Rain Man — Hollywood's Misrepresentation Surrounding People with Autism
When you think of autism within film, what film immediately jumps into your mind? For most, this would be Rain Man (1988) starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
Whilst this movie, at the time, was a major breakthrough for the autism community especially when creating awareness for the disability, it also contributed to some misconceptions and negative stereotypes surrounding autism which have continued to seep through into the industry as a whole.
The main misconception that the movie contributed to was the idea that most people diagnosed with autism are savants. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, autistic savants are those that “exhibit exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field (such as mathematics or music).” However, autistic savants have become one of the only forms autism being represented within film when savants only comprise of approximately 10% of people diagnosed with autism.
However, the movies portrayal of the autistic savant Raymond, actually came from a savant, named Kim Peek. Dustin Hoffman requested to meet Kim Peek in order to prepare for his role and recalls saying “I may be the star by you are the heavens” to Kim Peek, foreshadowing the impact the film had on the autistic community.
The release of Rain Man (1988) wasn’t all negative, in actuality, it did come with a lot of benefits for the autism community. Such benefits include prior to its release, there was no mainstream media coverage on autism and it essentially was unheard of by the general public. This is even commented on in the movies dialogue when Charlie (Tom Cruise) consults a psychiatrist about his brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). The dialogue starts off with a nurse saying “he’s artistic?” to which Charlie replies, “no, he’s autistic” the nurse then states “I’m not familiar with that, what is the exact nature of the problem?”. However, the film was such as success that it then provided the autism community with a voice for the first time. The whole world was now advocating for the rights and freedoms of people diagnosed with autism whereas previously it had just been the parents and families fighting for them.
Psychiatrist Dr Darold Treffet stated that despite Rain Man’s flaws it was “the best thing that ever happened to autism. No gigantic public education or PR effort could have produced the sensational awareness that Rain Man brought to the national and international radar screen.” To support Dr Treffet’s statement’s, according to Prevalence Spectrum the “rates of prevalence for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)… rose dramatically” after the movie’s release. In the US it is estimated that around 1 in 54 children have autism, whereas in Australia it is around 1 in 70 or around 350 thousand people according to the Australian Spectrum. The autistic community makes up a large percentage of our population so providing them someone to identify themselves with is quintessential, even if the portrayal only applies to a small minority of them.
Whilst, again, Rain Man (1988) is flawed in that it only caters to one niche form of autism, it also shouldn’t have to cover all basis's of the disability. Karl Knights opinion piece titled “Rain Man made autistic people visible. But it also entrenched a myth” encapsulates this by stating “Rain Man’s ubiquity and its influence is hardly the film’s fault. The blame lies with the wider industry. Rain Man should have been a cultural beginning for autistic characters on screen. Instead it became a singular event, an end point”. Instead of focusing on different aspects of autism, the industry chose to solely focus on those with savant autism which denied representation to the majority of people diagnosed with autism.
A film that has adapted and changed from the savant formula in choosing to showcase a different side of autism is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. This film never explicitly mentions Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) has autism, however, through his actions (involving his need for routine, his inability to recognise danger, his use of atypical speech, repetitive movements, etc.) audiences are able to assume Arnie is on the spectrum. The film also not only provides a greater understanding to what autism actually looks like for most children to audiences but it also demonstrates the hardship and struggle families have to go through. Particularly in relation to siblings, as shown by the opinion piece titled “Autism on Screen- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” by the blogger @autismaoife, stating “Gilbert [Johnny Depp] loves Arnie [Leonardo DiCaprio] dearly, but taking care of him and his entire family takes it’s toll”.
Therefore, to reiterate, Rain Man (1988) is an excellent basis of a movie trying to bring awareness to a minority of the autistic community, however, it’s characterisation on autism as a whole is incorrect. Hollywood should have taken the premise of what the film was based on and added onto it to create more accurate depictions of what autism actually is. In this case, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) is a high quality rendition on not only what autism actually looks like for most people but the impact having autism puts on a family.
Now that people have moved away from the mainstream film industry and more towards streaming services, this can be used as an opportunity to create shows targeted towards those with autism such as the reality tv show Love on the Spectrum (2019). Hopefully with this, more accurate representations of autism will be advocated for more regularly.