Autism on Screen-Mozart and the Whale

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

To mark the end of autism awareness month, today I’d like to tell you about a film that in my opinion, is probably the most realistic representation of autism on screen- the 2005 romantic-comedy-drama film ‘Mozart and the Whale.

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(This film is also called ‘Crazy in Love‘ in some parts of the world)

The film follows the turbulent relationship between Donald (Josh Hartnett) and Isabelle (Radha Mitchell)- two adults with Asperger’s syndrome who meet at an autism support group.

Check out the trailer below:

What makes this film stand out from the crowd is that the film illustrates two very different pictures of AS and two different levels of functionality.

Donald, contrary to the OCD stereotype, lives in a hoarders paradise surrounded by birds (and their droppings…), and works as a taxi driver as he is unable to navigate job interviews to make use of his university degree. Isabelle in contrast lives in a highly organized environment, hairdressing by day and painting by night; maintaining a relatively normal social life and appearing to outsiders as merely eccentric.

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In watching their interactions, a clear difference emerges in their expression of  AS. In addition to this, the background support groups also provide us with different pictures of autism with no two characters appearing the same.

Autism is unique, and this film remains true to that.

Another key element to this film is that of gender and autism. Other films such as ‘Snow Cake‘, have a tendency to portray women using the male experience of the condition, however, in this film we can see that there is a clear difference between autistic men and women.

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Unlike Donald, Isabelle appears relatively normal to an outsider, albeit eccentric. She performs better socially and in the workplace, and largely appears to be in control. The film also hints at Isabelle’s developed social coping skills when she says:

I can’t keep from shocking people so I make it work for me.

As someone who made great efforts in college to turn qualities that were once perceived as weird into (hopefully) endearing eccentricities, this remark completely resonated with me.

However, like many women with autism, Isabelle struggles with issues of mental health and she is seeing a therapist. This film gives us a true insight into the realities faced by many women living with AS.

This film has divided some critics as to it’s accuracy in it’s portrayal of autism. On the one hand, it has been praised by many critics as one of the truest cinematic representations of autism, however, others have criticized the film for portraying the leads as having savant skills (Donald is mathematical; Isabelle has artistic and musical savant skills).

I know, I sound like a hypocrite as I often give out about this over-representation,

BUT

the characters in ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ are based on a true story!! 😀

The film is loosely based on the love story of Jerry and Mary Newport, two people with AS who are savants!

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You can read a bit more on their story over on Goodreads:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/163483.Mozart_and_the_Whale

Fun Fact about the Film: The screenplay for ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ was written by Ron Bass- the same screenwriter for ‘Rain Man‘!

This fact is made even more interesting by the fact that ‘Rain Man‘ is often considered inaccurate, while ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ is perceived as the most accurate.

In comparing both films, we can really see a clear change in attitudes towards autism in the intervening 17 years. We move from a dramatic and stereotyped vision of autism to a friendlier, more accurate portrayal of the autistic condition.

If you want to watch a film about autism, this is the one to see.

This film definitely get’s Aoife’s ‘A’ of approval 😉

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Aoife

Autism on Screen- Snow Cake

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In continuation from the previous post, today I’m going to have a look at a female character with autism in the 2006 indie romantic-comedy drama (that’s a LOT of genres! 😛 )  ‘Snow Cake‘.

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As discussed in my last post, gender bias is often an issue when it comes to women on the spectrum. Autism is viewed as a predominantly male condition, and as such this is reflected in Hollywood portrayals of autism.

We’ve all heard of ‘Rain Man’, but “Rain Woman” is rarely seen.

Snow Cake‘ is a really interesting example of this seemingly rare portrayal of autistic women on screen.

Starring Sigourney Weaver and the late Alan Rickman, ‘Snow Cake‘ explores the unusual relationship between Linda (a woman with high functioning autism) and Alex- a man who comes to visit Linda after her daughter Vivienne is killed in a car accident in which he was involved. Feeling guilty that he survived the accident, Alex set’s out to meet Linda and bring her some gifts that Vivienne had bought prior to her death, finding himself reluctantly drawn into her world.

You can view a trailer for this film below:

Before I get into the discussion of this, there is one line in the film (that can be seen in this trailer) that stands out for me:

I know all about autism- I’ve seen that film!”

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Granted, this line was likely included as a slight from the screenwriter, (a parent to an autistic child), towards public perceptions of autism, buuuutttt it does reinforce the importance of not believing everything Hollywood tells you of autism- something that one need bear in mind as to the portrayal of autistic women in this film in particular.

