With the Academy Awards coming up at the end of February, we at Love My Provider started ruminating on autism and the movies. Hollywood’s coverage of special needs has been somewhat on par with women’s issues and racial minorities – lacking, but slowly getting better. Let’s take a red-carpet look at the changing perception of autism in film by highlighting a few of the most memorable award-winning characters and movies to date.
RAIN MAN (1988) – Of course we must start here. Rain Man was the film that brought autism to the mainstream in a big way in the late ‘80s. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenwriting… and Best Actor kudos went to Dustin Hoffman for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt. Although the character was fictional, it was based on two real-life people – one a savant, the other mentally impaired. By most accounts, Rain Man was a brilliant depiction of a severely autistic savant, but due to general ignorance, Raymond soon came to stereotype the entire autism spectrum.
The misconception continued for years, and to some extent still exists today, though the entertainment industry has made efforts to correct this with the recent evolution of Aspies (high functioning autistic people) in pop culture, particularly on television shows. One standout is NBC drama PARENTHOOD. The heartbreakingly realistic characterization of Asperger’s Syndrome in young Max Braverman is credited largely to Exec Producer Jason Katims, who actually has a son with Asperger’s. It was a happy coincidence that Parenthood premiered the same year as our next great autism film was made…
TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010) – A full 22 years after Rain Man, HBO helped give autism a new face with its release of this movie about the now-famous author, advocate, and animal scientist. Dr. Grandin, who openly calls herself “an autistic”, first reached a wider audience in Oliver Sacks’ book, “An Anthropologist On Mars”. She later grew a following by speaking publicly about her experience living with autism. Her frank, detailed way of talking (and writing) touched people both on and off the spectrum. The multiple-award-winning HBO film, for which Claire Danes received a Golden Globe and Emmy as Best Actress, further enlightened us with its depiction of Temple Grandin’s journey from nonverbal child, to PhD graduate, to successful career woman/animal activist, despite the obstacles her disability created along the way.
THE IMITATION GAME (2014) – If you Google “famous people with autism” you’ll find pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing on many a list. While such a posthumous diagnosis is speculative, Turing was a math savant with socially awkward qualities that, combined, parallel today’s autism spectrum. Indeed, The Imitation Game at least got us talking more about genuine versus stereotypical autistic symptoms. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar nominated portrayal gave insight into how Turing’s quirky genius fueled his legacy as the father of the computer and the Enigma code breaker.
THE BIG SHORT (2015) – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this year’s Academy Award nominated film and its Best Supporting Actor nominee, Christian Bale. Most of the key characters in The Big Short, a film about the fall of the sub-prime mortgage market, are actually real people, including the unconventional Dr. Michael Burry, played by Bale. Dr. Burry diagnosed himself with Asperger’s Syndrome after his son received the same diagnosis formally. And in this film NOT about his diagnosis, Bale portrays Burry’s ASD “symptoms” with an understated elegance that simply creates an added layer to the man rather than personifying the man. Which is just as it should be.
Those are our favorite award-winning autism roles. What characters in film or TV have had an impact on your understanding of autism? We would love to hear from you.