The Definitional Power of Film
Craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, also known as lionitis, is an extremely rare bone disorder that may lead to blindness, hearing loss, mental illness, or epilepsy (Robert-Gnansia). The disorder is familiar to members of the general public primarily by virtue of Eric Stoltz's powerful performance in the 1985 film Mask , in which Stoltz portrays Rocky Dennis, the bright and facially disfigured teenage son of a self-centered drug-using biker-chick played by Cher. This film provides a powerful, memorable definition of a disorder that otherwise the general public might know nothing about.
In a similar manner, autistic spectrum disorders are defined to the general public by films and popular portrayals of autism. 1988's Rain Man serves as the public's primary definitional text for autistic spectrum disorders. People use the term rain man to describe individuals who exhibit autistic characteristics; rain man indexes autism in general. Several other films have echoed and reinforced Dustin Hoffman's characterization of autism--notably, Mercury Rising , Bless the Child , Molly , Steven King's Rose Red , and Cube . Together these films construct a composite definition of autism that includes these features: extreme discomfort with the unfamiliar, echolalic and monotonic speech, difficulty understanding social cues, unusual preoccupations, pronounced lack of affect, and auditory hypersensitivity. For audiences who are not familiar with autism, characters in such films serve as definitional maps of the unknown territory of autistic spectrum disorder. In Rosemarie Garland Thomson's terms, such texts offer audiences a "discursive construct of the disabled figure" (9).
While there's nothing inherently wrong with the phenomenon of films shaping and defining disabilities for the general public, the plots of these films deploy autism in ways that misinform audiences. In these films, art misrepresents reality in important ways. In order to explore the disparity between autism as it is represented in feature films and the experiences of real people living with autism, this paper illustrates ways that popular depictions of autism spectacularize the disability, identifies troubling themes regarding depictions of parents of individuals with autism, and explains how cinematic representations of autism may be reconciled with the realities of living with autism.
Films, of course, have no monopoly on sensational media presentations of autistic individuals. Neither, of course, is autism the only disability displayed sensationally by the media or in film. Autism, however, is a disability that lends itself particularly well to two different modes of presentation, and film is especially capable of employing both modes simultaneously. In his carnival history Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit , Robert Bogdan describes two modes of display for freak show exhibits, "two major patterns by which exhibits were presented to the public: the exotic, which cast the exhibit as a strange creature from a little-known part of the world; and the aggrandized, which endowed the freak with status-enhancing characteristics" (Bogdan 97). In public presentations of autism, the individual with autism is usually depicted as otherworldly or in his or her own world, separate from the normal world. Such otherworldiness is expressed even in titles of texts about autism: note the title of the 2005 award-winning documentary Autism is a World . Similarly, Time 's May 6, 2002, cover story employs the same rhetorical construction: "Inside the World of Autism" is printed across the torso of a beautiful blond boy with his eyes closed, frozen in the middle of an otherworldly dance. Without a known etiology or cure, without a consistently successful treatment regimen, autism is an exotic disorder. Individuals with autism portrayed in public narratives such as films, novels, or human-interest media texts are unknowable; they are mysteries on display. When the individual with autism is additionally endowed with skills or talents, the exhibition of autism is stretched to include both the exotic and the aggrandized. Autism becomes a spectacle. No wonder Hollywood is attracted to autism.
Feature films tend to define autistic behaviors consistently; actors who portray autistic characters usually do their homework, and producers hire expert medical consultants. Feature films also employ autism as a strikingly consistent plot device. The formula for a feature film about autism is firmly ingrained; it even spans a variety of film genres: action/thriller ( Mercury Rising , Bless the Child ), drama ( Molly , Rain Man ), horror ( Steven King's Rose Red ), and science fiction ( Cube ). Whatever the genre, the recipe is basically the same:
1) Introduce a hero . Bruce Willis plays a renegade FBI agent in Mercury Rising . Kim Basinger plays a benevolent nurse in Bless the Child . Tom Cruise in Rain Man plays a little less typical hero as a sleazy salesman.
