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Is Rain Man such a bad image of autism?

This week in Sheffield is the showing of the theatre production of Rain Man. The film has a bad press in the autistic community for giving people a stereotype of a person with autism – a secret genius with a hidden gift, but completely inept at everything else – that is inaccurate and widely believed. It also made autism the new fad disability, leading to an influx of self-diagnosis by people who clearly are not autistic. But does it deserve such a bad reputation or is it just a film?

All the Yes points:

  1. A bad stereotype of an autistic person.
  2. Making autism ‘popular’ caused a rise in self-diagnosis

All the No points:

  1. At least people know what autism is now.
  2. Support from the National Autistic Society.
  3. People think(sometimes wrongly) that ALL Autistic persons are geniuses

A bad stereotype of an autistic person.

Yes because…

Raymond is a very exaggerated stereotype. He has an extreme disability – he is very rigidly bound by a schedule, he cannot do much without assistance, he has serious communication difficulties. His mathematical gift is very extreme. Most people with autism don’t have genius-level intelligence or specific skills, and while they have significant difficulties that affect them in every aspect of day-to-day life, it doesn’t completely disable them. Also, if memory serves me correctly, he has no physical coordination problems. He makes a poor model of a person with autism. This has now become the most popular stereotype of a person with autism, so people assume that when they meet a person with autism, they will be ‘like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man’.

Films such as Rain Man have another less well known negative aspect – they all feature male autistic people. Females with autism are very heavily under-represented. Not only are they a small minority anyway, they are more difficult to diagnose because the female social role encourages women to hide behaviour traits that would lead to a diagnosis of autism, and the fact that almost every single stereotype of an autistic person is male, while female autism is actually very different to male autism, means that people who see a woman with autism might not associate them with stereotypes of autism.

No because…

It is practically impossible to represent EVERY autistic person. Autism is such a varied condition, it is different with every individual case. It would take thousands of films, or a film with a cast of thousands of autistic people, to characterise every different possible way that a person with autism could be. At least the character is actually autistic (probably Asperger’s, but definitely on the autistic spectrum). Besides, how is it the film’s fault that some people are so stupid that they think everyone they meet will be like a fictional character?

Making autism ‘popular’ caused a rise in self-diagnosis

Yes because…

After autism became popular because it was featured in a big hit film, it became a ‘fad disability’. Everyone thought they had autism. Most of the people who thought they had it clearly didn’t – they were trying to gain sympathy while being rude and antisocial, or just trying to get benefits in an era when autism was the easiest condition to get diagnosed with, but nobody really knew what autism was, so you might get a diagnosis even if you clearly aren’t autistic. This had a negative impact on people with genuine autism, who now might not be believed, or might have their benefits pool diluted. It also had a negative impact on the people who were self-diagnosing, as they were receiving the wrong sort of treatment and believing a lie about themselves, when they might even have a different disability altogether.

No because…

A fad disability is exactly that – a fad. It will pass. A new favourite medical condition will come along. Which is more popular right now, autism or swine flu?

At least people know what autism is now.

No because…

Some recognition is better than no recognition at all. While it is not a particularly good representation of autism, it has the basics right. As a child, when my school realised I had autism, they went from punishing me for being nadly behaved, to treating me like a person with a disability, keeping me away from situations that set off my involuntary behaviour and panic reactions, letting me have a support person to stop people bullying me. They were still useless – they gave me no help with social skills or careers guidance, which I badly needed, and they were extremely patronising – but at least they weren’t hostile any more.

Yes because…

Sure but there are different types of awareness.

There’s a type of awareness that actually shows people on the spectrum in a realistic light and then there is the wrong type of awareness that says that autistic people need to be pitied and despite having special traits suffer from their condition when the reality can be more complex. That type of recognition can actually be counterproductive as it may help a person in their young age it either ignores them as an adult or helps to deny the advanced services available amongst other things.

What’s more there are now better depictions of autism and Aspergers Syndrome than Rain Man (For example Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy or the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time so the film gives a basic and dated image of autism and the “help” available.

Support from the National Autistic Society.

No because…

School children with autism invited to meet the producers of the theatrical performance of ‘Rain Man’, a visit organised by the Sheffield Autistic Society, were overjoyed. The National Autistic Society is heavily involved in getting the production shown in various theatres. The production is involved in the autistic community, they get something out of it, so it isn’t exploitation.

Yes because…

The National Autistic Society is the only British based autistic organisation to have supported. And while as much as I respect and admire the NAS being a member of it, the organisation faces a difficult balancing act with the views and interests of it’s parents as opposed to the views and interests of its autistic members. This was demonstrated in the McKinnon case where the organisation took a far more aggressive approach then it should have done. So don’t assume that just because the NAS backs something it automatically means that the Autistic community support it entirely.

People think(sometimes wrongly) that ALL Autistic persons are geniuses

No because…

How is that tarnishing their image? A least no one thinks they are retarded anymore and the idea/celebration of the ‘autistic savant’ is wonderfully grandiose.

Yes because…

It lays down expectations on you to be a genius, making you feel like an underachiever if you aren’t, or people will think you’re not autistic if you aren’t a genius. For a person with autism who takes everything literally or automatically obeys orders, it can make them think the same of themselves.

Some people still yell ‘retard’ at you if you act unusual even if they don’t know whether you’re autistic or not.

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6 years ago

I said yes only because I know that is definitely not me. I’m not mathematically-inclined and I don’t have a “robotic”
voice. About the only thing that makes autistics alike is
the way they are judged and bullied by neurotypicals who believe themselves to be so privileged and cool. Of course
“cool” rhymes with “cruel.”

6 years ago

I love this movie. However, it is a VERY bad image of autism. It creates unrealistic societal expectations for most people with autism. It instills unrealistic expectations of the parents raising autistic children. Worse, during the early years of diagnosis, it creates a false hope in which the parent is constantly looking for the “silver lining,” that evasive savant ability within their child who is suffering and who needs, above all else, acceptance. It lengthens the “grieving period” by giving false hope where there likely is none.

7 years ago

I voted no, but I would like to add a few comments. His character is actually based off of a real, rare case of ASD mixed with being a Savant. That should have been more clearly illustrated, but it is technically accurate. I would like to see films that show other versions of autism that are also realistic though, and show the less than glamourous aspects more. It’s not necessarily accurate, but it is more or less just a movie and it’s much more accurate than other portrayals. Plus, the first step to acceptance and treatment is the exposure to the condition. People know what it is, and it’s semi-accurate, but people do need to know that the majority of autistic individuals are average, and nearly 40% are below average as far as intelligence is concerned.

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