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USA1969(93 min)

Two years after the publication of The Empty Fortress, the ideas behind it were the subject of a major motion picture, the Elvis Presley film Change of Habit. Elvis plays a young doctor, singer, and community activist running a clinic in Spanish Harlem. Mary Tyler Moore plays Michelle, a plainclothes nun who has been trained as a nurse and speech therapist. She is assigned by the church to work with Elvis, despite the risk that she will be tempted by worldly pleasures outside the convent, such as Elvis himself.... Elvis is a Christ figure, working with the sick and poor, ministering to them through caring and through music. Indeed, the real miracles are performed not by God but by Elvis, who is the only truly selfless and compassionate character in the film... One of his patients is a young, mute girl, Amanda, who shows no emotion, rocks back and forth, resists being touched, makes poor eye contact, and clutches a Raggedy Ann doll. The aunt who brings her to the clinic (it is important to note that the mother has abandoned the child) assumes she is deaf, but the speech therapist, Mary Tyler Moore, says to Elvis, “I think she’s autistic.” Though she tries her best, she cannot get the girl’s attention. Elvis steps in, realizing that, as a result of her mother’s departure, Amanda does not know how to love.

“It’s not gonna work Michelle. She’s hiding behind a wall of anger. It’s not gonna work. I’ll take over and we’ll try rage reduction.” It is important, he claims, to rid her of her “autistic frustration” over her mother’s abandonment of her. Elvis takes Amanda’s doll and she begins to scream. “You’ve got to learn how to start loving people,” he tells her. “I’m gonna hold you until you get rid of all your hate.” She struggles, but he holds on. “Then you can start to give love and take love. I love you. I love you Amanda. I love you. I love you. I love you.” In less than thirty seconds, she speaks her first word, “mad,” followed by her second word, “love.” (Roy Richard Grinker, Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, 2007)

Just how seriously misunderstood autism continued to be in the United Sates at the end of the 1960s can be seen in the 1969 release of one of the first feature films ever to deal with the disorder, Change of Habit, starring Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore. In it, Presley, playing a doctor, suggests that a girl’s autism was caused by being rejected by her mother and recommends “rage reduction.” ...This is essentially a version of an approach which came to be known as “holding therapy” and continued to be widely used on autistic children for many years around the world…. Holding therapy itself was introduced by, among others, Martha Welch in the United States and then adopted in Germany by Jirina Prekop, who still uses it to this day,… insisting that autism is simply an inability to love. Claire Sainsbury, a well-known writer with Asperger’s syndrome, has described holding therapy as “sensory rape.” Another autistic writer, Therese Jolliffe, actually underwent the therapy. She said: “To me, the suffering was terrible and it achieved nothing.” There is, indeed, no scientific evidence to show that holding therapy is effective. The most extreme form today can be found in France—in the form of le packing. (Adam Feinstein, A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers, 2010)

Read an interview with William A. Graham here where he comments on the “rage reduction” technique used in the film:

Roy Richard Grinker and Adam Feinstein

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