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Autism and Representation
Case Western Reserve Univ
Cleveland, Ohio
28-30 October 2005



Stuart Murray
University of Leeds

Do not cite without permission of author

Hollywood and the Fascination of Autism

Mainstream American commercial cinema does not have an especially good heritage of portraying the disabled. As Martin F. Norden makes clear in The Cinema of Isolation , his history of physical disability in the movies, the representation of a number of different disabilities in Hollywood features bears little actual relation to the experiences of those living with the disabilities in question. Norden notes that “the movie industry has perpetuated or initiated a number of stereotypes over the years… stereotypes so durable and pervasive that they have become mainstream society's perception of disabled people and have obscured if not outright supplanted disabled people's perceptions of themselves,”1 and, in general, he is damning of an industry that finds disability most useful as a narrative vehicle for the telling of non-disabled stories.

Norden's anger is justified, though - as he knows - the situation is not one that is especially surprising. The commercial and narrative formulae driving Hollywood have produced multiple Others characterized by their misrepresentation. As E. Ann Kaplan has observed in relation to issues surrounding feminism and the imperial gaze, Hollywood's insistence in its imaginary self-construction on a claim to represent “all human life and behaviour,” as opposed to that which comes from a limited and bounded culture, has always flattened out the specificities of minority communities of all kinds.2 In truth, Hollywood 's misrepresentation should probably be taken as a given. As Richard Maltby has said of Hollywood 's working practice, it “functions according to what we have called a commercial aesthetic, one that is essentially opportunistic in its economic motivation… Hollywood movies are determined, in the last instance, by their existence as commercial commodities.”3 Such commercial opportunism will always, we can presume, involve the transformation of its subject matter to fit the need for a certain kind of product.

Nevertheless, even within such a paradigm of (mis)representation, there are reasons to view Hollywood 's current fascination with conditions of cognitive impairment, and autism in particular, with a sharp critical eye. Here, we might observe that we find ourselves in a space that is largely free of substantive criticism. Cognitive impairment still itself occupies a relatively peripheral space within Disability Studies, of course, like a stray family member who is wished well but whose habits are not understood; and the critical treatment of the representation of such impairments in film equally lacks rigorous theorizing or discussion. While there is clearly something we might identify as a ‘disability film,' it is still often absent from many of the wide-ranging contemporary critical studies of Hollywood. Steve Neale's 2000 publication Genre and Hollywood , for example, contains no discussion of any kind of disability film (as opposed to, say, detective or disaster movies), despite the clear interrelation we can posit between filmic representations of disability and such well defined and discussed genres such as melodrama.4 Equally, Neale and Murray Smith's 1998 edited collection Contemporary Hollywood Cinema explores, under the heading of “Audience, address and ideology,” issues of the women's picture, the family picture, the relationship between Hollywood and independent black cinema, and the yuppie horror film, but makes no mention of disability movies at all (intriguingly, Rain Man 's single entry in the volume is to be described as a “bland yuppie movie”5 ). There is no room for disability of any kind in Trevor B. McCrisken and Andre Pepper's American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film (2005), and even a subtle and sensitive reader of Hollywood such as Maltby finds interest in Rain Man only as a “female-oriented picture” in the 1999 collection on Hollywood and its audiences that he edited with Melvyn Stokes.6

Disability is absent then from the kind of major book-length critical studies of Hollywood where we might hope to find some sense of its presence, and the often puzzling ways that disability films are glossed in these works (as with the Rain Man examples above) makes such an absence only more telling. Equally we might note that a number of critics who have produced studies of disability in film (often in article or essay form) have utilized methodologies taken from Disability, as opposed to Film, Studies. Writers such as Paul Darke, Tom Shakespeare, and Michael T. Hayes and Rhonda S. Black, have published in journals and collections that are primary aimed at Disability Studies audiences.7 Even within this community, however, there are barriers to a full understanding of how autism features in narrative film. That some figures working in Disability Studies (and indeed wider contemporary culture as a whole) seem to think disability is first and foremostly oriented around questions of physical impairment adds an extra potentially obfuscatory layer to any desire to look at representations of the condition. Norden's concentration on physical impairment has a perfect logic to it, but it is interesting that in his passing reference to Rain Man, he terms Dustin Hoffman's character in the film “mentally impaired.”8 Whilst this is not wrong, and while the approach of Norden's study means Rain Man is obviously not a film he will deal with in detail, the lack of specificity here, the absence of the word “autism” itself, is perhaps somewhat surprising. What is it about the condition that people do not know?