2) Introduce a character who exhibits enough visible traits to label him or her autistic . Usually, the autistic individual is a prepubescent boy or girl. Mercury Rising 's Simon is nine years old, although in Simple Simon , the novel on which the movie is based, Simon is sixteen. In the movie, Simon's speech is limited and slow, he avoids direct eye contact, and he requires strict routines for entering his house and going to sleep. Bless the Child 's Cody is five, although in the novel of the same name she's only three. Cody rocks back and forth, spins plates, and has limited speech. Kazan, the adult with autism in Cube , rocks back and forth and flaps his hands. In Molly , Elisabeth Shue's 28-year-old character speaks in limited monotones. Autistic characters in each film tends to walk differently and avert their eyes either heavenward or downward.
3) Make the autistic character cute, endearing, innocent, or attractively quirky . Cute autistic children such as Simon or Cody are automatically innocent, attractive, and endearing. As an adult inmate in the deadly Rubik's-Cube-type prison, Cube 's Kazan isn't automatically cute or endearing, but his actions construct him as childlike and innocent. He urinates without shame or malice with other characters in the room, he communicates his fear through tantrum-like behaviors, and he is motivated by jellybeans to help his group escape. Undeniably, Rain Man 's Raymond Babbitt is attractively quirky, due in part to his comic use of echolalia and verbal repetition: "K-Mart sucks," "Four minutes to Wapner," and "I'm an excellent driver." And Elizabeth Shue's Molly exhibits an engagingly blissful innocence (the movie's tagline: "Innocence is bliss").
4) Establish the autistic character's vulnerability by depicting his or her reliance upon parents or caregivers . In Mercury Rising , Simon needs his parents' assistance preparing a cup of cocoa, and he needs his father to rock him to sleep. Both Bless the Child and Mercury Rising depict their autistic characters attending special schools that can accommodate their exceptional needs. Raymond Babbitt's and Molly's rituals in their respective institutions have obviously been in place for years. As the inmates form a group in Cube , Kazan is immediately assisted and defended by the only doctor in the group, and he relies upon her to help him climb from cell to cell.
5) Endow the autistic character with savant skills or superhuman powers . In Rain Man , two Vegas casino employees who are watching over the blackjack table deem Raymond's card-counting feat humanly impossible:
"I don't see him using a computer."
"He's not, but something's not right. We know there's no one in the world who can count into a six-deck chute."
In Cube , Kazan calculates factors of complex numbers, which happen to be the keys to predicting the arrangement of rooms in the Cube. According to the mathematician in the group, Kazan's immediate answers would take weeks of calculation with a supercomputer. Mercury Rising 's Simon cracks the government's uncrackable new encryption code at a single glance. In Bless the Child , a hug from Cody is curative; she resuscitates a dead pigeon in the schoolyard, sends a fellow diner's cancer into remission, and heals Kim Basinger's fatal bullet wounds in a cathedral. In Steven King's Rose Red , a haunted-mansion miniseries, Annie is an autistic girl with telekinetic powers. As a child, she incites a rock storm on her neighbor's house by drawing it with heavy crayon strokes, and her powers are later enlisted to awaken a dormant haunted mansion. In Molly , when Molly becomes "normal" temporarily (thanks to an experimental medical procedure), her non-autistic persona possesses a nearly superhuman zest for life.
6) Separate the autistic character from his or her parents or parental figures . Custody is a major theme in films about autism. In Mercury Rising , Simon's parents are murdered at home by a government agent in an attempt to eliminate anything that might render the code vulnerable. In Bless the Child , Cody is abandoned by her drug-abusing mother and raised instead by her loving aunt, played by Kim Basinger. Then Cody's birth mother returns, married to a Satanic cult leader, claims custody rights, and abducts the child. Raymond Babbitt is abducted from his institutional home by his long-lost little brother Charlie.
6) Endanger the autistic character . Typically, danger to the autistic character arises when his or her special powers are desired by a villainous character. Mercury Rising 's Simon is hunted by NSA agents who intend to kill him so that the encryption code will remain invulnerable. In Bless the Child , the cult leader wants either to exploit Cody's direct connection to God for the forces of evil or to kill her. Raymond Babbitt's ability to count cards and his inability to keep a secret make him vulnerable to detection by authorities. At the very least, though, autistic characters are endangered when they are removed from their safe environments, as is the case when Molly's institution is forced to close.
