Despite all the media attention this week about tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony, I have little interest in this annual event. I don’t care what the celebrities are wearing, and we haven’t seen any of the movies nominated for awards this year. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time we went to a movie theater; we only see movies when they come to the cable movie channels we subscribe to at home. Because movie theaters tend to be loud and crowded, we don’t take Alex to the movies; moreover, he really doesn’t like movies of any kind anymore. When he was younger, he loved the Disney movie videos and watched them over and over, and he would even rewind the videotape to watch certain favorite scenes repeatedly. Now he prefers watching sports or game shows to anything that has a plot, so I can’t imagine him sitting through a two-hour movie. In the spirit of Oscar’s big night, however, I thought today was an appropriate time to review some of the best movies made that feature characters with autism.
Recently, I watched Dear John on cable and was pleasantly surprised that the movie adaptation of the book is actually quite good. While I am a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks’ books, the movies made based upon his books are often embarrassingly bad. The movie Dear John, however, portrays the characters well, especially John’s father, who apparently has the autism spectrum disorder Asperger’s syndrome with his obsessive interest in coin collecting and difficulty interacting with others. In addition, the young actor who portrays Savannah’s stepson, Alan, who has autism, captures the typical characteristics of autism, such as poor eye contact, in a believable way. In contrast, the young boy with autism in the thriller Silent Fall, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a therapist working with the boy after his parents’ murder, has a strange and uncanny ability to imitate voices, which seems quite untypical of children with autism. A much better movie with a similar plot is Mercury Rising, which stars Bruce Willis as an FBI agent who must protect a boy with autism who possesses savant code-breaking skills after his parents are murdered. Even though the boy is nonverbal, the bond that develops between him and his protector is interesting and endearing as they face several crises throughout the movie. Another movie that addresses some of the issues of autism is House of Cards, in which Kathleen Turner plays the mother of a daughter who becomes mute and obsessive after the death of her father. In trying to understand her daughter’s behavior, which has similarities to autism, she goes to a school and observes children with autism. In one scene, she watches two children “talking” in numbers, and she figures out that they are sequencing prime numbers. To join in their “conversation,” she says prime numbers, too, and then she can interact with them. Since Alex has a fascination with prime numbers and has memorized many of them in order, this movie scene resonates with me. Also, the mother’s realization that she must have an understanding of her daughter’s viewpoint and concerns in order to communicate with her makes perfect sense to me. When we have worked with Alex to understand the source of his concerns, we were then able to relieve his anxiety. In all of these movies, the “typical” characters struggled to understand the unique perspective of the children with autism but were eventually able to connect and communicate with them in some way in order to help them, which is a positive message these movies can send.
While these movies with minor characters who have autism offer a new perspective, two movies featuring adults with autism as major characters clearly stand above the rest. Last year’s HBO movie Temple Grandin adeptly depicts the life of the title character and her struggles with and triumphs over autism. The outstanding script and cast, including Claire Danes skillfully portraying Temple Grandin, deservedly won several Emmy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. I found the visual representation of how Temple’s mind processes ideas especially intriguing as she catalogs all the mental pictures associated with the words she hears, for instance, picturing every shoe she has ever seen when she hears the word shoe. Since Alex has told us that he sees words and numbers in his mind, I suspect he also sees pictures as he tries to process what is said to him. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Temple Grandin, my favorite movie about autism is Rain Man, which I saw before Alex was born, long before I knew we would have a child of our own with autism. Certainly, the excellent script, directing, and acting made it deserving of the Academy Awards it earned that year. While some have criticized the movie for stereotyping people with autism as all being savants, the character of Raymond with his fears and talents makes him much more than a flat character that one might expect from a person with autism. Before Alex was diagnosed with autism, I felt great sympathy for Raymond, but after he was diagnosed, I identified with his brother Charlie, who takes on the role of caretaker. While Charlie’s motivation and impatience are less than admirable, his frustration is honest and justifiable. I also admire his flexibility and resourcefulness to keep Raymond from having meltdowns—from lying that he’s from the Nielsen rating group so that Raymond can watch People’s Court on television with the family in Iowa to using a protractor to cut Raymond’s fish sticks in half to have the “proper” number for Raymond’s inflexible routine. I doubt there are few parents of children with autism who have not at one time or another ranted about an obsession that was driving them crazy, such as one in which Charlie yells, “Underwear is underwear! It is underwear wherever you buy it!” Although we’re not proud of those moments, we are human, and that human nature in Charlie makes him believable and likeable, even to the point Raymond forms an emotional connection with him in a short time. The final scene in which Raymond says goodbye to Charlie, saying, “One for bad, two for good,” always moves me; definitely, Rain Man gets “two for good” in my book for how well it shows people with autism and their ability to interact, albeit in unconventional ways.
“And may the Lord our God show us his approval and make our efforts successful. Yes, make our efforts successful!” Psalm 90:17