means of breaking into his nearly impenetrable private world.
Touched by Love (1980) USA 95min. Feature Film PG. Director: Gus Trikonis. Produced by: Columbia Michael Viner-Peter E. Strauss. Docudrama. Cast: Hal Erickson, Deborah Raffin, Diane Lane, Michael Learned, John Amos, Christina Raines, Margaret Clu Gulager, Twyla Volkins.
Based on the real Lena Canada’s book ‘To Elvis With Love,’ Low-key but emotionally supercharged film with Deborah Raffin portraying Lena Canada, a therapist in charge of handicapped Diane Lane. A wheelchair bound cerebral palsy victim, with signs of autism. Determined to bring Lane back into the world, Ms. Canada suggests that the girl start a pen-pal relationship with her favorite celebrity Elvis Presley. Co-starring Michael Learned as Lena’s superior, Dr. Bell; also in the cast are 16 special children from a school in Calgary.
Temple Grandin: A film has not yet been made of her life, but a documentary type extended interview was shot in 1999 by Tony Attwood to go with another book written by Temple. I believe this will be available on videotape.
There has been talk for the last 2 years (1999-2000) about a film deal about Donna,
in particular a graphic portrayal of her first shocking book ‘Nobody Nowhere’
Nothing has ever appeared and I do not know the reason why the work has stalled.
I last heard they were chasing Julia Roberts for the lead.
In view of Donnas almost reclusive lifestyle now, she may have withdrawn her support. In my last correspondence with her I did ask, but in the usual Donna style, she avoided the question.
In the meantime shes put out an album of music instead.
The following exercpt I found on her website in 2001 and it’s worth repeating:
‘So you heard there was going to be a film made of my books? We’ll, Touchstone, together with Julia Roberts’ company, did have the option to the film rights for five years…UNTIL August 2000. They are now finally again available. Who knows if or where a future buyer will come from. Previous offers came from France, Japan and Australia as well as Hollywood. There was also a Japanese TV (TBS ‘Things You Taught Me’- available on video throughout eastern Asia) series in 2000 which was informed by my books for its main character and featured two of the songs from my CD. Currently, there is discussion of another film project… we’ll keep you posted.
And how do I feel about the idea of a film representing me? It isn’t really mine, its theirs. Its like someone drawing a picture of you except they do it via a moving image of a representative. Even how they imagine you to think, to talk, to feel,… its from their heads and the THEY are generally non-auties. However lovely they may be as people (some are, some aren’t) they don’t experience sensory flooding, they don’t experience information overload or sensory perceptual fluctuations. They don’t live with exposure anxiety and the way it makes life very curly sometimes. More importantly, they aren’t me… me, that feel of beingness which is Donna- wild, unpredictable, naughty, deeply passionate, intensely tenacious, defiant, sensual, screwed up, buzz seeking, mad about a laugh, logical, manic, exhausted, phobic, self challenging, protective, literal, lost, simple, deep, surreal, eccentric, down to earth, pragmatic, raw, tentative, aloof, full on, exact, klutzy and gutsy. But still, to portray the autie side of life’s experiences as incidental to the human being they ffect is, for me, where the art is. THAT was the hardest thing for me to see in myself, that I was more than my mechanics. That the mechanics shape me but my personality, my environment, the way I identify, changes those mechanics, even when they have a strong physical basis. That’s wild.
I used to be intense about precision. I couldn’t bear misrepresentation. The media knocked that out of me. The way I am talked of, advertised, packaged, pulled apart, even heralded and praised, has taught me to give in about my insistance others must be precise in their representations of me. All I need to know is that I know me… and maybe those most personal and closest to me. But I had to learn to let them see me through their eyes, their feelings, their structures too. That was hard for such a purist. Anyway, the more strangers describe me through their own baggage or are way off mark from who I am or how I work, the more they have helped me to dearly value those close to me… and that was something I was very aloof about before. So I thank those who ever portrayed me wrong. You
helped me immensely. What can make us crumble, can often also make us more whole… its a matter of focus- self as a victim of crappy experiences versus crappy experiences as an indicator of what’s needed or how great other stuff is by contrast.
Gossip isn’t you and it isn’t yours unless you created it directly by your own hand. If its not yours, you can’t control it and time is worth everything. Change what you can but also learn that giving up isn’t giving in. Learn to say ‘so what’, ‘so bloody what’… then get on with it.
… donna :-)4
Melissa BEE (C) July 2000
updated April 16th 2001