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Chapter 3: An Inventory of Existing Representations of Spectrum Conditions . 43

3.4 Discussion: Film Inventory



Ten respondents9 answered the question ‘What is the poorest or most inaccurate representation of autism?’ in film. Some respondents named more than one film. Seven respondents (47% of those that had seen it) listed Rainman as the poorest representation of autism; this negative rating was most often attributed to the prevalence of the savant diagnosis. For example, one respondent stated,

“it makes it seem like ASD is a super power and that is not a good representation of the spectrum”. Change of Habit and Mercury Rising were also mentioned as depicting poor representations of autism. Moreover, one respondent named The Black Balloon as the worst representation, stating, “doesn’t use visuals” as the reason.


by raising awareness of the characteristics that connect the community through the representation and illustration of the autism-affected population.

Conversely, and perhaps more likely, it can increase the production of a stereotyped, inaccurate figure that personifies the characteristics of ASD without acknowledging the individual; unfortunately, this likely contributes to an inadequate ‘common face’ of autism for the lay public to ‘understand’. For example, autism has become a common household term that carries a mistaken sense of ‘knowing autism’. Take for instance media reports that associate aggressive behaviour and Asperger Syndrome, for example, “Assault Charges Dropped Because Rock Singer has Asperger’s” the Daily Telegraph (November 26, 2004) or the headlines, “Connecticut school shooting thrusts autism into national spotlight” (The Examiner, December 12, 2012) and “Brother claims Connecticut shooter was Autistic,” (The Examiner, December 14, 2012). Although there was a swift and strong response from experts and members of the autism community negating such claims, the association between autism and violence had already infiltrated the public domain. The celebrity autism persona has been tarnished through negative associations. These negative associations, although unfounded, can also be witnessed in the horror genre (between demonic power and autism), in the drama genre (where the individual with autism is a burden), and via responses to the survey in which Rainman was identified by respondents as being the poorest representation of autism due to inaccuracies and associations with savant abilities. The depiction of autism in Rainman likely adds to the unrealistic expectations of persons with autism that are expressed by teachers (Soto-Chodiman et al., 2012).

The discussion of any potential ‘education’ to be derived from film begins with the quality of the representations, and the extent to which the filmic images reflect social discourse and media depiction. Hollywood continues to vastly under-represent the diversity within the actual Autistic Community, and thereby restricts the presentation of varied spectrum-related characteristics and the diversity of their abilities. The ‘education’ a lay viewer receives from

‘witnessing’ (to use Murray’s (2008) term) the characteristics of autism remains constrained by the essential formulaic plot characteristics of the genre.


59 3.4.1 Trends Over Time

Conn and Bhugra (2012, p56) identified 23 “films in which a diagnosis of autism is specifically stated” (in the script or in promotional material), limited to only cinema-released films. Comparatively, this thesis includes a number of films that were made-for-TV (e.g., The Unexpected Journey; Under the Piano; After Thomas). The inclusion of made-for-television films (see Table 3.1) was based on their accessibility. It is worth noting that a made-for-television film, Temple Grandin, was identified in the survey as being a good portrayal of autism.

These films, however, do not have the capacity to draw box office sales equal to those of widely released and marketed films, and are therefore less likely to become embedded in social discourse. Furthermore, some films (e.g., Nell, that was included in the Conn & Bhugra (2012) study) were excluded from this thesis, as they do not contain identified representations of spectrum conditions.

Additionally, this thesis excluded some films (e.g., Change of Habit, and The Boy Who Could Fly), that were not identified by the producers in the trailer or on the DVD box as having an ASD portrayal in them; this occurred even though a character was clearly identified as having an ASD in the dialogue of the film. In these films, the characteristics portrayed would likely not warrant an autistic diagnosis (Conn & Bhugra, 2012). Disturbingly, although perhaps in line with cultural and societal perspectives at the time, Change of Habit displays holding therapy, where over one relatively short session the main character ‘loves’ the autism out of a little girl, curing her on the spot. As autism is a lifelong disorder (Mesibov, 1993) the representation of ‘cure’ diminishes the boundless impact of this diagnosis for the lay viewer.

