Is Hollywood’s Portrayal of Autism Authentic or Unrealistic?

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Hollywood is known for its exaggeration of common or unremarkable situations in order to sell a story on the big screen. While most people know this, the portrayal of some subjects and characters are often people’s only exposure to these scenarios, which can cause confusion over what to expect when encountering those same situations in real life. Hollywood does this particularly with commonly misunderstood disorders, such as autism.

There are no shortage of TV shows and films that depict characters with autism, or characters who are given characteristics of individuals with autism. However, how accurately they are being portrayed has been a subject of speculation.

Autism is a serious developmental disorder that impacts a child or adult’s nervous system and impairs their ability to communicate and interact socially. The symptoms a person exhibits can vary greatly but often involve inappropriate social interaction, poor eye contact, compulsive behavior, impulsivity, and repetitive movements. However, with specialized training in behavior analysis, special education teachers can create individualized strategies for students with autism to help improve their symptoms.

In the days before autism was properly diagnosed, patients were relegated to the general diagnosis of intellectual or learning disabilities. However, autism is now considered separate from intellectual disabilities, and has even been associated with higher intelligence. People with autism feel most of the ways other people feel, although they don’t always understand what exactly they’re feeling. They also enjoy films and music, and they can benefit from music to reduce their symptoms and help them relax.

In Hollywood, we often see autism portrayed on one end of the spectrum or the other — and not so much in between. The following are a few Hollywood films that portray people with autism.

Rain Main (1988)

Rain Man classic film stars Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) as the autistic older brother of Charlie (Tom Cruise), who plays a self-centered LA-based auto dealer. When their father dies, Charlie returns home to Cincinnati, where he realizes he has an older brother. Motivated by the $3 million his father left to the mental institution where Raymond lives, he takes Raymond with him to the West Coast, and their experiences along the way bring about a lot of growth.

In this film, Raymond is a high-functioning person with autism who uses his superb memory recall to help Charlie win tens of thousands of dollars in a Las Vegas blackjack game by counting cards. Although autism has been associated with higher intelligence and even genius characteristics in some cases, these cases are considered rare. Portraying such individuals largely as geniuses can lead people to expect this out of any person with autism they know.

I Am Sam (1998)

I Am Sam is a movie about a father named Sam (Sean Penn) who suffers from learning disabilities and is doing his best to raise his bright daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning). Lucy’s mother left early on, and he’s been taking care of her ever since. Although they have a loving relationship, Sam has the IQ of a seven-year-old, which eventually brings up concerns about his ability to be a good parent for her. The drama’s tense scenes take place in a courtroom where a pro-bono lawyer tries to help him keep custody of his daughter.

Although Sam is mostly portrayed as a father with a learning disability, he is also portrayed to have autistic tendencies. When he’s thinking, he looks up; he plays with his own fingers and has hand tremors; he plays with his tongue; and a lot of the time, when someone is talking to him, his mouth is partly open. He also has neat and obsessive compulsive tendencies. However, there is a difference between autism and such learning disorders, and although there can be crossover, they seem to combine both issues without displaying definitive symptoms of Sam’s condition.

Adam (2009)

This film is a romantic comedy featuring Hugh Dancy as Adam, who is a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. The movie follows the relationship between Adam and Beth (Rose Byrne), who meet after she moves into the apartment above his. Adam quickly becomes infatuated with her and wants to form a relationship with her enough to break out of some of his routines. Although she eventually falls in love with him, they get into a fight near the end of the film. When he gets a job in California and asks her to go with him, she concludes she’s not in love with him.

Because Adam has Asperger’s syndrome, he is not as neurodiverse as the other films depicted here. However, at the end of the film, when Adam is working at the observatory and his photographic memory helps him succeed at his new job, it seems as though he learned to pick up on social cues enough to begin to join social situations.

Although people with Asperger’s can learn to change their behavior, it’s often something that they must train to accomplish. In its position in the film, it seems as though Adam simply went through a difficult life situation that taught him to change his behavior, which is typically how the average person learns to change. Therefore, it gives the impression that Asperger’s behaviors are something that can simply be changed.

Please Stand By (2017)

Starring Dakota Fanning as Wendy, Please Stand By is a comedy-drama about a smart young woman with autism who has a Star Trek fixation and spends her time writing scripts to enter for a Paramount Pictures’ screenwriting contest with a $100,000 prize. She lives in a group home and wants to go home with her sister, but after missing the mail-in date for the contest, she decides to go to LA to enter the script in person. The movie depicts her feats along the way.

People with autism have a tendency to fixate on hobbies and interests, as obsessing over these things can be a source of enjoyment and coping with day-to-day life for them. In the film, Wendy uses writing as a creative outlet that helps her express herself. This is one of many ways a creative endeavor helps people with autism to address their emotional, psychological, cognitive, and social needs.

Throughout many of these films, characters with autism are correctly depicted as having routines they must uphold in order to feel comfortable, as well as challenges with expressing their emotions effectively and in ways that are considered socially acceptable. However, there are also some plots, scenes, and developments throughout the films that don’t stay true to those on the autism spectrum. Still, Hollywood is not known for its scientific accuracy, and these characters have provided the public with a loose understanding of what autism looks like.

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Paul Devine

The founder of The People's Movies, started the site 20th November 2008.The site has excelled past all expectations with many only giving the site months and it's still going strong. A lover of French Thrillers, Post Apocalyptic films, Asian cinema. 2009 started Cinehouse to start his 'cinema education' learning their is life outside mainstream cinema. Outside of film, love to travel with Sorrento, Guangzhou and Manchester all favourite destinations.Musically loves David Bowie, Fishbone, Radiohead.

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