Autism on Screen-Little Man Tate

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

This week I’d like to focus in on the 1991 film Little Man Tate and it’s depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Directed by and starring Jodie Foster, Little Man Tate tells the story of Fred, a young genius (sigh) with Asperger’s syndrome and his relationship with his loving mother Dede. Fred struggles to relate to his peers due to his high intellect in school whilst his mother wonders why he can’t just be a “normal, happy little kid”. Life begins to change for the better for Fred however when his intellect is discovered by a child psychologist who wants to enroll Fred in a school for gifted children.

You can check out the trailer for the film below:

So how did this film fare in it’s depiction of autism?

Aside from the obvious genius/savant conundrum (I’m sick of giving out about it’s over-portrayal in film at this stage! 😛 ), the Asperger’s traits portrayed here were highly stereotypical in my opinion. Granted, the film never explicitly mentions autism, however many experts consider the character as having Asperger’s.

The film is very dated in it’s portrayal, however, this would have been one of the earlier film portrayals of autism when knowledge was limited in contrast to newer more accurate representations such as in Mozart and the Whale, My Name is Khan and most recently in the Netflix orignal TV series Atypical.

However I have to give props to casting-  Adam Hann-Byrd could easily pass for Jodie Foster’s real son in looks and accent! 😂

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In addition to this, Foster’s character has to be commended for her determination to make Fred’s life as “normal” as possible, despite him being delightfully unique (as I always say normal is overrated!). Far too often autism is used as an excuse these days which will ultimately impede autists from reaching their true potential.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Killer Diller

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Time for another autism on screen again, this time exploring the portrayal of autism in the 2004 musical drama film ‘Killer Diller.

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The film follows Wesley, a young musician and troublemaker who is sent to live at a Christian halfway house for young offenders. Reluctantly drafted into the choir, Wesley encounters Vernon, an autistic savant with a gift for music. His captivating piano playing inspires Wesley to invite Vernon to form a blues band with the choir members and embark on a journey of music, understanding and friendship.

You can check out the trailer below (apologies for the poor quality, it’s not a very well known film- I found it very difficult to source):

So how did this film fair in terms of representation of autism?

Well, by now you all know how I feel about the over-representation of autistic savants in TV and film, so as you can imagine I was yet again disappointed to see this rare trait highlighted in another film. So let’s quickly move on from that! 😛

Much of the behaviours exhibited by Vernon were consistent with classical autism symptoms like rocking, missing social cues, inappropriate social behaviour etc.; however, as I previously found while watching ‘Cube‘, nothing felt unique about the character, Vernon was just another Hollywood carbon copy of autistic stereotypes.

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In addition to this, many film scholars have noted that in films featuring autistic characters, the filmmakers choose to use autism for the purposes of redeeming the main character. This film is a prime example of this. Vernon’s presence in the film is used to redeem Wesley, who up until he meets Vernon, is selfish and wayward. However, like ‘Rain Man‘, ‘Snow Cake‘ and several other films featuring an autistic character, the protagonist is transformed following his encounter with an autist.

Thankfully in more recent years, the focus has since changed wherein autistic characters are no longer seen as secondary, but are protagonists in their own right as we have seen in ‘Atypical‘ and ‘The Good Doctor‘ (which by the way, is proving to be an excellent series as the year has moved on 🙂 )

Huzzah for Progress! 😀

All in all, this film (if you can find it) was worth a watch at least once- especially if you’re into blues music. It may not have been the greatest depiction of autism, but it’s an easy watch with some decent music to boot 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Mercury Rising

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so today I would like to take a quick look at the 1998 political action film (not a genre one would immediately associate with autism)- ‘Mercury Rising‘.

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So how does this action film relate to autism?

In this film, the NSA has created a cryptographic super-code (Mercury) that was thought to be unbreakable by any computer in the world. However, following the release of the code in a childrens puzzle book in order to test it, autistic savant (not again!!! 😛 ) Simon easily cracks it. This simple act puts his life in danger as contract killers are sent to silence him as the NSA believe him to be a liability. FBI agent Art Jeffries, played by Bruce Willis, is assigned the difficult task of protecting Simon from these killers whilst also navigating the social and behavioural challenges associated with his autism.

You can check out a trailer for the film below:

Honestly, I found the film to be particularly tedious (not a desirable quality for an action film), and really struggled to make it through to the end. 2 hours is a loooong time for a boring film! 😛

As to the film’s portrayal of autism, you know what I’m going to say- we NEED to stop perpetuating the stereotype of the autistic savant! As I have discussed many times, this is a RARE characteristic (roughly 1 in 10 autists), and yet almost every film I’ve seen that features autism depicts this rare trait in some form or another! 😛

Give me strength!

Aside from this, whilst the film did touch on such important topics as ‘wandering’ and issues of trust (which are not always depicted where autism is considered), I just felt that this character was highly stereotyped and that autism was poorly portrayed overall and at times was a little insulting. In fact the original book that this film is based on was titled ‘Simple Simon!’😲😒

This may even perhaps be one of the worst depictions of autism on screen in my opinion.

