The Weekend Read: Autism in entertainment from ‘Rain Man’ to ‘Community’

THE WEEKEND READ: Our Saturday essay on the great topics in entertainment and culture today.

Last weekend, as Toshi was cruising the Blu-ray shelves for new movies to start asking about, he pulled “Rain Man” on a shelf and considered the cover for a moment before he turned to me, excited. “You didn't tell me Tom Cruise made a superhero movie!”

I can only assume his eventual disappointment might be tempered by the fact that “Rain Man” is a pretty good movie. It had been a while since I'd seen it, though, and after they went back to their mom's house, I put it in to watch it. I remember when it came out being right in the midst of my first time watching a lot of classic filmographies, and more than anything, I enjoyed the film as a match-up between Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Looking at the film, now, I'm amazed how much things seem to have changed in the past 26 years, both in society and in how we handle stories about the autistic in film and television. “Rain Man” still has someone use the phrase “idiot savant” as a medical term, which I'm pretty sure no doctor on Earth would do at this point, and “Rain Man” also still has a bit of the “oh my gosh they have magical powers!” school of thought to it. It is a well-intentioned film, but one that definitely serves as a signpost for where a conversation was, and how far we've come in the quarter-century since it was released.

Part of the reason I've been reflecting on that distance is because “Community” is back, just as “Parenthood” goes off the air, and it definitely feels to me like a corner has been turned in how autism is portrayed on film, although it still largely feels like these characters are relegated to films where the entire point is the autism. One of the ways you know things have genuinely progressed is when characters simply appear as part of the texture of the world, as they do in real life, and when it's not the end-all be-all point of the movie or the TV show.

Honestly, before “Rain Man,” the only film I can remember seeing that had an autistic character in it was “The Boy Who Could Fly,” which hardly seems like the most fact-driven version of things. In the '90s, more often than not, if someone was autistic, it was to drive a mystery or a thriller, like the terrible Bruce Willis film “Mercury Rising” or the also-terrible Kim Basinger film “Bless The Child” or the terrible Richard Dreyfuss film “Silent Fall.” There have also been more than a few “they'll struggle to find love” movies like “Adam” or “Mozart And The Whale,” and I think those films helped make an important push so that the films were about those characters instead of about people coping with those characters. Dustin Hoffman may have won the Oscar for “Rain Man,” but the film is about Tom Cruise grappling with the immovable object that is his brother.

It's really only been recently on TV that I feel like we've seen a major evolution. “Parenthood” features Max Burkholder as Max Braverman, the autistic son of Monica Potter and Peter Krause, and over the full run of the series, we saw them grapple with a number of different issues with the character. Most intriguing was a decision late in the series involving Ray Romano, who joined the series late. His character began to realize, thanks to his interactions with Max, that he might also fall somewhere on the spectrum, something that would be fairly heartbreaking to put together after spending most of your adult life simply thinking of yourself as an adult who doesn't fit. Even acknowledging that there is a spectrum, and not just a singular experience, has been a gradual adjustment for film and television creators, and not an easy one.

We're also now seeing a new archetype, the high-functioning autistic character who is never directly called autistic. Both “Community” and “The Big Bang Theory” feature major characters who exhibit what might be considered symptomatic behavior. With Abed, there's no doubt what they're doing, as characters frequently talk their way right up to that line, then stop, and if you listen to Dan Harmon's “Harmontown” podcast, his fascination with Asperger syndrome is a recurring theme, and the real Abed is an occasional guest who seems to self-identify on the spectrum. With “The Big Bang Theory,” it always feels like they're afraid to commit to calling Sheldon autistic, instead mining the behavior without using the word. Since the DSM-5 actually eliminated the term, replacing it with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, even movies from before 2013 already feel out of date. The language changes as fast as our own understanding, which makes it interesting to see how people attempt to grapple with these things on film.

The truth is that there are very few films or television shows that offer any sort of rounded perspective on what life is like to either have autism or to live with someone who does. My own modest experience with the subject suggests that it would be foolish to try to sum everything up in one character or one story. Instead, the simple move towards representation and demystifying what autism even is has its own value, and that may be larger than any individual film or television show. Something like “Nell” always strikes me as tricky because you're dealing with an actor trying to convey this experience from the outside. In literature, you can do something like “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” as a perspective exercise, and it can be moving and involving and absorbing. You try to do that on film, and you risk making “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” where 90% of the reviews seem to be about how “annoying” the kid was.

I'm sure we'll see more filmmakers deal with this in the future, and it would not surprise me at all if someone who actually lives with autism ends up finding a visual language to convey their own experience that none of us could have come up with. In the meantime, I'm sure we'll have plenty more shows like “Touch,” where once again, autism and magic powers end up being conflated. It seems silly more than anything, but it's important to remember that at its best, film can serve as a magical empathy device, something that can allows us to see and feel and hear what the world is like for other people. With something like autism, that seems like an incredibly valuable potential tool, and for that reason above any other, I'm glad to see filmmakers continue to try to find the right way in.