3.4.2 Representation of Diagnostic Characteristics

There is a lack of consensus amongst professionals in the use of terminology to describe degrees of affectedness from autism to Asperger Syndrome, and what is meant by ASD (Attwood, 2006). The professionals that responded to the survey indicated that they unanimously used the term ASD, however, what they meant when they said ASD differed. The variations in meaning ranged from


autism including AS (n=11) to autism excluding AS (n=2). The 49 films use a variety of descriptors from ‘autism’ and ‘autistic’ to ‘Asperger Syndrome’ to convey the featuring of characters from a discrete category of people. This is problematic (Barkley, 2004; McGuire, 2012), particularly because the social movement towards neurodiversity may not be considered when presented through the entertainment medium since resistance is low and the film portrayals clearly identify ‘otherness’. This would mean that in labelling the character as ‘autistic’ the viewer is not forced to confront their ‘ideas’ of difference when they watch the film; in effect, they have been given permission to negate any similarity between themselves and the atypical character.

Mirroring the blurred use of terminology by professionals and film synopses is the interchangeable identification of a film character through dialogue using terms such as autistic, Asperger Syndrome, and high functioning autism. This hazy application of terms complicates the consistency of the portrayal for the lay viewer, which is reflected in social discourse (Draaisma, 2009). In Mozart and the Whale various terms are used interchangeably to describe the male protagonist as autistic (sic), having autism (sic), having Asperger's (sic) or having Asperger Syndrome (sic); additionally he is identified as having a savant mathematical ability. Although this film is based on the life of Jerry Newport (a man with Asperger Syndrome and a savant mathematical ability), the characteristics overlay a number of different terms, distorting the discrete diagnoses represented.

Contrary to the limited representation of the ASD-affected population in general, and furthering the confused understanding of what diagnosis is represented, there is an over-representation of unidentified savantism. The unidentified savantism far supersedes the 10% of films portraying this characteristic that were identified in the survey; for example, the films Chocolate and Silent Fall feature characters that would likely warrant a savant diagnosis but are not identified as such in the synopsis. This over- representation of ‘super ability’

supports the fallacy that these exceptional skills are a common component of the ASD diagnosis, furthering the incorrect ‘collective awareness’ of members of the autism community. Additionally, the major box office hits Rainman and Mercury



Rising use savant skills entrenched in an ASD character portrayal to drive a plot forward. The glorified presence of the savant skills risks propagating a negative ideology, i.e., to be of value an affected individual requires compensatory qualities (Draaisma, 2009; Murray, 2008). This increases the stigma experienced by people with “mental disorders” as a consequence of the public being exposed to inaccurate portrayals (Gabbard & Gabbard, 1999).

Furthering the inaccurate information about savantism or other associated characteristics is the tendency for film characters to be described in a short conversation, often between neurotypical characters and a medical figure (e.g., Rainman or Molly; these conversations often include a list of characteristics to

‘explain’ the condition, some of which may not be components of the diagnosis.

Likewise, high profile films like Mercury Rising portray a boy with autism who can crack a government super code in seconds, but the savant diagnosis is only mentioned as an explanation for the character’s incredible ability.

‘But it’s not unusual for an autistic person to be a savant... he might not actually be able to decipher the code, it may just appear to him.’ (Leo Pedransko, Government Security Mathematician, Mercury Rising (1998)) The statement is inaccurate as only 10% of the autistic population is savant (Exkorn, 2005).

3.4.3 Influence of Film Genre

The majority of films identified with ASD portrayals were found in the drama genre (n=26). The dominance of the drama genre may be attributable to the formulaic plot (Redfern, 2012) found in many of the films in which autism is used to drive the story and evoke feelings of empathy or sympathy (Murray, 2006). Most of the films represented in this genre have not been distributed in cinemas, and have been available for limited viewing and special events only.

Limited release restricts these films in their contributions to the ‘understanding’

or ‘misunderstanding’ of autism because there are fewer promotional materials and fewer media articles about them, and therefore less discourse and referencing power (Valentine, 2001). Regardless, the sheer number of films in


this genre warrants attention as most drama genre films follow similar plot lines and contain characters that are limited in their representation of associated characteristics, which allows a blanket understanding of autism through film.

