Beyond Rain Man: Where do Autistic people see themselves in Film & TV?
Mention autism to people and a lot may picture children, often with a fondness for trains. Or if they picture an adult, it could be Raymond Babbitt - the Dustin Hoffman character from Rain Man. The misconception is believing the spectrum is a straight line, with “severe” autism at one end, Asperger’s syndrome somewhere in the middle, and allistic people at the other (allistic simply means, “not autistic”). They almost always picture white males. However, this is not the identity held by a lot of autistic adults who have found people like them; in supportive groups online; an accepting coming together of people of all genders and races, who are often married, have children, are working, and able to function for the most part with variable support needs depending on how their autism manifests. This discovery often comes after years of misdiagnoses with various personality disorders or mental health issues, anxiety and depression, generally caused by their autism being unsupported and manifesting in stressed and destructive behaviours. Functioning labels are, for progressive autistics, a thing of the past, and their support needs can vary depending on the demands put upon them and the task at hand.
Autism is characterised by sensory differences, social communication differences, and repetitive behaviour patterns. Beyond that though there is a huge variation in how autism appears from person to person. A lot of autistic people with low support needs spend much of their time masking, this is mimicking those around them to “pass” as allistic, and why a lot of us are a bit annoyed when people say “but you don’t look autistic”. What people often don’t understand is that masking is extremely tiring. A couple of hours' socialising results in a social hangover which takes time to recover from. For the negatives though, there are of course positives. Autistic people often enjoy something called special interests, things that they are absolutely fascinated by and can lose hours doing or learning about. Many of us are the masters of the Google rabbit hole. We are also often natural problem solvers, pattern and fault finders and moral compasses. My main Special Interest is film, by the way.
Autism has only existed as a recognisable diagnosable condition since the 1940s, however if you look back at historical figures, the signs are everywhere, and a great deal of famous people have been posthumously theorised as being autistic. There are films made about some of these historical figures and many are widely accepted as autistic, however in the interest of avoiding being too much of an armchair diagnostician, I will not be talking about those people here.
There are also theories about certain fictional characters, as writers create them based on people they know (or on themselves) these autistic traits slip into books and onto screens. Some writers have resisted these theories, however as autistic people are so rarely represented along with their diagnosis, if autists recognise themselves in your character then for all intents and purposes you’ve written an autistic character. Even if you aren’t aware of it.
Occasionally characters onscreen are identified as autistic or on the spectrum. Recent examples include Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay) in Shane Black’s The Predator (2018) and Billy – The Blue Ranger (RJ Cyler) in Dean Isrealite’s Power Rangers (2017). The usual issues of bullying are approached in both films, and they both show characters who are capable and valuable whilst giving an honest face to their neurotype. Power Rangers in particular, gives a true value to Billy’s character. Billy is a central part of the team and, while Jason (Dacre Montgomery) is the leader, Billy is the heart. A lot of autistics have a very strong sense of morality, a fairness beyond personal allegiances, allowing them to be the peacemakers and the conscience of a group.
The Predator takes another tack, Rory is portrayed as a problem solver, but the film puts a lot of weight on autism being “the next stage in human evolution” which is… not true. Contrary to those who claim autism is a modern epidemic, there is archeological and anthropological evidence of diverse neurotypes going back to the stone age. It does make sense that the Predator would want to use some of Rory’s DNA, and it’s good that they see those aspects as a positive; imagine a strong hunter with out of the box thinking processes (like humans for example!). The treatment of Baxley (Thomas Jane), a character with Tourette’s, is less kind, as he is regularly made the butt of the jokes throughout the film. Tourette’s is also an example of neurodiversity alongside autism so this unfortunately undermines some of the positive aspects of the representation.
Another positive recent example is Holly Gibney in Stephen King adaptations Mr. Mercedes (2017) and The Outsider (2020). Stephen King is quoted as saying that Holly is one of the most interesting characters in his entire lexicon. These separate productions cast different actresses, Justine Lupe and Cynthia Erivo, who both play the role brilliantly and distinctly, representing different periods in Holly's life. Mr. Mercedes presents Holly as very young, she is infantilised by her mother especially. However Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) and other supporting characters recognise her potential as a lateral thinker and help her develop into a competent investigator. In The Outsider Holly has matured into an independent investigator, with a reputation for seeing things that others can't, filling a similar role to Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in the series Hannibal (2013). Long thought of as a male condition it is becoming more and more clear that autism is present across all genders and races. It is refreshing to see this character type across different productions, allowing autistics from different backgrounds to find empowering representations of themselves on screen.
The eccentric creatives that are a common feature in King’s work can almost all be read as being potentially on the spectrum. Even King's recurring supernatural elements; telepathy in particular, are manifested physically as a hypersensitivity to stimuli. An autistic watching these hypersensitive characters who need to hide from people sometimes, and protect themselves by wearing sunglasses or ear defenders, will relate to and understand how these characters feel. Even if they don’t have actual superpowers. Likewise, a lot of alien characters can be coded similarly to autistic humans, as they are trying to navigate a world in which they aren’t familiar with the customs and social rules. When I have described my own autism to people, I have suggested it as constantly being like visiting another planet where you don’t know the social rules and don’t have a natural way of picking them up.
