BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 11:49 UK

Autistic impressions

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in Adam
Adam - a new film that portrays autism

By Laura Schocker
BBC News Magazine

Hollywood movies rarely deal with disability - except for autism, when characters are typically shown as having special intelligence. Why do we like to think everyone with autism is especially gifted?

In one evening, he memorised every name and number from A to G in the phone book. While waiting for a meal in a restaurant, he committed the entire tableside jukebox to memory.

A dropped box of toothpicks? One glance and he is certain that 246 have spilt on the floor.

His mind was like a computer and, for years, Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man character has often been the first reference point for autism.

Rain Man
Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbitt - setting the mould for autistic savant characters

Other films since this 1988 release have depicted similar areas of brilliance that are sometimes associated with autism, known as savant qualities.

In 1998, for instance, Mercury Rising told the story of a nine-year-old autistic boy who used his savant abilities to crack a $2bn encryption code.

And in Mozart and the Whale, a 2006 film about two savants with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism, Josh Hartnett's character could glance at his watch and then calculate exactly how long he has had his job as a taxi driver.

The link between autism and savant skills in cinemas is clear, but does art really imitate life? Do people with autism always have an amazing intellectual skill?

"The simple answer is no," says Dr Stuart Murray professor of contemporary literature and film at the University of Leeds and author of the book Representing Autism. "By far, the majority of people with autism do not have any kind of savant ability."

'Autism celebrities'

In fact, the current estimate is that one or two in 200 people with an autism spectrum disorder have a savant talent, according to the National Autistic Society, although the exact numbers are still unknown in the UK.

A developmental disability that influences how a person communicates and relates to others
Often referred to as a spectrum disorder - because it affects people differently
Asperger syndrome is a type of autism at the less severe end of that spectrum
More than half a million people in the UK have an autism spectrum disorder
Source: National Autistic Society

Well known savants - including Kim Peek, who partially inspired Rain Man, Steven Wiltshire, a London artist who can recall entire cityscapes after brief observation, and Daniel Tammet, author of Born on a Blue Day, about living as an autistic savant - are the exception to the autism rule, Dr Murray says.

"These people are almost like autism celebrities," he says. "It's not something that crops up very much in the day to day life of living with autism."

So if autistic savants are the exception and not the norm, why are they are they so over-represented in films?

"It's a very sexy way of looking at autism," says Jonathan Kaufman, president of Disability Works in the US and technical consultant for Adam, a new Hollywood film featuring a leading character with autism.

While his work with Adam, which went on general release in the UK at the weekend, was about capturing the day-to-day nuances of a person with Asperger's - something he wishes would happen more often - he understands why many films have seized on savants.

"It focuses on the almost superhuman nature of the disability itself," he says. "Somebody who is gifted has always had a place in society."

They tend to be the stories audiences want, says Dr Murray. Films about disabilities typically focus on two types of story lines, he says. Either:

  • the disability provides some kind of incredible skill or quality that "makes up" for the negative, or
  • the person finds a way to "rise above" adversity

"It doesn't seem to be as bad to be severely autistic if you're also skilled at maths or music," he says. "If it seems to be that with your disability comes an extraordinary ability, it takes away the worst aspects of being disabled."

Artistic licence

This can be a comfort to audiences.

Stephen Wiltshire
Stephen Wiltshire in a BBC documentary called Fragments of Genius

"Everybody who is not disabled is fundamentally very scared by the possibility of becoming disabled," says Dr Murray.

But what about people who do have autism? While mainstream movies with autistic characters may increase awareness about the disability, how does it affect what the public expect of the condition?

"I have spoken to many families who say that they feel really depressed and devastated when they get this portrayal," says Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development at the University College London.

While she understands films have artistic license to create compelling stories, the aftermath can be difficult for parents of children with autism.

"It seems almost like their fault that their child isn't like that."

And it can go beyond childhood. Robyn Steward, a 22-year-old in London with Asperger's syndrome says some people still think she's the Rain Man.

"People expect you, as an autistic person, to be really good at maths, or a walking calculator," she says. In reality, she doesn't care much for numbers. "Everyone is an individual and has their own interests and not everybody is a savant. So maybe people see it in Rain Man. But that's not the full story."

Many of recent films about autism have focused on characters with Asperger syndrome, says Dr Murray
People with Aspergers tend to have average or above average intelligence, but struggle to read social signals or understand jokes, metaphor or sarcasm
In Adam, for instance, Rose Byrne, who plays Adam's love interest, asks him, "Could you give me a hug?" He says yes and stands there until she makes things a bit clearer - "Adam, I'd like you to give me a hug."

What type of story would Steward like to see on the big screen? Something a bit closer to her own experience, maybe with a character diagnosed later in life, she says.

Dr Murray agrees. As a father of two children on the autistic spectrum, he says he relates more to something like The Black Balloon, an Australian film released last year. The story focuses on a family living with an autistic son and depicts scenes with the boy running down the street naked or throwing himself down on the supermarket floor.