Within the formulaic blanket of dramatic representation there are two subclasses of the drama genre, romance and biographies. Romance films deserve specific mention because the interpersonal, specifically romantic, relationships highlighted in these films (e.g. Adam) are not commonly associated with the general knowledge of autism. The four films dealing with intimate relationships and spectrum disorders all feature characters portraying AS. In this case, the representation can be interpreted to be positive as it indicates that Hollywood is beginning to explore, and illustrate, this facet of the lives of those affected by ASD, those once deemed emotionless (Kerbeshian & Burd, 1986).

Like romance films, the biography subclass (e.g., Temple Grandin and Mozart and the Whale) is of interest because it too provides variance from typical plots.

The literature indicates that films based on a true story are more credible and have a greater impact on public perception (Moyer‐Gusé, 2008), making biographies potentially more powerful than ‘fictional’ films found in other genres.

Films such as Guarding Eddy, Ben X, or Mary and Max state that they are based on true stories, potentially resulting in being judged as more realistic than other films in the eyes of the viewer, a contention that warrants further investigation.

Similar to biographies, and perhaps having more potential for influencing the public, are the films found in the documentary genre [11 films]. These films have not yet made a notable impact in the box office, nor have many of them been released into the cinema; however, this may change as the social ‘flocking’

towards ASD-related scripts increases. Interestingly, documentaries are a genre that has potential for large returns for producers (Redfern, 2012), as well as the ability to influence social discourse and policy. More investment in this realm might be worthwhile in raising awareness about ASD.



The other genre that is particularly useful in raising awareness about ASD is the animation genre. Animation is a genre known to be highly consumable for people with spectrum disorders (Baker, 2008). The potential for this genre to represent ASD accurately while maintaining entertainment value is significant as there are no limitations imposed by the skill of the actor or in the visual demonstration of thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, as entertainment media has already been established as contributing to ‘knowledge’, there is great potential for films in this genre to aid newly diagnosed adolescents in understanding the diagnosis and providing opportunities for self-reflection and peer education. Unfortunately, this genre is only represented by one film, Mary and Max, which features a character portraying Asperger Syndrome in the form of a Claymation (molded plasticine animation).

Next to the drama genre, the highest distribution of films featuring a character on the spectrum is in the horror/thriller genre. Disturbingly, the representation of autism in these films likely contributes to a negative influence on the social

‘knowledge’ about the autism condition. Many of the films portraying autism within this domain contain associations between demonic power and autistic diagnosis (e.g., Burning Bright and The Daisy Chain). Bless the Child begins the story with a description of characteristics that indicate the child may have autism; however, by the end of the film the viewer understands that the child actually has omnipotent power that could be used for good or for evil. Although the film disregards the original contention of autism, the association of autism with the supernatural, particularly evil, power is a potential catalyst for damaging attitudes and perceptions towards individuals affected by autism.

Further adding to the presence of ASD in a genre with negative associations are two thrillers, Silent Fall and Cube. Silent Fall features a child with autism who witnesses a gruesome murder, while Cube is a science fiction thriller, which depicts a man with autism who is a burden to the neurotypical characters who are trying to escape a cube that has trapped them. In both instances, the autism-affected character has a savant skill, which implies that investment by


neurotypical characters is worthwhile as the ASD character is a commodity, acting as the key to survival or finding the truth.

The genre of a film has relevance to both the box office sales and the influence on recall of the film (Redfern, 2012). If the scenes with ASD portrayals found in horror, thriller and action films (n=9) are more memorable due to their emotive nature, they could also be associated with negative feelings or attitudes towards people on the spectrum. The demonic association of autism characteristics in films and references to ‘being in their own world’ that are often heard in news media or documentary descriptions could assimilate into images of autism that actually reduce the public’s openness or positive attitudes towards affected persons. With the high entertainment value and large box office sales of films in these genres, there exists a realistic probability that using a disorder to drive the plot could perpetuate negative stereotypes.