And yet, we can see - especially from Rain Man onwards - that Hollywood has frequently returned in differing ways to depictions of autism in one form or another. Self-conscious use of autism as a point of focus for filmic texts, or the use of autistic characters within films, is relatively recent, though it is possible to find films from the 1970s and even before, in which characters have clear autistic tendencies (they are, however, rarely labelled as such; the idea of ‘the idiot savant' has a strong legacy). In the 1980s, films emerge which have, ostensibly, a clearer understanding of the condition, and in which autism begins a greater point of focus. There is little doubt that there is a breakthrough into a wide public consciousness with the success of Rain Man in 1988, but it also appears that the film's public impact provided a specific development in terms of film narrative , with a new avenue for a particular “commercial aesthetic” of the kind Maltby describes.

In the 1990s and up to the present, a period when neuroscientific research has begun to understand more fully the genetic aspects of autism, and the subtleties of the autistic spectrum have been further defined, there have been numerous examples in visual media such as film and television of narratives concerning autism operating within a discourse of knowledge of the condition. What unites the majority of these narratives however is not any especial desire to explore the complexities of autistic agency or subjectivity. Rather the representations they contain are characterized by a number of key issues. The first is what we might clearly term a fascination with the condition as way of being that appears to defy categorization and invites speculation in terms of the ‘enigmatic'. The second is an issue peculiar to film, namely the opportunity to develop a specifically visual dimension to the narrative terms that might frame thoughts surrounding autism, the attraction of looking at the performance of the condition in the context of a feature film. Thirdly, the films focus on ideas of ontological difference that frequently place the autistic individual in relation to a depiction of supposedly typical neurological behavior, and then mediate an idea of the human by a refractive comparison between the two. Often this takes the form of what we might call the “sentimental savant,” stressing the supposed savant abilities of the autistic, especially in terms of creativity and understanding, which are seen to inform and enrich the neurotypical world. In effect, within the films to be discussed, and as a consequence of the intersection of the issues described above, autism seems to work to create a specific form of space, figured in terms that are foremostly visual, and articulated precisely because of an apprehension of how the condition is perceived to function. Rather than allow for the presentation of autism within the terms of the autistic individual, however, such a space reflects back upon the concerns of the non-autistic world. Such a dynamic has parallels with what David T. Mitchell has noted about the deployment of disability within narrative generally, namely that it “hinges on the identification of physical and cognitive differences as mutable categories of cultural investment.”9 In terms of autism, the categories of investment are mutable in the extreme, precisely because of the perceived narrative openness that comes as a consequence of the manner in which the condition itself is seen and represented.

I would like to think through such issues of representation as I have outlined them above by concentrating on a number of high profile Hollywood feature films, starting with Rain Man , which feature autistic or asperger's characters in a variety of differing narratives. These include House of Cards (1993, d. Michael Lessac), Silent Fall (1994, d. Bruce Beresford) , Mercury Rising (1998, d. Harold Becker) , Bless the Child (2000, d. Chuck Russell) , I am Sam (2001, d. Jessie Nelson), and Punch Drunk Love (2002, d. Paul Thomas Anderson), while other features, such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, d. Lasse Hallstrom) Forrest Gump , (1994, d. Robert Zemeckis), Nell (1994, d. Michael Apted) and The United States of Lealand (2003, d. Matthew Ryan Hoge), contain characters that can be read in terms of an idea of autistic presence.10