7) Allow the hero to save and/or bond with the autistic character, perhaps even replacing the parent . Although Cody's birth mother is assumedly no longer a cult member at the end of Bless the Child , Kim Basinger retains custody. In Mercury Rising , Simon and Bruce Willis's character share a Rain Man -like hug at the end of the movie. In Cube , Kazan is the only character who escapes from the Cube; the other inmates are killed, some heroically, some less than heroically. In Rose Red , Annie finds a boyfriend among the psychics who survive the haunted house. In Molly , Molly regresses to her former autistic self and moves in with her formerly intolerant and impatient brother. The sibling dynamics at the end of Molly are nearly identical to those in Rain Man .
The most troubling feature embedded in this formula is the spectacularization of autism. Plots hinge on the way that some other character can use the special powers of the autistic character. Autism is only a viable plot device--and autistic characters are only viable characters--if a spectacular skill or power is among the defining features of the character's disability. Autistic characters are only in the movies because they have spectacular powers. Remove the savant or supernatural power, the film loses its plot, and the autistic character loses his or her raison d'etre.
After abandoning Cody to Maggie's (Kim Basinger's) care in Bless the Child , Cody's birth mother only wants custody of her daughter so that Cody's supernatural powers can be harnessed by the cult. Cody's spectacular powers are the only trait valued by her birth mother.
Similarly, in Mercury Rising , Simon's superhuman deciphering skills are the sole reason that he becomes endangered. When we see Simon deciphering the government's code, we even hear computer-calculation sound effects to signal to us that he's doing something only a computer could do. Without his savant ability to crack the government's encryption code, Simon would not be targeted by NSA henchmen or need Bruce Willis's character to protect him. In both films, the autistic characters' spectacular powers set the entire plot into motion. If Cody and Simon were merely autistic, there would be no motive for the villains to pursue the children.
The same is true in Rose Red , in which an obsessed psychology professor recognizes Annie's telekinetic powers and invites her to join a team of psychics. Annie is clearly far more potent and pure than the other psychically gifted (but non-autistic) members of the group. Not unlike Simon cracking government code, Annie uses her spectacular powers to unlock secret passages of the haunted house, to make the hidden visible.
In Cube , according to its director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali, the autistic character is the least human of all the inmates: "Kazan is essentially a computer." He's "essentially their portable pocket calculator," their "reward for taking him along" as they work toward their escape (Director Commentary). Kazan's non-savant autistic traits--his inability to control his speech and fear, his need for assistance--severely annoy three of the four other members of the group. Kazan's spectacular skills are the only way that the group can decipher the Cube's arrangement of cells; even the mathematician in the group is unable to calculate in ways that begin to approach Kazan's skills. His savant skills are the only way he is useful to the group; without his phenomenal factoring abilities, the group would likely have ditched him in one of the safe cells and proceeded without him, essentially sentencing him to death, since no food or water is available in the Cube.
In Rain Man , abducting and spending time with Raymond and his autistic traits is a real drag for Tom Cruise's character, until Raymond's savant mathematical skills redeem his value to his get-rich-quick brother. Without Raymond's spectacular ability to count cards, he is merely a burden to his brother, only an annoying means to extort the brother's inheritance from Raymond's institution. Similarly in Molly , Molly's estranged brother only desires to spend time with her once she's undergone the miraculous medical procedure that reveals her irrepressible joie de vivre. With autism removed, she's a useful, viable, worthy sister. It's clearly her autistic traits that make her unlovable to her own brother.
By spectacularizing autism and featuring savant or supernatural powers as a key component of the disability, these films provide a misleading definition of autism: autism is always conflated with savant syndrome. While fewer than 10% of individuals with autism demonstrate savant skills (Treffert), these films construct this minority as the norm for individuals with autism. Through these films, the general public learns that all autistic individuals must have some sort of savant powers. A composite definition of autism that includes savant skills is not a helpful or productive definition. Such a definition may place unreasonable expectations on individuals with autism. For older children and adults with non-savant autism, popular conflation of autism with savant skills could damage self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. Additionally, Jonathan Mitchell notes, savant expectations of autistic children "provides fodder for the special educators, special education attorneys, ABA therapists etc. to legitimize their profits and to encourage the false hope and tears for toasted snow that so many parents of these children have." When spectacular abilities serve as the sole quality that marks autistic characters as useful or desirable to these films' non-autistic characters, audiences may conclude that people with autism who are not savants may not be acceptable or desirable in the neurotypical world. Parents and others close to autism must contend with the definition of autism that includes spectacular or savant powers as a crucially requisite feature, even when this definition fails to match their lived experiences.