In terms of scientific portrayal of autism, the film gives a fairly accurate depiction of the symptoms.

BUT!

There is one major flaw…

Linda displays mostly male characteristics of autism!!

This is a common problem in on screen portrayals of autistic women as much of the information available to actors refers to male experiences of autism. For example, Diane Kruger was advised by a man with autism for her portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome in the series ‘The Bridge‘. When AS was featured in an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ many years ago, a behind the scenes featurette revealed that the actress based her performance on a boy she knew with autism!

For her role in ‘Snow Cake‘, Sigourney Weaver conducted a lot of research into the role and was actually coached by a woman with autism- Ros Blackburn. Aside from her endearing eccentricities however, the character of Linda does not differ greatly from other films featuring male characters.

The problem here may lie in the script for the film, as screenwriter Angela Pell is mother to a boy with autism, and her writing would have been heavily influenced by her experiences.

However, the film does provide a good reflection of the reality of autism in that Linda is not a savant or overtly intelligent as is often over-represented.

In addition to this, Alan Rickman interestingly chose not to research autism ahead of filming in order to accurately reflect the reactions and frustrations that an outsider would experience in an encounter with an autistic individual, adding a further dimension of realism to the film.

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All in all, gender issues aside, ‘Snow Cake‘, while not the most riveting of films (wasn’t my cup of tea) does paint quite a realistic picture of life with autism.

Happy Friday everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Discussion:Women & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today, I’m going to discuss a very important issue within the autistic community- gender bias and the misdiagnosis of women with autism.

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a person with autism, the majority of you will have pictured a man (most likely Dustin Hoffman! 😛 ).

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The current ratio for male to female diagnosis of autism is estimated at 4:1 as the condition is thought to be rarer in women; however, many experts now believe that this figure may be as low as 2:1.

So why the discrepancy?

Did you know: Women with autism present differently to males on the spectrum?!

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Yep- as neurotypical men are from Mars and women from Venus, so too are autistic men and women from entirely different planets (maybe Krypton and Daxam for the DC nerds out there 😉 )!

So how do women with autism differ from men?

For starters, several neurobiological studies have shown distinct anatomical differences between the male and female autistic brain (which I will explore in a separate post at a later stage 🙂 ). Girls with autism are thought to have more active imaginations than boys and participate more in pretend play, often creating elaborate fantasy worlds (I had a particular penchant for this. My sister and I created an elaborate world for our teddies each night, so elaborate that our star couple had their own imaginary portable mansion when we went on holidays!! 😀 ). Reports also indicate that women have lower levels of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than men.

Evidence has also shown that women are better at recognizing emotions than males, almost as well as their neurotypical peers in fact, and demonstrate signs of better attentiveness in social situations.

As a gender, women are more socially inclined than men, and so female autists feel a greater need to make an effort socially.It is expected that women should be more social than men when it comes to communication, and as a result, we are often held to greater social standards. I can’t count how many times a teacher/my mother pulled me aside to advise or chastise me for my social ineptitude! 😛 It was thought that I struggled, not because something was wrong, but that I simply didn’t try hard enough socially. Had I been a boy this would not have been the case.

One of the biggest differences between men and women with autism is the tendency among women towards social mimicry. Girls are particularly adept in masking their symptoms through observation of their peers, obscuring them from the view of parents, teachers and medical professionals.

I’m particularly guilty of doing this. For example, when someone asks ‘How are you?’, I honestly don’t know how to respond! Should I just say fine? Should I reciprocate the sentiment? Should I detail the many ways my life sucks at present?! Three of the simplest words in the English language and I struggle to respond! I eventually developed a mental phrase card in my head for common questions like these so that I would have a standard answer when called for, and 90% of the time you pass for a functioning human being! Other times you get caught off guard and situations like this happen 😛 :

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My life is full of these little social coping mechanisms, which I’ll expand on separately at a later stage 🙂

Finally, as previously discussed, when it comes to specialist interests, female autists tend to have interests resembling those of their neurotypical peers (horses, Harry Potter, soap operas, Justin Bieber etc.), which can additionally hide them from view. Psychologists have also noted a ‘mothering’ tendency among peers of autistic girls, taking autists under their wing and adopting them into a social group. This further creates an illusion of social functioning for teachers, allowing these women to further slip beneath the radar.

As a result of all these differences, women are diagnosed much later than men, (men on average are diagnosed in childhood (~7 years); women as teenagers or adults)  if at all.

But why it it only now that these gender differences are emerging?