The films mentioned here move through a spectrum of concentration on autism - in some, such as Rain Man and House of Cards , the condition is ostensibly central to the narrative; in others we might see the use of autism as being enabling in narrative terms, in driving the stories of genre pieces such as Silent Fall , Mercury Rising and Bless the Child for example. To a degree then, the narratives in question exemplify the point made by many disability studies scholars, namely that disability and impairment often animate narrative while rarely being at its center, and that, as Mitchell and Sharon Snyder put it: “While disabled populations are firmly entrenched on the outer margins of social power and cultural value, the disabled body also serves as the raw material out of which other… communities make themselves visible.”11 However, all the films discussed here are in some way animated by an apprehension of autism and cognitive difference, and share a desire to, at the very least, structure some aspect of narrative through a specific usage of the condition. It is the terms of such usage that warrant investigation, as they point to specific workings within the desire of commercial contemporary culture both to be fascinated by the appeal of autism, and to fit it into more generic, pre-existing narrative concerns. The shifting scale of the focus of these various films on the condition, the differing emphases, is in fact itself a phenomenon that invites critical conclusions, as it clearly speaks of a range of potential subject positions for autism within contemporary narrative. As a consequence of course, it also speaks of the degree to which autistic presence is (mis)understood within contemporary cultural practice.

To raise such an issue as this last one is to think of autism within the terms of the logic of what we might term a cultural majority. Such logic is clearly contained within Hollywood 's contemporary presentation of the condition, and is the reason why we might take a practice of misrepresentation as a guiding baseline. What is specifically noticeable here however, is that even as a number of the films that represent autism work to diverse points about the place of autism within a spectrum of humanity (often, as we shall see, by focusing on ideas concerning relationships, masculinity and family), they frequently do so through the use of both a politics of display that enacts the fascination of the medium (and audience) for the condition, and also through the utilization of specific genre-based narratives. The films under discussion here concentrate, in highly visual ways, on the presence of the autistic. In this sense, autistic characters in film enact the codes of display that are central to the visual apprehension of disability, not just in narrative, but in the wider cultural sphere. Rosemarie Garland-Thompson's work on the modes of representation inherent in American freak shows in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in popular photography, outlines a set of process in which “staring at disability choreographs a visual relation between a spectator and a spectacle,”12 and it is precisely this relationship constructed by the staring gaze that places autism on display for a neurotypical audience in a cinematic setting.

Rain Man , House of Cards, Silent Fall and Mercury Rising all utilize the potential for visual eruption within autism as part of their display of the condition. The autistic body, unlike certain physically impaired bodies, can frequently not signal its disabled status. It can also, however, suddenly move from such a situation to generate - through excessive physical movement - an obvious behavioral difference. In manipulating the potential uses of such visual excessiveness within their own plotlines, all four films clearly use the refraction narrative of paired impaired/non-impaired characters to provide a fascination based on difference, and to illuminate questions of neurotypical individual responsibility, behavior and knowledge. The most obvious example of this is probably the juxtaposition of the humanizing Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) with his isolated, dysfunctional brother Charlie (Tom Cruise), but equally psychiatrist Jake Rainer (Richard Dreyfuss) in Silent Fall , mother Ruth Matthews (Kathleen Turner) in House of Cards , and FBI agent Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis) in Mercury Rising are all portrayed with dysfunctional aspects to their characters that require interaction with an autistic presence before they can be modified. Lest this should sound as if the films focus upon clearly delineated characters as individuals , it is necessary to note that all four features are heavily overlaid with generic patternings and concerns: Rain Man is part melodrama, part buddy road movie, House of Cards is a family melodrama, Silent Fall is a crime feature requiring Rainer to use his maverick skills with autistic youngsters to solve a murder in a routine genre piece, and Mercury Rising is a technology-based thriller in which it is precisely the outsider, renegade status of Jeffries that affords protection for Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes), the autistic nine-year old who has cracked the government's new, secret Mercury defense encryption code. In the key scene in which Simon first recognizes the code, buried within the pages of an everyday puzzle magazine, the camera comes in to an extreme close-up on his eyes, before zooming in on the close type of the puzzle as it is laid on the page. The clear invitation, heightened because of the visual nature of the medium, for the audience to conjecture upon the workings of the autistic mind (i.e. exactly that which is beyond neurotypical comprehension and, indeed, cinematic representation) is clear.13