There are also characters who are coded as autistic, but are not clearly identified as such in the text. The most obvious example here is Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019). While a lot of people find his character offensive, reductive, or stereotypical of someone on the spectrum; I watched the whole series amused at the similarities between us, especially as he matured. As much as he learnt how to negotiate his friendships, they also learnt how to work around him. There are some moments that will make some people cringe, (“I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”), but while his friends sometimes find him frustrating, they never abandon him. This non-ableist approach appealed to me, as he didn’t become more allistic as time went on. This illustrates some of the issues found in writing characters who are labelled as autistic. One person’s stereotype is another’s reality, and no two autistics are the same.
A character who goes some way to displaying the way an autistic brain approaches a moral problem is Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) from The Good Place (2016-2020). Although the stereotype is that of black-and-white thinking, a great deal of us look at things very broadly, able to see every shade of grey across an entire spectrum of thinking. The philosophical arguments that Chidi deals with in negotiating the afterlife, the consequential stress caused by that, and the way a simple decision can paralyse him is something familiar to a lot of autistics; even down to making simple choices such as what flavour ice cream to have. Often autistics will make a decision in advance if possible, meaning that if they get there and that option isn’t there, having to rethink their decision can take a long time. Chidi verbalises that conflict in academic and philosophical terms.
The computer programmer stereotype is also a common one, and there are some great examples of empowered autistics within that. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace/Rooney Mara) in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009/2011) is clearly coded as an autistic character. She hyperfocusses on her investigations, and appears cold and unfeeling but manifests her feelings in actions rather than words.
Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) in the series Halt and Catch Fire (2014) is another brilliant example. When she and the other female lead Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) start Mutiny, Cameron struggles to manage the multiple parts of running a business, and relies on Donna to overcome her shortcomings so she can focus on game design and coding. It also features one of the best examples of a meltdown I’ve seen on screen. When Cameron believes her work has been lost, her reaction is uncontrolled and highly emotional. She is unable to see beyond what has been lost to solve the issue and seeks help to work through the problem and retrieve it. Once it has been mostly retrieved, the hyperfocus kicks in again and she can’t rest until she has rebuilt her program. This does not mean that all technologically minded characters are autistic. Donna is a very strong, capable and smart female character who presents as allistic whilst also being incredibly skilled in her field.
The X-Men universe has always been a great source of solidarity for outsiders, and the autistic community is no exception. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) wears a literal mask to get by, and in X2 (2003) when Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) asks her why she doesn’t “stay in disguise all the time” she responds “because we shouldn’t have to”. That exchange resonates hugely as an autistic person, as we are expected to hide autistic traits and habits, attempting to pass as an allistic person in order to be accepted. There’s another line in the same film where Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) is asked by his mother “have you tried, not being a mutant?”. This exchange is all too familiar. That is not to say that autistic people are false, it is mostly just that we are suppressing things like stims (self stimulatory behaviour) and consciously making an effort to react, talk, and emote in a way that other people expect. The feelings are there of course, but what they look like on the outside doesn’t always match what is happening on the inside without conscious effort. This conscious effort always comes at a cost, it is tiring, and eventually leads to burnout, along with those pesky mental health issues I mentioned earlier.
If you’ve found this interesting there are plenty of resources out there you can have a look at. You may have read this and thought “Hey! This all sounds a bit familiar, maybe I’m on the spectrum?”. If so you may want to check out the following…
- If you’re a book fan, Neurotribes by Steve Silberman goes into a lot of autism diagnoses’ problematic history, along with some positive stories and accounts of historical figures who are likely on the spectrum.
- For a really touching account of coming to terms with an autism diagnosis in adulthood, check out Reaffirmation by Rees Finlay
- If you’re into video essays, Yo Samdy Sam does videos on loads of different aspects of the autistic experience. https://yosamdysam.com/
- If you like short comics and artwork then Hvppyhands is a facebook page you can follow. https://www.facebook.com/HVPPYHANDS/
- This blog: https://neuroclastic.com/2019/05/04/its-a-spectrum-doesnt-mean-what-you-think/ is a great description of why we don’t like functioning labels and what the spectrum actually represents.
- It’s worth noting that there’s a common rhetoric that “we’re all a little bit autistic”, which isn’t true and minimises the autistic experience. Autism is a positive thing in a lot of ways, but it is still recognised as a disability. This blog explains this further: https://undercoverautism.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/arent-we-all-a-little-bit-on-the-spectrum/
- This link I’m including just because it’s really cool and talks about autism in an anthropological sense: https://www.intechopen.com/books/recent-advances-in-autism-spectrum-disorders-volume-ii/the-stone-age-origins-of-autism. NB: This article has a few issues with functioning language, so please bear that in mind when reading.
The Predator (2018)
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