It may not be as romantic as the story of a maths genius, but it's the reality, says Dr Murray.

"We've all had the supermarket thing happen. This rings true to us in a way that somebody doing the square root of a million and nine doesn't," he says.

The film was not a box office hit in the UK. It went straight to DVD.

Here is a selection of your comments.

My brother is severely autistic but we have recently found he does have a special ability - he can tell you what day of the week any day in history was. Ok, it'll never make a Hollywood blockbuster, but hopefully we can entertain some people in the queue at Sainsbury's rather than lying on the floor like he has done for the past 16 years!
Dave Howarth, Leatherhead, Surrey

My cousin is autistic and has an amazing ability to do jigsaws; she might start in the top left corner and completes the jigsaw row by row until she reaches the bottom right corner. She just seems to instinctively know exactly where each piece fits in the overall, 1000 piece plus, picture. So, it appears she has outstanding visual and spatial abilities but we cannot fully understand them, or her, as she cannot speak to us. I think this lack of verbal communication makes it difficult for people to identify with her, perhaps not making her, or other children with severe autism, ideal heroes for films.
Josie, Bristol

I don't think there is anything wrong with portraying autistic people as being gifted. It may not be factually correct but offsets a lot of the otherwise negative information around about autism. It is possible for people with autism to live full and happy (if different) lives. When parents of children with autism find out that their child is autistic they are bombarded with scare stories about how difficult the rest of their lives are going to be. It is good to have messages of hope out there and important to always keep a positive perspective when dealing with autism.
Charlie Browne, Ireland

My son, aged six has Asperger's Syndrome. He is of above average intelligence and does not have super human powers! However, like many on the autistic spectrum he has a "special" interest, in my son's case in cars. From a young age he could identify most makes and models of vehicle, and I am channelling that interest to help him with areas of academic life that he struggles with, such as maths. People don't see him as "autistic" they see this obsession as part of his personality. His school report described him as having a "charming personality" and "popular". All I want is for my son to have a happy, fulfilling life, and romanticising conditions such as Asperger's and autistic spectrum disorders does nothing to help this!
Rachel, Bristol, England

I am the father of a mildly autistic son who is now six years old, not Asperger's but Classic Kanners. I am always searching for something that reflects the type of autism my boy has. The Black Balloon was a great film but shows severe autism. I would like to heartily recommend the Dutch film "Ben X" (with English subtitles) which portrays a socially functioning but autistic teenager. Please can we have more like films like this one with it's realistic portrayal rather than Hollywood Glamour stories.
Paul Bruff, London

I have taught children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder for four years and while it's true that some are quite intelligent (though hard to measure) very, very few possess amazing super-skills. It is an unfair expectation and one that actually hinders society's willingness to grapple with the issue. The truly gifted have a chance of obtaining public support; the average get lost in the morass of official apathy and ignorance.
Keith Giunta, Camden, USA

Your article asks 'if autistic savants are the exception and not the norm, why are they are they so over-represented in films?' - that would be because if films represented real life then most of us wouldn't bother to watch. You don't walk down the street and see car chases, serial killers, and spies on every corner, but the day to day reality most of us live is simply not movie material. I suspect that the day to day reality of autism would be much the same.
Shiz, Cheshire, UK

Hollywood tends to avoid stories about physical disability too - except blindness. In "Scent of a Woman" Al Pacino plays a blind veteran whose sense of smell is greatly enhanced so that he can tell what perfume any woman is wearing. "Daredevil" has Ben Affleck's blind superhero able to use his advanced sense of hearing almost as sonar that gives him the ability to "see" his surroundings.

There are exceptions of course, but with blindness too cinema tries to give people pleasing stories: "don't worry, they may be blind, but by extension they get superpowers!"
Shane, Mayo, Ireland

I wish I had amazing skills with my autistic spectrum disorders! Sadly I just get problems with communicating, confusion with numbers and the added bonus of having walking outside be akin to an extreme sport.

Still, I've got lots of supportive friends and family, and a great job, so what more do I need.
Sharon, London, UK

My son who suffers from the autistic condition Asperger's Syndrome does not have super human powers. He struggled at school and at 29 still cannot add up or tell the time. Yet he can tell you everything you need to know (director/producer/date/music score etc) about a film he is interested in, and there are many.
Sue Birch, Mont de Marsan France

I have Asperger's and went to a special needs school for it. Most of the other people there had at least one thing that they were brilliant at, not at savant levels but certainly well above average. In addition to maths, science there was also experts in music, art, computing and stereo equipment to name but a few.

By the way, I'm 25 with a full time job (as an engineer) and a reasonably successful social life. Nowadays I just look upon my Asperger's as just another part of my personality.
Alan Munro, Inverness

There is another film that gives a more accurate portrayal of autism in adults and is also a fantastic film - Snow Cake starring Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver, which again never made it to cinemas in this country but is available on DVD.
Maggie , Wokingham UK

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