Similarly, the other features in which autism is less obviously a narrative concern also utilize the conventions of genre. I am Sam packages its emotion within a courtroom drama as a father battles for the custody of his daughter, Punch-Drunk Love plays out its themes as variations of the romantic melodrama, and Bless the Child utilizes the classic horror convention of the innocence of the child (interestingly here - as with House of Cards - a girl, unusual in narratives depicting autistic characters) in a battle against satanic evil.

This high prevalence of the characterization of autism within standard generic narratives points (again) to an idea of narrative space in which the difference inherent within the condition animates an idea of absence/presence that refracts back into more conventional narrative development. What is striking about the films under discussion here is the ways in which such a conclusion is reinforced by the use of savant qualities within the autistic characters. Possibly as a consequence of popular media conceptions of autism, Hollywood narratives indulge in a clear fascination with the supposedly exceptional skills of the autist. Following Raymond's card reading skills in Las Vegas in Rain Man , the films that follow often centre key plot developments on such abilities. In Silent Fall , it is the ability of young autistic boy Tim Warden (Ben Faulkner) as a pure mimic that, ultimately, leads to the discovery of the truth of his parents' death. In House of Cards , Sally's (Asha Menina) ability to build the card house, an impossibly complex tower of playing cards, leads to her mother's attempts to reproduce the tower in a larger form and a final reconciliation on the structure itself. In Bless the Child , the girl Cody (Holliston Coleman) is the source of a power of angelic innocence that reveals her to be the chosen child of the second coming who can defeat the presence of the satanic Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell). In Mercury Rising , as we have already noted, Simon's skills with mathematics and word puzzles provide the method by which he can both crack the Mercury encryption code, and then aid Jefferies in the subsequent search for justice.

The fascination with the savant figure requires to be understood as a fundamental misapprehension of the actual nature of autism. Rates of savantism in the autistic population are only marginally higher than in the neurotypical population, and the concentration on savant skills exemplifies the tangential understanding of the workings of cognitive difference. Autism can produce islanded knowledge and differential abilities across a range of activities, but there is no causal connection between this and savant skill. Rather it is clear that the figure of the savant becomes a peculiarly narrative driven phenomenon, an excellent opportunity to modify plot or character relations, which combines with the invited stare - the visual pleasure - of the neurotypical audience to wonder at the cognitive difference that could produce such exceptionality.14

It is within such logic that we can see how there is such an interplay between autistic characters and the levels of performance by the actors who play them. Hoffman's performance as Raymond Babbitt was one of the major selling points of Rain Man upon its release, and gathered numerous critical accolades, including an Academy Award. Similarly, Sean Penn's central performance in I am Sam can be seen to be a natural role for an actor considered to be so talented. Both actors become the focal point for the audience wonder produced by the ‘enigmatic' status of autism and disability, especially that of savant ability. It is, however, interesting to note that similar critical receptions are not, on the whole, extended to child actors such as Ben Faulkner, Asha Menina and Miko Hughes, whose performances are often underplayed, frequently with a lack of speech and expression. The fact that representing autism can produce such a range of acting, from award-winning performances to a static, virtual non -acting, is only further proof of the complex narrative space it inhabits.15

The focus on individuals with savant skills might invite a further conclusion. Hollywood 's fixation on autistic savant ability is clearly part of the wider emphasis on the worth of the individual that operates within mainstream cultural production in the US . The ‘ability' of the disabled figure to overcome (or in the case of House of Cards to come back from) adversity, and to take part in the key organizational formations of relationship, family, community etc., is part and parcel of the kind of narrative prosthesis of which Mitchell and Snyder write. Autism seems to find a particular and peculiar form of this, in which savant ability can be seen to underscore the attempt to stress a disabled individual's worth. Its status as a ‘special' skill provides, so the films seem to suggest, a suitably compensatory element that offsets the actual impairment itself. For the majority neurotypical audience of a mainstream Hollywood feature, such logic is in keeping with the wider cultural politics that utilize an idea of the ‘benevolent good' to connect individuals to communities and to the State.

