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Autism and Hollywood: Superheroes and super-victims


Hollywood's didactic approach to a complicated medical condition needs a little refinement...

Autism, Hollywood-style

I am a father. I have two wonderful children who see the world in their own unique way, and every day they teach and challenge me in various ways. But unlike many other children, there are few characters in movies or television that they can fully relate to like other kids can.

Both of my children are Autistic.

Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) in the CBS crime drama 'Criminal Minds'For those of you who have never dealt with anyone on the Autism Spectrum, I would like to express that you have been given only a glimpse of what it’s like by films and television. All too often Hollywood likes to rely on two stereotypical representations: The silent, non-verbal portrayal and the savant. Only recently have we seen more high-functioning characters, breaking away from those portrayals, such as the character of Dr. Spencer Reid on the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds, who has been hinted at having Asperger syndrome.

One would suppose that it’s easier to write those characters in such a way because it’s easier for audiences to see the disorder. Unlike Down’s syndrome or other disorders, Autism isn’t always apparent to the casual observer. Also, writers need to work the character’s condition into the story somehow, which means that either they are portrayed as the helpless handicapped person who needs looking after, thus gaining the audience’s sympathy for them or for those who are “burdened” by their task, or they are somehow inherently crucial to the plot, as their savant talents either make them the key to figuring out the “puzzle” of the story (like Sarah in Dark Floors), or they make them a target (Simon Lynch in Mercury Rising).

Hollywood has had a long history with trying to shoehorn certain characters into stories for the sake of trying to gain audiences, but often with little finesse. For years, the 'magic' minority was the character who somehow had all of the answers or some magical ability that would inevitably help the lead white character out. Even today, screenwriters utilize those characters, even when the idea behind it can be construed as racist - such as when groups accused the writers of The Legend of Bagger Vance of such racism, using Will Smith as the “magic Negro”.

Mercury Rising (1998)In some ways, this has been transferred to those characters with disabilities. It’s one thing to make a movie about a character with such a disorder, but when you make their strengths near-Herculean in their portrayal, suddenly you have a real story. But again, these characters are typically being manipulated, or at the very least doing what comes naturally to them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of others, usually the neurotypical (the more correct term, instead of the condescending “normal”).

It’s not that all of these films are fundamentally flawed. The aforementioned Mercury Rising is an entertaining – if far-fetched – action thriller, starring Miko Hughes as Simon, an Autistic boy who lives day to day with his mother, going through the same routines and schedule. Until one day he happens upon a puzzle magazine and solves a puzzle in which was an encrypted phone number for the NSA, who decide to have him silenced (because this is standard protocol for the NSA). He is then found and protected by FBI agent Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis), who keeps him safe and kills everyone out to get the boy.

Claire Danes in 'Temple Grandin' (US TV, 2010)Hughes’ portrayal of a young boy with Autism is very real, never relying on stereotypical tricks or nonsense. Other films have also done well with their portrayals of those on the Autism Spectrum, but they have mostly been independent films, made-for-TV movies or the more “high brow” films that most film-goers aren’t interested in. Even docudramas such as 2010’s Temple Grandin – based on the life of the woman who revolutionized livestock handling practices – have done well in showing what someone with such a disorder can accomplish without having special powers or abilities outside of being able to see the world through different eyes other than our own. Claire Danes, who played Grandin in the picture, won an Emmy Award, a SAG Award, and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal. All this, and yet Hollywood still can’t seem to get it exactly right.

Unfortunately, it’s the hidden nature and the mystery of Autism that makes it elusive for writing a character with the disorder. Even with the research that has been done, there is little that is known about why it occurs, how it manifests, or what, if any, environmental or biological factors may be cause it. Because of this, you have those outspoken opponents who believe that the disorder doesn’t exist, and that it’s simply bad parenting or just unruly children, or even lazy doctors who just over-diagnose. Worse yet, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy are continually putting misinformation out about vaccines causing Autism which is completely unsubstantiated. So when you have a enigmatic disorder such as this, it can make for some difficulty in trying to correctly write a character when you can’t fully explain who they are or why they act like they do. So you have the old reliable standbys: the savant, the grunting, screaming soul trapped inside a helpless body - or Rain Man.

Perhaps there is no good way to write a film around such a character, but I would hope that more writers will try. Movies have always been a medium in which messages can be conveyed, and they can often inspire a dialogue among viewers. Films can put a spotlight on a myriad of topics from cancer, AIDS, the Holocaust, the LGBT community, corporate greed, corrupt governments...the list goes on and on. So instead of just placing these characters in the background or bestowing up them unearthly abilities, write them as they really are: Human.


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#1 Superb Article Richard Cosgrove 2012-04-05 14:18
A brilliant article, Caleb, and one that I know is very close to your heart. Funnily enough just before this popped up on Shadowlocked I was just thinking, after reading your tweet earlier, that I wanted to highlight the fact that April is National Autism Awareness Month in the US, and now I can do so by sharing and tweeting about your article!

Again, great work, my friend.
Richard Cosgrove

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