Another troubling component of the formula for films about autism is the role of the parent and family. Parents and family members either lack a strong bond to the autistic character, or they are removed from the plot, either of which makes the autistic individual a more vulnerable, more pathetic character. Parents of children with autism are sometimes portrayed as insufficiently compassionate. The birth mother in Bless the Child abandons Cody at nine days old, and it is suggested that the mother's drug use and lack of compassion for Cody is in part responsible for the child's autism--shades of autism as refrigerator mother syndrome. In Rose Red 's first scene, four-year-old Annie's telekinetic powers escalate as her parents' argument about her disability grows louder downstairs. Judging from their argument in this only scene from her childhood, neither parent accepts Annie and her disability, and it's Annie's sister who later serves as her guardian in the haunted mansion. In both Rain Man and Molly , the adult characters with autism have been living in institutions for most of their lives. Parents in these films have chosen to institutionalize the child with autism; subsequently in both cases, the parents died, leaving estranged brothers as the closest family member. In Cube , all characters, including Kazan, have been abducted in their sleep and imprisoned in the Cube. The audience gains no information about Kazan's pre-cube life, except that he has earned jellybeans for solving math problems in the past. In Mercury Rising , the only feature film in this group that depicts parents loving their child with autism, the parents are quickly killed in the government's attempt to eliminate the threat to its encryption code.
The absence or removal of strong familial bonds in these movies certainly serves to intensify the autistic characters' vulnerability and endangerment. The autistic plot is basically a fish-out-of-water plot, the water being the safe environment created--through much trial and error, love and acceptance, joy and pain--by caring families or specialized institutions. By neglecting to explore the home environment of the autistic individual and how it has been constructed, these films miss a great chance to tell a different kind of story. The building of trust, the creation of rituals, the development of quirks--all aspects of an autistic individual with which family members and caregivers have experience and familiarity--are all erased in films about autism that give short shrift to the home environment or remove it altogether. Thomson explains that this erasure is a matter of oversimplification in characters with disabilities:
Characters are thus necessarily rendered by a few determining strokes that create an illusion of reality far short of the intricate, undifferentiated, and uninterpreted context in which real people exist. . . . [T]extual descriptions are overdetermined: they invest the traits, qualities, and behaviors of their characters with much rhetorical influence simply by omitting--and therefore erasing--other factors or traits that might mitigate or complicate the delineations. (10)
Additionally, parental absence might even suggest that perhaps parents and families aren't the best caretakers for autistic individuals. Given the medical community's history of publicly blaming mothers for children's autism, parental absence in films with autistic characters presents an unfortunate opportunity for an audience to construct parental culpability for the child's disability.
Reconciling Portrayals of Autism
For most audiences, the composite definitions of autism offered by feature films and other popular texts are challenged or replaced only when new public narratives or private experiences render them insufficient or inaccurate. People who live with autism--autistic individuals, their families, their caregivers, their friends, professionals who work with them--inhabit an alternative subject position when viewing films or reading other popular representations of autism. They enter a movie with preconceived, experience-based notions about autism through which they read the movie's version of the disability. As a parent of a child with autism, I am simultaneously repulsed by and desperately drawn toward representations of autism in popular culture. I experience these portrayals of spectacularized autism and parental absence in extremely personal ways, even as I intellectualize them as problems. When Simon's loving parents are murdered in Mercury Rising , I am frightened for my own son Jake. What if I were murdered? I check the door locks. How vulnerable is my son? I wonder quickly how much life insurance we have. What would Jake do without us, his parents? When I see movie representations of autism, I wonder if my son has savant skills that I just haven't recognized yet. What if he's not good at math? What if he's just normally autistic? Will people besides his family and friends value him? How? Why?
