Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ignorance: The Medias and My Own

    I have beat myself up so much, over the last year or so, for the ignorance and unsolicited sympathy I had towards autism and the families affected, that I'm surprised I don't have actual bruises. All of the times I did the things I've grown to hate to other parents with special needs kids: saying "I'm sorry" the second they mention the disorder, try to relate with the old "my neighbor's cousin's best friend's kid goes to school with someone who has autism," and then try to reassure them that their kid I had spent ten minutes with "seemed perfectly normal to me." The list goes on and on and I'm sure you could think of a few before you are even done reading this post.

    I can remember back to just after we got married, to a family event with a very close family friend, his wife and children, one of whom is autistic. Their son played rough nearly all night with Alex, beating him up and nearly exhausting him in a matter of an hour or two, he even insisted on sitting on Alex's foot and having him walk around with him hugging his leg. The whole drive home was talk about how we could never handle that all the time, how he was almost 4 and not talking, extremely rough and full on nearly endless energy. We pitied our friends for what they had to go through, and not that I believe in karma but I think God does have a good way of teaching us lessons and helping us grow. I'm not saying that these feelings led to our son's disorder as some cosmic punishment, rather the vivid memory of my exact emotions from that night humbles me and reminds me that I once was rude, insensitive and ignorant and I can't expect others to be any different than I myself were a mere few years ago.

     Recently my husband saw that "Rain Man" was on Netflix. A movie that I had never seen and had only heard reference when someone was looking for a "polite" way to call someone "retarded." Since becoming an "autism mom," I've read more blog post, facebook comments and articles over the last year than the prior years of internet use combine and in the autism community "Rain Man" is referenced to A LOT! But in a very negative light. Googling the phase "my kid is not rain man" gave me 140 million results in less than half a second! So clearly this is a common thought.

     Now before having watching this movie, I'm ashamed to say I jumped on that bandwagon. I simply judged with the court of public opinion without forming my own view point, without witnessing first hand what the movie even had to say about autism. My husband, in all his wisdom, pointed this out to me and not wanting to stick with this flawed mindset, I watched the movie.

     Now to get a real idea of how old this movie and information in it is, keep in mind that I wasn't even alive when it was in theaters. That being said, the description of autism to Tom Cruise's character in the first meeting scene is still factually true, though grossly oversimplified. They hardly scratch the surface of what autism is and why its not a mental illness, but at least they make a point of saying he's not "crazy" or "retarded" for what its worth.

     In nearly 25 years there hasn't been any huge leaps in the understanding of autism, what causes it and it changes the brain. Though, their definition of "high-functioning" is something I think most people get have an issue with. Raymond didn't receive any early intervention services as far as the movie tells us, he was simply dumped in a facility and his needs catered to, he basically lived in a bubble. So for him to be talking and expressive without therapy, he probably was very high functioning in a sense. Imagine what kind of adult he could have developed into if he had received modern therapy or even the therapy Temple Grandin received in the 50's? Nowadays, a lot of the behaviors he had are usually worked on in the first few years of early intervention and not nearly as noticeable in adulthood for high functioning individuals. I think its also important to point out that a lot of the people we now refer to as "high functioning" wouldn't have even been on the spectrum by early 90's standards, with time and research the parameters of the testing standards are very different now and still changing.

please note that h/f and l/f are not the same as severe/mildly autistic.
You can have severe autistic traits, like extreme sensory issues
and be completely able to live independently etc.

Please also note that this visual is my guess/opinion
of where he would be, NOT a medical opinion.

     The other major issue I think most parents have with the movie is the "magic power" mentality. In the movie, Raymond has the amazing ability to do complex math in his head. This can be a "side effect" of autism but to this level of amazing is very rare, on a more realistic scale autistic people do tend to have a special ability to understand one topic very well and lack understanding in other areas, such as social skills. Similar to a blind person having acute hearing. This part of the movie is clearly inflated due to the fact that IT'S HOLLYWOOD! It just makes for a better story from a screenwriter's standpoint.

     To be completely honest, I can't really say whether the idea of "Rain Man" offends me or not. I've only meet a few autistic adults very briefly and mostly out of shyness I've trying to not seem too nosy. So as far as how that relates to Xander, I don't know. Maybe when he gets older and we start to get a true grip on his learning skills and level of intelligence, I'll have a better understanding on how this movie affects me emotionally.

     I was just about to suggest that it would be a good idea to make an updated portrayal of a high functioning autistic person in today's society when I realized its far more common than we even realize. Characters like the main character in "Bones," Temperance Brennan, the son from "Parenthood," Dr. Spencer Reid from "Criminal Minds" and Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" all display signs of being on the spectrum (some confirmed in canon). These shows give a much better, though still dramatized, view of autism in real life. "Rain Man" is out of date mainly because a lot of people on the spectrum now, thanks to better early intervention services, are hardly distinguishable and Raymond's character, more or less, just further spreads a false stigma about what it really means to be high functioning in today's world.

    But just as I have learned to forgive myself over past ignorance, I think we need to cut this movie a little slack. Their heart was in the right place and while it may have done more damage in the long term it gave ASD the limelight for a little while. Though awareness is nothing if the information is faulty. So I guess at the end of it all I'm cut pretty evenly on this one. I think I'll just reserve judgement, after all when every person with autism is so different how can there really be a true and wholly accurate display in media.


  1. Interesting take on the movie. I do believe that it would be a good idea to have a mainstream movie featuring a character with autism. So I agree with you. I think like you I also made mistakes with how I judged other parents. I remember seeing an older child in a stroller and wondering why? Now I understand.

    1. Its the kind of thing you don't truly understand until it happens to you. I used to feel like I was a good person for pitying the parents of special needs kids, now I see how incredibly wrong I was.


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