The striking consistency found in contemporary representations of autism is ultimately a point about autistic presence. Autism as a condition is both, in visual terms, visible and invisible. As with other cognitive impairments, it carries no obvious set or fixed marker that signals its disability. So, in the narratives discussed above, the autistic characters (especially the children) alternate between the twin poles of absence and presence, where the exceptionality that dominates certain narrative elements can suddenly become a passivity that appears to offer no narrative at all. It is no coincidence that, in Mercury Rising , Simon escapes the government-hired contract killers who murder his parents by hiding, and remains hidden even as the police investigate the scene, only to be finally found by Jeffries. Equally, for all of Sally's withdrawn passivity in House of Cards , she is frequently at the periphery of both image and narrative as the film concentrates on the trauma of Ruth who, it appears, has lost both a husband (killed in an accident, the event that ‘prompt's Sally's autism) and now a daughter.

Autistic presence becomes the material for narrative development then, but the ontological questions central to any representation of autism actually remain as an excess within these narratives. The constant invitation in the films to look at the autist (and it is noticeable that a number of them contain scenes set in schools or hospitals in which we see non-acting children and adults who are autistic, as if to establish the credentials of credibility) is, ultimately, an invitation to speculate on the condition of being human. And, at these moments, the films become formless and largely meaningless, given that the meaning of autism in such narratives always lies outside of the autistic individual. The formlessness here is largely rescued by the kind of generic patterning to which the various features resort, or often an overt move towards the sentimental usually as the narrative redirects the issues of humanity it has raised into more familiar codifications. All of the films under discussion here have clearly sentimental endings: Jeffries visits Simon in school at the end of Mercury Rising and in response to his demand “Look in my eyes,” achieves both eye contact and a hug that are totally out of character with Simon's behavior up to this point in the film. Cody is reunited with now cleaned-up drug riddled mother Maggie (Kim Basinger) in Bless the Child . Sam wins custody of daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) in I am Sam . Rain Man contains the most ambivalent ending of these features, with Raymond returning to the institution from which Charlie originally took him, though Charlie's education in humanity makes up for the loss of his custody battle. Possibly House of Cards should receive the final comment here though, as Sally's ‘return' to neurotypicality is very much seen to be due to the expression of an appropriate degree of love and understanding displayed by her mother Ruth, a process that dumbfounds psychiatrist Jacob Beerlander (Tommy Lee Jones) and in effect negates the worth of all of his professional work, something we have seen a lot of in the film. The structuring of this narrative conclusion, its emphasis on autism as (firstly) a condition that is not connected to impairment but is rather behavioural, and (secondly) as vehicle for the mobilization of other neurotypical sentiments, is a complete evacuation of any idea of autistic being based on what we know to be its actual expressions. The drive to make the Matthews family coherent once again (and it is clear that there is a space for Beerlander to replace the absent father) becomes the final's ultimate and final logic. Autism here is simply another occasion to remind parents to love their children properly.