Gender bias in autism can trace it’s lineage to the original observations of both Leo Kanner (described autism) and Hans Asperger (described Asperger’s syndrome) in the 1940’s. In Kanner’s work, ‘Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact’ (1943), Kanner observed a group of 8 boys, but only 3 girls with autism. Hans Asperger on the other hand, exclusively observed groups of boys, believing that AS was uniquely male! As a result, AS was not described in women until the 1990’s!!

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I know!

Consequently, the diagnostic criteria for autism has been largely based on the male model of the condition, and as such, many women like me have slipped under the diagnostic radar.

Due to our inherent talent for social mimicry, women with autism unknowingly find themselves hidden from view. The warning signs that are obvious in males are not always visible, and as a result thousands of women go un-diagnosed, or worse still are misdiagnosed.

Mental health issues such as OCD, eating disorders, ADD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression are frequently linked with ASD’s and are particularly prevalent among women.
Experts believe that women with autism tend to internalize their autistic symptoms, leading them to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and experience higher levels of anxiety than male autists.

Women are frequently mis-diagnosed with mental health issues, whilst the underlying root ASD goes unnoticed.

The internet is filled with stories of these women who spent years in mental anguish without receiving the one diagnosis they needed. I recently came across an article where it took “10 years, 14 psychiatrists, 17 medications and 9 diagnoses” before a 21 year old girl got her autism diagnosis! You can read the article here: (https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-lost-girls/).

Researchers and clinicians have in recent years begun to adapt the diagnostic criteria to better serve autistic women, but there is much work still that needs to be done.

Rain Man‘ has dominated for too long- we need now to focus on “Rain Woman”.

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Aoife

 

Autism on Screen- My Name Is Khan

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In the next part of my autism on screen series, I’m going to explore the portrayal of autism in the Indian drama film ‘My Name Is Khan‘ (2010).

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A dual Hindi and English language film, ‘My Name Is Khan‘ follows Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome, who set’s out on a journey across America to tell the president that he is not a terrorist following a sectarian attack on his family in the wake of the events of 9/11.

Check out the trailer below! 🙂

So how does this film measure up in it’s portrayal of the realities of AS?

The film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film makers have endeavored to depict AS as authentically and sensitively as possible, however, as this is a work of fiction, they acknowledge that certain creative liberties were taken in the portrayal of autism- so as with ‘Rain Man‘, take the film with a grain of salt!

That being said, I found this film to be generally quite accurate from a symptomatic perspective. Granted, Khan appears slightly weirder than the average person with AS and many of his symptoms are exaggerated, but overall I felt that this was a solid onscreen portrayal of autism.

In particular I felt that this film gave a good representation of repetitive behaviors and sensory sensitivity.

Throughout the film, Khan can be seen fiddling with some stones in a repetitive manner.

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I may not carry stones around with me, but I am constantly fiddling with my jewelry in a similar manner. It’s a compulsive action- I have this constant need to reach out and feel my chain between my fingers. There’s something incredibly soothing about the motion, especially when you’re particularly stressed. Actions such as these are referred to as stimming or self stimulation. I’ll dedicate a post to stimming at another stage 🙂

As regards sensory sensitivity, I thought that the film presented more of a normalized and subtle reaction to sensory stimuli than most films featuring autism, particularly in relation to Khan’s sensitivity to the colour yellow (there’s a particularly funny moment where he changes direction on the street to avoid looking at someone wearing a yellow top!).

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When I first watched this film, I thought that this had to be an exaggeration, but in actual fact, as I mentioned in the last post, boys with autism really struggle to process the colour yellow! Scientists think that this may result from a sensitivity to luminance in autists. Alternatively this may occur as yellow is one of the most heavily sensory loaded colours, as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye.

Comparing this film to ‘Rain Man‘, there is quite a difference in how autism is portrayed. There was a far greater focus on everything that is good about Khan rather than areas of disability in his life, which can often be exploited in film for dramatic effect. Unlike ‘Rain Man‘, modern films about autism, such as this, have the added benefit of over twenty years of research and observation of the autistic condition, leading to more accurate depictions/attitudes to difference on screen.

Unfortunately however, Khan is depicted as quite intelligent (even called a genius), with superb memory and a savant-like ability to fix any mechanical item known to man, further promoting the stereotype of the autistic savant. These traits however, are somewhat muted in comparison to ‘Rain Man‘, giving a slightly more realistic portrayal of autism.

