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Autism on Film: If I’m Crazy (For Being on the Spectrum), What Are You?

This is something that has always left me frustrated since I started getting into cinema as a result of my own struggle through my personal life. I’ve been seen as an introvert because I lived as one inside of this shadow, but what’s at the root of it all? I only found out as I was finishing up elementary school that I was diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). What exactly did this mean for me? I was always a clever student who sought only for the best solutions inside of his classes – but I always had trouble advocating for myself because I didn’t know how to address what exactly is “up” with me.

Among many things I can assure, there’s nothing exactly “wrong” with me but socially, I’m always going to be seen as the weird guy. Is it fun being on the spectrum? It’s a difficult question for me to ask because the way people see autism is where it decides what happens as a result. If I can find a means of connecting with others, I end up getting carried away by small details that would probably sound meaningless by the minute. This is where I’ve almost become alien to the social experience: and here’s where I can’t find any sort of a defense for the character that I am.

But being on the autistic spectrum has its own positives for myself, because of how much I keep inside of my head in great detail. I can remember small moments from films that I watch, or details about a person because my curiosity only can drive me far enough. There’s an extent it has found itself becoming helpful to my social experience because I’ve found myself able to communicate online through blogging/social media platforms, and I also acquired a big following through sharing my own love of film over on Letterboxd.

Nevertheless, the most frustrating part about being on the autistic spectrum for myself comes from how people seem to perceive it. Films and television have become gateways for people expressing their own voices as they tell their own stories and quite frankly some of the most notable examples have ended up setting up a fairly damaging image because it would be easy enough for people to assume they speak for all people on a spectrum, rather than an individual voice.

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There are two Best Picture-winning films which I’d like to single out especially for the sort of image that autism has received, like they speak for all people of the sort. The first I wish to pull up is Forrest Gump, a film I believe to be amongst the most overrated of all time. But “overrated” isn’t even enough to cover the way I feel about Forrest Gump, because as a matter of fact, I absolutely hate this film. I remember there was a point of my life when I was younger and I thought it was the absolute best thing ever. Gump may not have been an explicitly autistic character, but the very thought of following along everything as told as it will lead to good things is what it insists upon and one of many reasons it doesn’t sit well with me. It certainly doesn’t help at all that Gump is explicitly written as a mentally impaired man, but he doesn’t even develop a slight bit as the film progresses – he’s still doing everything as told because the film insists only good things happen that way. Gump doesn’t even stand up for anything, yet every character around him does and tragedy comes their way, and the image we get here is something so sickening especially upon my own sensibilities.

I’m probably a lot more forgiving of the second film that I wish to talk about, though, and that film is none other than Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. It was made clear that Levinson is telling a story about a man finding out that his father has left a good fortune upon his wake to a brother he was unaware of. This man is Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt, brother of Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt, the film’s lead. He’s on the autistic spectrum but also one who carries savant syndrome. There’s a big problem that comes around here when people don’t understand autism come in and then they form a perception that everyone who is a part of the spectrum acts in such a manner – but another thing to consider is the fact that the person whom he was based on didn’t have autism in the first place. Perhaps I’m finding myself far more forgiving than I should be unlike my reaction towards Forrest Gump because I like Rain Man well enough. But to look at a character like this and say that’s what all autistic people are like, empty from social experience and unable to move from the state they live within: quite frankly it isn’t something that sits well with me. And the fact it’s become recognized as an image of the spectrum as a whole rather than a single perspective, it’s fairly frightening to myself.

I don’t want to speak on behalf of every person with ASD because people have differing experiences considering the fact it’s a spectrum and thus; there’s no “definite” voice to speak for all. But speaking on behalf of my own self, these movies do not speak for my own experience. I’m still a person in the crowd like the rest of you, but it’s the fact I’m stuck within a line between fitting in with others in order to become more social and being myself, thus remaining introverted – everywhere I am, it’s where I struggle. I don’t even know how to reveal what hinders me from catching onto a specific task for a class I take part in, because I have this recurring fear at the back of my head that I’ll soon find myself undermined by how people have their own understanding of autism.

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Now going back to how autism is understood as a result of media I come back to two more Oscar-nominated films: I Am Sam and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Aside from the fact that both of these films have their own portraits of autism, what both films also share is how I’ve come to see both as two of my all-time least favourite films (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close especially being one that makes my blood boil). Perhaps it wasn’t stated directly in I Am Sam that its title character was autistic, but there’s a reason I lump it in the same category as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: it comes from how both films seem to take pride in having a lead character that suffers as a result of what’s perceived of them to the point it feels exploitative. Neither film had attempted at doing anything for our own behalf let alone understanding what our life is like on the spectrum, and therefore comes my heightened dislike of both films.

There’s a reason this topic of all is fairly important to me, it’s because I’ve already come to see autism as a defining point of my life and who I am as a person. I can’t talk with people properly in real life, although I’ve found great comfort in groups that I’m a part of on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, let alone a large following on Letterboxd. I get fairly obsessive, not only about films, but even smaller details that peers don’t catch onto on the first go, whether it be the music cues – how everything adds up to become what it is that I’m watching. What will it mean to other people, ultimately? There are people I know who would find this to be impressive and even on my own end, it has proven beneficial (my own obsessive deconstructions of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive being a perfect example), and then for others it comes off as meaningless.

