By Trevor Pacelli
I’m sure most of you remember the 1988 Oscar-winning picture, Rain Man, which is about a used car salesman (Tom Cruise) trying to get his share of his father’s fortune by manipulating his autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman). His goal to do so has its challenges, as his brother, Raymond, who has unimaginable skills in counting and memorization, isn’t capable of taking care of himself or even maintaining a conversation with someone. This film was made back when autism was not well known, and there wasn't much information to define someone with autism. But looking at it from today’s perspective, is Rain Man an accurate portrayal of somebody on the autism spectrum?
Speaking as someone with high-functioning autism, I believe that this is not a good picture of the condition. Although several parts are true to an extent, this mostly is an exaggeration of the condition that pays little notice of its broadness.
Director Barry Levinson draws upon common traits of ASD that are seen and known by many people. For instance, Raymond has an obsession with numbers and reciting baseball stats in his head, which lines up with the common obsession with numbers and counting that many people with autism have. Raymond also has the ability to draw city landscapes from memory, habitually sketch the pattern of the carpet, and perform complicated math problems in his head in only seconds, which also are common traits of ASD. Perhaps the most well-known qualities shown are Raymond’s strict routine of always watching a certain TV show at a certain time, eating a specific breakfast at a specific time on a specific day of the week, and only sleeping in a bed when it is right next to a window. All of these traits are true to many on the spectrum, including me. The problem with these representations though, is that they are not true to everyone diagnosed.
In my opinion, the film appears to want to persuade audiences that because Raymond Babbitt has these mental traits related to math and patterns, then all autistic people are like this. It’s not true at all: Autism Spectrum Disorder is such a varied and complex condition that no two people on the spectrum are ever exactly the same. The film also insinuates that autistic people are completely incapable of being fully functionng members of society. The movie already points out that Raymond Babbitt has no concept of what money is, and when asked how he feels when hearing that his father has just died, he just mumbles, “I don’t know” in response.
Other small instances throughout the film imply that people with autism are incapable of being functional people within society. When we first meet Raymond, he is in a mental hospital with patients who have far more severe mental disorders. When his brother takes him into the airport to fly back home, Raymond has a mental breakdown about getting on a plane. While in a suburban area alone, Raymond walks on a crosswalk that quickly changes to, “don’t walk.” He responds by stopping right in the middle of the road thinking that the sign meant it literally. I personally find it offensive that Levinson tries to compare autism to a disease, and making it appear that autistic people are less intelligent than they are, and can't ever learn to cope with life as adults. As for the situations with the airport and crosswalk, I personally have no problem flying; I don’t have mental breakdowns or take street signs literally, nor do I know a lot of people on the spectrum with these characteristics.
Rain Man overall takes on a very non-autistic way of looking at autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems like the director intended to portray the condition in a very broad sense, attempting to make a rough estimate to what it’s like as reflected through a single person. I believe that there is no one way that autism can be represented, and it’s impossible to give a true illustration through a single character.
My final verdict about Rain Man is that although it is a wonderful film about a single man’s journey learning to love his brother, it overall is an exaggerated, uneducated look at Autism Spectrum Disorder that gives information that is true to some extent, but generally misleading as to the truth and complexity of autism.
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Inspiration for Life with Autism
This blog has a variety of articles about people living life with autism, and topics and ideas that can help in the journey. Guest bloggers are welcome. Inspired by Trevor, a young adult film critic, photographer and college graduate on the autism spectrum.