So there we are- hope you all enjoyed this piece 🙂 I would highly encourage you all to watch this film at some stage. Autism aside, this is an amazing film- one of the best I’ve seen in a long time! In the latter half of the film, you start to forget that Khan is in any way different, finding yourself swept up in this powerful story of love, loss and acceptance. Having watched only the trailer to re-jog my memory, I really want to see this film again myself! 😀

Weekend plans sorted! 😉

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Aoife

Autism 101- Savantism & High IQ’s

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Following on from the previous post examining ‘Rain Man‘, today I’m going to dive into the area of high IQ’s and savantism relating to autism.

Now before we start, remember- in spite of what Hollywood has led us to believe, savantism is a RARE condition affecting between 0.5 and 10% of autists. This means that over 90% of the autistic community do not possess these skills.

So be sure to take ‘Rain Man‘ with a grain of salt.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s explore this fascinating condition properly 🙂

So first off- what exactly is savantism?

Savant syndrome is an extraordinary phenomenon wherein a person with serious mental disabilities (such as autism) shows unusual or exceptional aptitude for a particular area, task or activity in spite of their mental challenges. Historically, these individuals were also referred to as ‘idiot savants’, a term that is sometimes still used today.

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While seemingly  insensitive, the phrase actually comes from the French term meaning unlearned (idiot) skill (savant).

Surprisingly, savant skills tend to exist within five different skill categories:

  • Music (perfect pitch, performance skills)
  • Art (drawing, painting etc.)
  • Mathematics (human calculator abilities)
  • Calendar calculating (i.e. can tell you the weekday a previous date fell on)
  • Mechanical/Spatial skills (model construction, mental measurement calculation)

Other skills have been recorded, but most generally fall within these categories.

Like autism, savant syndrome exists on a spectrum with varying degrees of savant ability. For example, there are:

  • Splinter skills- the most common form, involving memorization and obsession with facts, music, trivia, licence plate numbers etc.; kind of like specialist interests
  • Talented savants- who show highly honed talents and abilities predominantly in single areas of expertise 
  • Prodigious savants-those who possess extraordinary skills

Savant skills are additionally accompanied by exceptional memory. For example the ‘megasavant’ Kim Peek on whom ‘Rain Man‘ is based, memorized over 6000 books in his lifetime, all US area and Zip codes, several maps and possessed encyclopedic knowledge of music, geography, literature, history and sports to name but a few!!!

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Astonishing!!! 😀

So what’s going on in the brain to cause this?

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, but as with autism, there is no one single theory to explain all cases. However, two theories in particular seem to dominate.

As savantism is found more often in cases of autism than in other mentally disabled groups, leading expert Simon Baron-Cohen proposed a theory concerning hyper-systemizing.

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I know- it sounds complicated! 😛

But basically the theory suggests that savantism results from an autists ability to recognize repeating patterns (systemizing) and excellent attention to detail. People with autism have a different style of thinking and memory filing and this predisposes them to savant skills 🙂

Further to this another theory, supported by several neurological studies of savants, indicates that dysfunction in the analytical left hemisphere of the brain (responsible for logic, language, reasoning, maths etc) causes the right hemisphere (creativity, imagination, art, music) to compensate, which can cause savant skills to emerge. It’s kind of like the right hemisphere is giving the left a piggyback.

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In addition to savantism, higher IQ’s are sometimes linked to autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

A number of studies have found that some of the genes linked to autism development are also associated with high intelligence. The link between autism and intelligence is not yet clear, however, people who carry these genes scored better than those without on intelligence tests.

These findings create an interesting paradox given that autism is generally characterized by lower IQ’s. Researchers have proposed the hypothesis that autism involves augmented, but imbalanced elements of intelligence to counter this paradox. This basically means that autists have higher levels of intelligence in some areas (e.g. academia, mathematics, art etc.) but not in others (e.g. social intelligence).

So there we have it, just a quick over view of savantism and IQ in autism! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Rain Man

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

I’m going to change things up a little today with a new series examining the portrayal of autism on screen.

Film scholars have remarked that the portrayal of autism on film is generally inaccurate and highly stereotyped, so I’ve decided to take a closer look at things from a personal and scientific perspective 🙂

So let’s start at the very beginning with perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism in cinema- 1988’s ‘Rain Man‘.

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For those of you who have not seen the film, ‘Rain Man’ focuses on the relationship between brothers Charlie and Raymond ‘Rain Man‘ Babbitt as they embark on a cross country road trip to Los Angeles (Raymond refuses to fly unless it’s with Qantas- the safest airline in the world!). Charlie grew up without any knowledge of Raymond, only discovering his existence upon learning that his father’s multi-million dollar fortune had been bequeathed to the mental institution in which he resides. And so Charlie sets out to be Raymond’s carer in order to access the fortune, but *SPOILER ALERT*- ultimately has a change of heart. Classic Hollywood ending.