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So all in all, if you need a good sedative, or are a huge Bruce Willis fan, this film’s for you! 😛 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen-The Good Doctor

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

Today I’m going to explore the most recent portrayal of autism on screen- the pilot episode for the new ABC drama ‘The Good Doctor‘.

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So what’s it all about?

Well the name is fairly self explanatory- the series follows Dr. Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore- can’t believe he’s all grown up!), a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome (Really?Again! 😛 ) as he sets out to save lives.

You can watch a trailer for the show here- but word of warning, it’s a bit spoilery for the first episode so if you’d really like to watch it- maybe skip the trailer 🙂

But how does it’s depiction of autism fare?

Granted, this was merely the pilot, but so far the show has portrayed some of the classic symptoms very well- repetitive movements, truthfulness, literal thinking, awkward gait, eye contact issues etc. Like ‘Atypical, the show strives for subtly in Shaun’s idiosyncrasies rather than highlighting the obvious differences to his surgical peers. For example, Shaun struggles to open a ribbon, a simple, subtle struggle that few would associate with autism. Why just this evening I had to ask my housemate to open some freezer bags for me as I just couldn’t seem to crack it!

Unlike other portrayals of autism, I felt that the acting was far more natural, as if I were encountering a real person and not another hyperbolic autist.

For the first time, I felt like I could identify with Shaun as he awkwardly went about- I particularly identified with his descriptions of smells and how he uses different scents for recall (I’m notorious for using unusual identifiers to recall memories!).

However, as the title character is a savant, once again we are seeing an over-representation of a rare autistic trait. Nevertheless in the context of this series, it makes sense that Shaun has a brilliant mind and excellent recall- skills which are essential in the medical field.

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The pilot also touched on a very important issue- the struggle for autists to gain employment. Following the decision to hire Shaun, the hospital held a meeting to debate the validity of his candidacy as a surgical resident given that he is autistic. This meeting largely focused on all the areas where Shaun may fail, with little attention given to how he might succeed.

Given my own struggles to break into the world of employment this past year, one has to wonder if similar debates were held when I left the interview.

 

Why is it automatically assumed that we will not be capable, or that we will struggle in a job? Would such a meeting have been held for any other equally capable doctor in Shaun’s workplace?

Thousands of undiagnosed autists have successful careers, and yet the mention of the a-word could see them doomed to failure.

Companies are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender, age, educational background etc., so why does it have to be different for autism? How will you know if we are capable if you never give us the chance?

All in all, I really enjoyed the pilot and will be very interested to see how this show progresses 🙂 I would highly recommend it- but be warned it may not be for the squeamish (I’m not particularly, but there was one moment during that episode where I physically recoiled! 😛 )

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen: Forrest Gump

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’re going to have a look at the portrayal of autism in the multi-award winning 1994 classic ‘Forrest Gump‘.

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I know, it’s not a film that specifically mentions autism, but it’s on a list of films featuring autism by the Autism Research Institute so we’ll have a look anyway! 🙂

In actual fact, ‘Forrest Gump‘ was based on a book of the same name by Winston Groom (1986) in which the title character is an autistic savant with great mathematical ability! I’ll have a read of this at some stage and discuss it in the future 🙂

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So what’s ‘Forrest Gump‘ about?

In short, the film details the life and adventures of one Forrest Gump native of Greenbow, Alabama. Slow witted, but kind hearted, Forrest find’s himself in the midst of some of the most pivotal events in modern American history, showing everyone that mental disability does not preclude you from living a most extraordinary life.

For anyone who has yet to see the film- here’s a little trailer:

So how does ‘Forrest Gump‘ fare in it’s portrayal of autism?

Whilst ‘Forrest Gump‘ may not intentionally portray autism as in the book, nevertheless Forrest displays many autistic characteristics consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. He does not always display socially appropriate behavior, as demonstrated by the memorable scene in the White House where he tells JFK that he has to pee! Forrest doesn’t always make eye contact, has some specialist interests (such as Jenny and Ping Pong) and can often ramble on, speaking in monotones as is often associated with AS. Forrest also demonstrates that he is a literal thinker in the film, often leading to some of the more humorous moments.

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Interestingly, the film depicts Forrest in a more realistic light than in the book. Whilst he is described in both as having a low IQ in the 70’s, Forest is not portrayed as a stereotyped mathematical savant in the film.

FINALLY! A bit of realism! 😛 😉

Although entirely fictional, this film delivers the audience an encouraging message of hope. In spite of his mental limitations, Forrest goes on to lead not just a “normal”, but an extraordinary life.

Forrest’s tale truly shows us how, as I’ve often remarked in this blog, you should never allow autism to hold you back. An autism diagnosis can be a challenge yes, but it does not mean that you can’t live a “normal”, happy and fulfilling life 🙂

To quote Sally Field in this film:

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

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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