When my son Jake was diagnosed as autistic in 1999, he was just shy of his second birthday. On several occasions where I've shared news that my son is autistic, I've heard, "I saw a movie with Bruce Willis that had this kid with autism," or "I saw this autistic kid on 20/20 who played concert piano." I've been asked if Jake is good at math, as if being good at math is some consolation prize for being autistic. I've heard, "Autistic? Oh yeah, like Rain Man." No, not exactly. While Jake shares a diagnostic label with Raymond Babbitt, Jake can't count toothpicks at a glance, he's only eight, he's never lived in an institution, his parents aren't dead, he doesn't have a brother who kidnaps him, he's never been to Vegas, and he doesn't care where his underpants were purchased, although he doesn't particularly like K-Mart. He does, however, really like his Spiderman and Hulk underpants. Sometimes he strips down to his underpants, flexes his skinny arms, growls, and says, "I'm Hulk. Rrrrr!" Jake likes roller coasters and once rode thirty-one times in less than four hours. Not quite spectacular, but a feat of endurance nonetheless, even on a slow day at the amusement park. This summer he learned to swim a little, although not with any official Olympic stroke. He can eat a plate of waffles with syrup in less than a minute. During the fall of Jake's first-grade year, he aced six spelling tests in a row, although he earned an F on last week's test. He can express his basic needs and preferences, but he can't describe how his day at school went. He can't tell us when he feels sick, but he can recite long stretches of dialogue and sound effects from his favorite videos. Sometimes he's upset, sometimes he's euphoric. I could go on, but suffice it to say that Jake's autism differs dramatically from spectacularized versions depicted in feature films.
While onscreen representations of autism trouble me both as an academic and as a parent, I find ways to reconcile movie versions of autism with my own intimate definitions of autism. I recognize moves, rituals, quirks, and details that redeem the film's spectacularized portrayal of the disability and validate my own experiences with autism. In an early scene of Mercury Rising , Simon flips ritualistically through his PECS-style booklet of friends' faces on his bus ride home from school; the audience sees that he needs this booklet. I recognize Jake, who always takes a set of his favorite pictures with him to look through in the backseat of the minivan. Simon's mother greets him at the door and lets him in, according to their usual routine, and she and the camera linger for a moment as the audience sees Simon's typical neighbor kids playing baseball in the street. I recognize that look, that feeling, that nagging wish that my son might want to join the typical kids in their game. These elements in the film aren't spectacular moments. For many audience members, these moments serve at least as exposition; they establish the autistic character as different from other characters or evoke general pathos for the autistic individual. From my subject position as a member of the autism-experienced audience, though, these moments are poignant, profound, resonant. These moments identify and distill my own experiences. I am rewarded by these moments because they depict my son and my life.
It's these moments in films about autism--not the spectacularized plot elements--that are helpful in deepening understanding of disabilities. Michael Berube argues that disabilities demand narratives: "Whether the disability in question is perceptible or imperceptible, a matter of a congenital illness or of a degenerative disease, an effect of aging or the object of the inconceivably rude query How did you get that way? , disability, too, demands a story" (570). While disabilities demand stories, we have evidence that Hollywood demands stories that are spectacularized. In spite of the troubling plot elements, though, audience members can find value in these representations of autism. I look for recognizable glimpses of Jake in movies about autism, glimpses of myself, of my wife, of my life; I look for ways to better understand my son and my life. I look for autism as I know it so that I can know that other viewers may better understand my son and better understand some of the non-spectacular, everyday realities and complexities of living with autism.
Berube, Michael. "Disability and Narrative." PMLA 120.2 (2005):568-576.
Bless the Child . Dir. Chuck Russell. Paramount, 2000.
Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit . Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Cube . Dir. Vincenzo Natali. Lions Gate, 1997.
Mask . Dir. Peter Bogdanovich. Universal, 1985.
Mercury Rising . Dir. Harold Becker. Universal, 1998.
Mitchell, Jonathan. "Undiagnosing Gates, Jefferson and Einstein." Jonathan Mitchell . 2004. Jonathan Mitchell. 4 October 2005 < http://www.jonathans-stories.com/non-fiction/undiagnosing.html >
Molly . Dir. John Duigan. MGM, 1998.
Rain Man . Dir. Barry Levinson. MGM, 1988.
Robert-Gnansia, E. "Craniodiaphyseal Dysplasia." Orphanet. October 2004. Orphanet. 4 October 2005 < http://www.orpha.net/consor/cgi-bin/OC_Exp.php?Lng=GB&Expert=1513 >
Steven King's Rose Red . Dir. Criag R. Baxley. Lions Gate, 2002.
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature . New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
Treffert, Darold A. "The Savant Syndrome: Islands of Genius." Wisconsin Medical Society . 2005. Wisconsin Medical Society. 4 October 2005 < http://www.wisconsinmedicalsociety.org/savant/islands.cfm >