Autistic merit: Did 'Rain Man' do more harm than good?

Ideas

Autistic merit: Did 'Rain Man' do more harm than good?

The film about an autistic man moved the world, the problem is that it is so misleading

Martin Chilton


Dustin Hoffman’s remarkable portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man has gone down in cinema history. Before that film, released 30 years ago next month, Hollywood had never placed a character with severe autism at the heart of a movie – instead, characters with developmental disorders had always been presented as traumatised mutes.
The plot made Rain Man unique, but the time and effort Hoffman spent preparing for the role was also unprecedented. In the months before he stepped on set, the actor watched hours of video tapes about savants and people on the autism spectrum, pored over scientific papers and talked to numerous psychologists and autism experts at the Institute for Child Behaviour Research in San Diego.
He interviewed Oliver Sacks, who wrote about autistic twins in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, visited psychiatric facilities and spent time with families, to ensure Raymond’s dialogue (“I’m an excellent driver”) and obsessions (watching Jeopardy every day at five o’clock, only buying his boxer shorts from K-Mart in Cincinnati) fairly represented the speech and behaviour of a real autistic savant.
The result was a performance of mesmerising intensity. And the film, which chronicled the changing relationship between Raymond and his younger brother, Charlie (Tom Cruise), during a road trip across America, won rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.
Rain Man made more than £200m worldwide at the box office, won four Oscars, including a best actor award for the then 51-year-old Hoffman, and was praised by experts for raising awareness of a condition that was barely understood by the public. In the wake of the film’s release, autism charities enjoyed a huge spike in donations.
But time has tarnished Rain Man’s reputation.
Variety film critic Leslie Felperin, whose son was three when he was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition (ASC), is among those who have mixed feelings about the film today.
“For many people, myself included, this was their first exposure to the notion of autism, and back in 1988 I was rather impressed with it,” she has said. “Now, having been a film critic for 20-odd years, and more importantly after learning so much about ASC, the film seems deeply flawed – both aesthetically (it’s more mawkish and slow-moving than I remembered) and in terms of how it treats the condition, promulgating as it does the very misleading notion that people with autism are likely to be savants with incredible memory skills, when the vast majority of them aren’t.”
In the film, Cruise’s character exploits Raymond’s memory skills to scam money at a Las Vegas casino. This scene now really irritates Felperin. “The main function of the story’s autistic character is to serve as a vehicle for delivering redemption – and due to aptitude at card counting, a big bag of blackjack money to Tom Cruise as his shallow, car-dealer brother,” she wrote.
“Several other films have deployed autistic characters in a similar way – as quasi-holy innocents whose narrative function is to inspire those around them to be better people.”
In an essay he wrote for the book Autism and Representation, Gyasi Burks-Abbott, a director of the Asperger’s Society in Massachusetts, voiced similar qualms: “Everyone who has seen Rain Man and read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time assumes all autistic children have special powers.
“Back in the early nineties when I was first diagnosed with autism, the only way I could counter the blank stares I would get when I disclosed my condition was to mention Rain Man.”
Instead of relying on stereotypes, Burks-Abbott would rather people read some of the dozens of books on the condition written by authors who themselves have autism, such as the acclaimed autobiography of Donna Williams, Nobody Nowhere, which gives an extremely detailed insight into life as an autistic.
Ginny Russell, a senior research fellow at the University of Exeter, says the problem with Rain Man’s stereotype is that it is so misleading. “An unintended effect was to inadvertently encourage a stereotype that autism equals special abilities,” Russell has written. “In fact, such savant skills occur rarely in autistic individuals ... the problem with the public notion of the autistic savant is it promotes an unhelpful stereotype of what is often a profoundly disabling condition.
“Most children with autism are profoundly affected, have no special talent, struggle with everyday tasks, and in many cases do not develop speech at all.”
On a separate note, airlines were also unhappy with Rain Man, owing to the scene in the airport where Raymond refuses to board a plane to Los Angeles. The savant has memorised airline disaster statistics and cites 30 air crashes in 1987 that caused 211 deaths. Every new airline Charlie suggests elicits a new statistic from his brother.
When Rain Man was shown as an in-flight movie in 1989, 15 airlines insisted on a four-minute cut to the film, despite complaints from director Barry Levinson and co-writer Ron Bass that it explained why the brothers had to drive across country instead of flying. Only one showed an uncensored version: Qantas.
In the scene, Charlie shouted: “All airlines have crashed at one time or another,” and Raymond replied: “Qantas never crashed.”
Criticisms of the film have not stopped the impresario Bill Kenwright putting on a stage adaptation this year. The play, written by Dan Gordon and starring Mathew Horne as Raymond and Ed Speleers as Charlie, has been touring the UK since September and is scheduled to continue next year.
But it was notable, when Horne was interviewed, that he chose to reveal that his brother was autistic. “I’ve lived with somebody facing those challenges and I’ve also met hundreds of people with similar challenges to Raymond,” he said, adding: “It’s important to say that Raymond is on a very specific point on the autistic spectrum. So it is a very subjective thing and it is important not to generalise because the spectrum of autism is so vast.”
There have been a number of films in recent years that are more reflective of neurodiversity, including the Oscar-nominated Life, Animated, a 2016 documentary about Ron and Cornelia Suskind, US journalists who discover a way to communicate with their autistic son Owen through Disney films. The HBO movie Temple Grandin, in which Claire Danes played the real-life Colorado author and animal science professor, was a complex and nuanced portrayal of a woman on the spectrum. And the 2009 stop-motion animation Mary and Max included a touching portrayal of a 44-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman).
There has been progress for autistic film fans, too. Leading cinema chains have started to make autism-friendly adjustments to make UK cinemas more inclusive and accessible for people with sensory sensitivities. This progressive policy has meant people who often feel socially isolated can now enjoy a film experience that many of us take for granted.
According to co-writer Barry Morrow, Rain Man was “never intended to be a profile of someone with autism” but it did show, almost by default, that society needed to change. When the Babbitt brothers visit a small-town doctor, the receptionist asks: “What, he’s artistic?” There is a wider understanding in general life now that autism is known to be a developmental disability and not a mental illness.
Despite the film’s flaws, Rain Man raised recognition of autism and helped start a debate about how people affected could be helped. Darold Treffert, a retired psychiatrist and a consultant on the film, put it succinctly: “In its first 101 days,” he wrote, “Rain Man accomplished more toward bringing savant syndrome to public awareness than all the efforts combined of all those interested in this condition for the past 101 years.”
– © Telegraph Media Company

This article is reserved for Times Select subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Times Select content.

Times Select

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.