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Where I want to talk about a film that carried such an empathy towards my own experience, I look back at Adam Elliot’s animated Mary and Max. As of yet, it still remains my favourite film to explicitly be about the experience about being on the autistic spectrum. In Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Max, what I saw was not just an animated character but a voice that got to the very core of what it is that we are like. We aren’t people who want to be cured of our autism, because it has become a part of our character. It was in this great empathy that Adam Elliot has for the experience where Mary and Max has already found its own place in my life as something so resonant; it was because it recognized how people like us were those who needed help. We needed help in finding a connection with the outside world in some way, so that we can properly share our understandings of the spectrum with people who can’t get past the basic thought of it making us seem like crazy people.

No “definitive” portrait of autism exists, and because it’s a very wide spectrum, the most that can ever come about first hand, is a singular portrait. And yet, it’s so easy to misrepresent the experience and it ends up becoming fairly harmful for how we are set to be seen by others. The most frustrating thing is the fact that it comes lumped around with other developmental disabilities and thus the most common perception being made is that it is always a negative. I’ve no doubt that it certainly has left me in becoming a hermit, but it has only become so easy to see it as a negative because the most that has become understood in regards to what we are like comes merely from stereotype as set from how media shows it. And thus it becomes so easy to forget that we also have our own capabilities as well.

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That’s not to say it has always been played as a negative, because in recent memory two more major releases have come about that ended up portraying autism as a positive, which was nice to see. My opinion on both of these films aside, the fact that we now have films like The Accountant and the recent Power Rangers reboot sharing autistic characters not merely as static figures who move because the world around them does so, but as other human beings who are capable of even more on the inside was beyond pleasing to see. Although I wish that both films were better, it was from here alone where I couldn’t bring myself to dislike either. From these two films alone, I was only given a sense of hope. I was hopeful that more films would actually come around to show autism the way these films do, as a part of what makes them human. It was in such films I recognized that we are ready to learn and move forward indeed. Because the fact that we have come far enough to have an autistic character as a superhero signified how we are human beings that are capable of far more.

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Perhaps he wasn’t a character on the spectrum, but there’s a reason I refer to Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King when I wish to talk about seeking empathy for our own cause. I’m not so sure what it was that Terry Gilliam would have wanted to form out of a character like Robin Williams’s Parry, it was because what I saw out of him was a man who needed help in finding a connection with the outside world once again after having lost everything. It was in there I saw that Terry Gilliam was making a calling for empathy, because in Parry there was so much about his own antics that found a resonance with myself, whether it be the resorting to fantasy (in his case, the search for the Holy Grail) and an inability to keep still. Among the many reasons that this has come to be my favourite performance of Robin Williams’s is how Gilliam made clear his own calling to see that these “insane” people were perhaps not so much what we think they are after all. They’re still human beings like the rest of us, looking for a means of coping with the flow the world moves in and thus, it has already become one of my favourite films ever to be made about mental health.

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There’s another part of me that wants to make their own calling towards Hal Ashby’s Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a simple man who made his own calling to the world from something as simple as utterances that come merely from how the fundamentals of the garden work. It didn’t need to be explicitly about autism in order for me to find this sort of a connection between me and Chance. In Being There, what I still saw was a mirror reflecting what a person like myself is like after being taken outside of their comfort zone. And the thoughtfulness to Hal Ashby’s film only formed something all the more beautiful, because even though Chance was a figure oblivious to his own surroundings just as I am in such overwhelming conditions – I’m still paranoid about how people see me as a result of the fact I’ve garnered a big following for myself. And like Chance, so much of what I learn comes from the help of a screen.

For as long as I’m still around, the way other people come to see autism is something that will remain important to me. And speaking on behalf of my own self as always, I don’t want it to be seen as a hindrance. I want it to be seen as a part of my own character, something which I, quite frankly, cannot change. And it’s frustrating enough that films that offer their own take come from an understanding that almost feels so limited at its very best to an outsider’s perspective or bordering towards a stereotype. I’m still just a person in need of help, because I get overwhelmed so easily to the point my brain can’t think properly. I can’t stand still for a period of time and I always pace around the room, mumbling to myself. I loop the same songs to myself (maybe even just one in particular depending on where I am) like I’m trapped within a certain mood. I get nervous when I talk with other people because I keep thinking about what happens to how they think of me when I mess up, and then as a result I end up dropping what I had on mind because I don’t know what to say to them. But I’m not an idiot nor am I impaired, I’m just seeking help.

To take the tagline for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then apply it to what I’d imagine you’re reading here from a third-person point of view, “If he’s crazy, what does that make you?”

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I don't know if you know this, but I love movies.

One thought on “Autism on Film: If I’m Crazy (For Being on the Spectrum), What Are You?

  1. Very wonderful post. It is definitely interesting and insightful to get your input on movies trying to portray ASD in some way. I absolutely love Mary and Max as well, not just because they are my late paternal grandparents’ names, but it is about two introverted people who randomly connect and share a great deal in common. So much to discuss!

    Liked by 1 person

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