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This breakthrough Hollywood film established a new standard for the realistic representation of autism. Basing his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt on close observations of two real-life individuals with autism (including the son of Ruth Sullivan, the first president of the Autism Society of America), Dustin Hoffman gave a brilliant performance that enabled his character to assert his presence with intensity. The strength of this intensity helped humanize not only his self-centered brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) in the story but also us spectators in the movie theater. For, it enabled us to better understand how the individual with autism perceives the world. Proving popular with audiences worldwide, the film won four Oscars—for best film, best director (Barry Levinson), best original screenplay (Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow) and best actor (Dustin Hoffman). This success enables us to use the film as a gauge for measuring how subsequent representations of autism have changed or remained the same.
Two aspects of the film now seem more troubling than they did to most viewers in 1988. By choosing to make Raymond an “autistic savant”—one who combines certain deficiencies in social interaction, language and sensory processing with extraordinary abilities in math and memory—the film helped establish the “savant” as a misleading stereotype for all individuals on the autism spectrum, since only around 10% actually display this pattern. Even the film’s primary scientific consultant, Dr. Darold Treffert (the world’s leading authority on the autistic savant syndrome), acknowledged (in an interview with Adam Feinstein in The History of Autism), “There is a danger of walking away from the movie with the impression that all autistic persons are savants and that all savants are autistic.” Yet, he claims: the film’s positive impact offsets this risk for it “did more to bring autism and savant syndrome to the public attention than any other public-education effort had done up until then.”
Even more problematic, despite Raymond’s high-functioning abilities and his brother Charlie’s willingness to take care of him, the film concludes that he and presumably other individuals with autism are better off being institutionalized rather than living with their own family. This position is radically different from today’s prevailing view—both in movies and in real life—where there is now more emphasis on “inclusion” in activities with neurotypicals and more hope for how individuals with autism can change. Yet, in his interview with Adam Feinstein, Dr. Treffert defended the film’s position by claiming, “The main message of the movie [is] that there is no six-day cure for autism and that it is really Charlie who changes, not Raymond…. Charlie’s accommodation with, acceptance of, and appreciation for his brother at the end of the movie—rather than the stereotypical rejection and ridicule…is a message for all society. We need to make those same changes—and we are really beginning to do just that.” Not until the 2010 release of the bio-pic on Temple Grandin, would we find another realistic fiction film that focused primarily on a person with autism and showed us how she is also capable of change.
According to Stuart Murray in Representing Autism, Rain Man helped establish “the autism movie” as its own genre. Turning out to be a sub-genre of family melodrama, it was dominated by stereotypes that oversimplify the complexities of the disorder. Yet, given the extraordinary success of the film, it established a series of narrative patterns, which are still followed in many later films about autism, both in fiction and documentary:
1) The story emphasizes the impact of autism on all members of the family, some of whom have autistic symptoms in milder form and deep-seated guilt over their inability to “cure” their child.
2) The story focuses on the relationship between an individual with autism and a neurotypical, exploring how both are affected by the relationship and what kind of future is possible for their interaction.
3) The story features a conflict over whether the individual with autism should be institutionalized or kept at home, or (more recently) a choice between enrollment in a special school or inclusion within regular classes.
4) The film contains a diagnostic scene where a medical expert or scientist defines the disorder—a scene frequently followed by instances where the individual with autism demonstrates these behaviors.
5) The film includes some shots that represent the autistic pov—e.g, although Raymond becomes absorbed with the strongly graphic abstract patterns on the road, once he gets to Vegas he keeps his eyes on the TV set instead of looking up at all the flashy neon signs (which threaten him with sensory overload).
6) The film includes a “Cinderella” make-over, where the individual with autism is dressed up to look more “normal” for some special performance. In Rain Man, Charlie takes Raymond to get a new suit and new haircut so that he won’t attract attention in the Vegas Casinos.
The popularity and prestige of Rain Man enabled it to establish both this familiar narrative pattern and the stereotype of the autistic savant. According to Stuart Murray, both Rain Man and Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), “served as foundational explanatory markers of autism for different generations,... fictions that almost achieved the status of sociological documents in the ways [they] engage(d) in a zeitgeist moment.” This dimension is even more significant when you consider that most people “learn perspectives on disability from books and films more than from policies or personal interactions,” an observation that applies not only in the US but worldwide.
In Unstrange Minds (2007), anthropologist Roy Richard Grinker claims “the success of the movie Rain Man, which parents of autistic children in every corner of the world have seen, didn’t hurt autism awareness.” He reports having met a “well –respected pediatrician” in India in 2005 who ran a large pediatric clinic and who admitted, “Honestly, Professor, I wouldn’t know if an abnormal child in my office had autism or not... But I did see Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman, so I might be able to diagnose an adult.” Even back in 1994, when autism was still a strange word to most people, whenever Grinker mentioned his daughter was autistic, people would ask, “You mean like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?”. This identification with a fictional character also affected individuals with autism. In An Anthropologist on Mars(1995), Oliver Sacks describes an autistic savant named Stephen who “has a veritable passion for Rain Man and, one must suspect, identifies with the Dustin Hoffman character, perhaps the only autistic hero ever widely portrayed.” Marveling at how Stephen “reproduced or represented entire characters, their interactions, conversations, and voices,” Sacks claims “he often seemed nourished and stimulated by these, but at other times taken over, possessed and dispossessed by them.” Sacks is left wondering whether Stephen’s repetition of Rain Man was “just a literal playback, a mimicry or echolalia, or was it charged with a sense of the significance of the film.” The world would have to wait before another equally compelling fictional film about autism, Temple Grandin, came along to challenge Rain Man’s representational status, as it created new standards of realism and hope.