Here’s a trailer for anyone who’s thinking of watching it 🙂

‘Rain Man’ is often considered to be the main reference point for autism on film, as it prompted the breakthrough of autism into the wider conscious of the public. Prior to this, characters displayed autistic like traits in film, but autism itself was not discussed- likely due to the fact that the diagnostic criteria for autism was only just emerging in the late 1980’s. The term ‘Rain Man‘ has also become synonymous with autism and other mental disabilities in popular culture, as seen in this example from the film ‘Miss Congeniality‘ (2000):

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As a “female rain man”, I find this highly insulting, so try not to brand autistic people using the term 😛

Winner of  4 Oscar’s, ‘Rain Man’ has been highly critically acclaimed- but does the film match up to the reality?

Rain Man‘ is generally thought to be an accurate portrayal of the autistic condition in scholarly papers. Indeed, there are many areas in the film in which Raymond perfectly demonstrates some of the classical signs of autism- sensitivity to touch, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, specialist interests, coordination issues, deficits in social communication, autistic meltdowns etc.

Interestingly while I thought that I would not be able to relate to Raymond from previous viewings, I found that his literal thinking had me written all over it. There’s a scene in the film (which you can see in the trailer) where Raymond stops in the middle of the road on a pedestrian crossing after the light flashes “DON’T WALK”! I have a terrible habit of dawdling at pedestrian crossings. Oftentimes I can see that the road is clear, but still I’ll wait for the green man (although this may be related to getting clipped on the ankle by a car crossing the road in Dublin as a teenager! 😛 ). However, I’m not as bad as I used to be since learning to drive; hesitation gets you nowhere on a roundabout after all! 😉

The story where Raymond inadvertently burned Charlie in the bathtub as a child (which led him to be institutionalized), also brings back many memories from my childhood. There have been many cases where I have inadvertently harmed my siblings- why just yesterday I threw a foam roller at my sister in an attempt to help her stretch out her legs, only for it to whack her in the throat…oops!

Bad Aoife! 😛

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But my intentions were good!!

Acting without thinking is something that I tend to do an awful lot of (probably why I overthink and don’t act when it comes to love 😛 ). My mother had to keep a really close eye on me growing up after she found me attempting to push hair-clips down my sisters throat…I have no real answer for why I did that, but based on similar experiences, I’d say scientific curiosity probably had a role to play! 😛 😉 We’ll explore curiosity and impulsivity a little bit more in the coming weeks.

On the other hand however, this film has largely perpetuated the stereotype that autists typically have superb memories and savant skills. As I’ve stated previously, these traits are rare, and the vast majority of autists do not possess them. The same goes for card counting- a family friend actually inferred that I should be able to do it once! 😛

Here’s a fun article I found about a man who lost $17,000 after trying to use his autistic friend to count cards!

http://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/i-took-my-autistic-friend-to-the-casino-and-lost-17-000-in-ten-minutes/

In addition to this, Raymond is also described as ‘high functioning’ in the film, BUT Raymond is incapable of living independently. Whilst the definition of what constitutes high functioning autism varies, for many, Raymond does not fit the high functioning category and therefore does not come across as a true reflection of autism.

One of the biggest issues here I believe, is the fact that the character of Raymond is based on Kim Peek- a “megasavant” who did not in fact have autism, but FG syndrome (a rare genetic syndrome characterized by intellectual disabilities, low muscle tone and an abnormally large head).

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Bit hard to write a film about autism when the inspiration doesn’t actually have autism if you ask me! 😛

On top of this, Dustin Hoffman famously prepared for the role by observing autistic adults for months in psychiatric institutions. However, Hoffman by his own admission describes Raymond’s character as an unrealistic grouped composite of high functioning autists he encountered during his research.

With this in mind, don’t believe everything you see in the movies folks! 😉

When I first got my diagnosis, this film naturally came to mind, however, I really struggled to relate what was presented on screen to my reality. Indeed, ‘Rain Man‘ reflects some of the realities of autism, but not all. ‘Rain Man‘ is an excellent film with superb acting from Dustin Hoffman, but it comes from a time before the ‘spectrum‘ when knowledge of autism was limited.

So when it comes to films about autism remember- autism is a spectrum; one size does not fit all 🙂

Aoife

 

 

 

 

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