Presence is the key category in discussing contemporary representations of autism. It is a sense of the increased presence of autism in the contemporary world that has created such popular interest in the condition. It is a misapprehension of autistic presence in the various films I have described, albeit through a desire to capture the difference of that presence, which leads to their refraction within the logics of neurotypical storytelling. An idea of autistic presence becomes the source of so much in these films, from mystical assertions of religious power, through the championing of an individual's right through the law, a resistance to a repressive government, to the love of a mother for her daughter, and yet I would argue that any greater understanding of the presence of autism within contemporary culture eludes the audiences of these texts. Agency is always elsewhere here, despite the fascination that operates a continual return to the autistic figure. Sentiment and melodrama stand in its place. But, as represented in these features, the autistic figure performs its double act of stressing the nature of humanity even as, when apprehended by a neurotypical readership or audience, it seems to point to that which is so very different from the condition of being human. Given what seems like the relentless focus on autism in contemporary society, we might hope that an idea of presence characterized by the first element of this doubleness is perhaps not so far away. But such an idea of a legitimate autistic agency is unlikely to be found in Hollywood . The drive of the commercial aesthetic, and the desire for conformity on issues of social relations (such as the family), is likely to be overpowering. But if we find that we cannot necessary regulate such cultural power, we can at least learn how to read it; and when we feel ourselves in the gaze of a system of power as forceful as that of Hollywood , we can nevertheless challenge its authority. Mainstream cinema audiences may never choose to sit in huge numbers to watch the nearly five hours of Andy Warhol's Empire (1964), a film that might qualify as a genuine autistic narrative, but they can, and hopefully will, come to know when they see images and stories that offend in their misrepresentation. This is ultimately a job for educators in the widest sense of the word, and for those, autistic and neurotypical, who are currently working to break down the barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice. The commercial aesthetic of Hollywood will respond if audiences stop paying to come, and even if that is a goal that is ultimately unreachable, the process of trying to get there can only be for the good.


1. Martin F. Norden, The Cinema of Isolation: a history of physical disability in the movies (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 3

2. E. Ann Kaplan, Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), 57.

3. Richard Maltby, Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 7.

4. Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood ( London and New York : Routledge, 2000).

5. Barry Keith Grant, “Rich and Strange: The Yuppie Horror Film,” in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema ed. Steve Neale and Murray Smith (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 289.

6. Trevor B. McCrisken and Andre Pepper, American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film ( New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 2005). Maltby, “Introduction,” Identifying Hollywood's Audiences: Culture Identity and the Movies ed. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (London: British Film Institute, 1999), 9. The phrase is also used in relation to Rain Man by Peter Kramer in his article in the collection “A Powerful Cinema-going Force? Hollywood and Female Audiences since the 1960s,” 99.

7. See, for example, Paul Darke, “Understanding Cinematic Representations of Disability,” in The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives , ed. Tom Shakespeare (London and New York: Continuum, 1998), Tom Shakespeare, “Art and Lies? Representation of Disability on Film,” Disability Discourse , ed. Mairian Corker and Sally French (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999). and Michael T. Hayes and Rhonda S. Black, “Troubling Signs: Disability, Hollywood Movies and the Construction of a Discourse of Pity,” Disability Studies Quarterly , 23, no. 2, Spring 2003.

8. Norden, 309.

9. David T. Mitchell, “Narrative Prosthesis,” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (New York : MLA, 2002), 16.

10. In total, there are about 52 feature and short films that have narratives that either focus on autism or contain characteristics that are identifiably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, dating from roughly 1969 to the present.

11. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Introduction: Disability Studies and the Double Bind of Representation,” The Body and Physical Difference , ed. Mitchell and Snyder (Ann Arbor: Univeristy of Michigan Press, 1997) 6.

12. Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities , 56. See also her Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

13. This scene is very similar to one in Ron Howard's biopic of mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (2002), in which Nash (Russell Crowe) is asked by the military to decipher an intercepted code. Here, too, the extreme close up on the face, and the subsequent camera play on the coded numbers themselves (to a suitably charged soundtrack), is an attempt to enact the workings of the exceptional mind. Though A Beautiful Mind is largely about Nash's schizophrenia, it is clear from early scenes in the film in which he displays dysfunctional social skills that the Nash character is seen to have autistic tendencies.

14. Michael T. Hayes and Rhonda S. Black have characterized such wonder as a “discourse of pity,” through which Hollywood features construct actual disabilities and impairments as cultural signs.

15. It is noticeable that the autistic characters under discussion here are mainly children. This observation can be used to lend support to the idea that the films under discussion reduce the actuality of autism to the periphery of their narratives, given that the children are not the major characters of the features in question. It could also signal a desire for a containment of the condition, with childhood autism aligned with an idea of ‘childhood behaviour,' something understood to be regulated by adults.





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