The Rain Man Effect

One of the things that annoys autistic people the most, I have found, is when they tell somebody they have autism, and the person responds with `do you mean like Rain Man?` or something along those lines.  I hadn’t seen the film itself until very recently, but after I watched it I thought I`d write this blog.

 I suppose what it`s really about is whether it`s the portrayal of autism in a film which people dislike, or something more than that.  I personally think that it was quite a good film, and I don’t have any real issues with its portrayal of autism.  The fact is that autism affects everybody differently, and there is no reason that Dustin Hoffman`s character would not have acted and behaved in the ways that he did.  You could take argument with some of the generalisations made by the professionals in the film, but it is a film made, and based in the late eighties when people knew much less about autism than they do now – so it is not particularly unrealistic for medical professionals in the film to make sweeping statements.

 What I think most people take issue with is actually nothing to do with the film itself; it`s the fact that people who may have seen the film once, or maybe even have only seen snatches of it, think that they now know everything they need to know about autism.  They think that everybody on the spectrum will behave in that manner.  It is their only real reference point for autism.  It is that lazy attitude that I think people dislike; as if watching one film tells you all you need to know.

Nowadays there are a lot more portrayals of autistic people in the media.  A few years ago all you used to really see was the random autistic characters who were put in to detective shows so that they could conveniently note down car number plates, or remember details from years before.  These seemed to be characters who were created by people with no real knowledge of the condition – simply recycled versions of older characters.  There was a point a while ago when having characters who were supposed to be quite funny, with obvious traits of Asperger’s`, became quite a popular thing.  I don’t find that offensive, as making people laugh is one of the best ways to get through to them, and make things stick in their minds.  Now you have programmes like Derek and The Bridge; with characters who aren’t point-blank called autistic, but blatantly are.  I would recommend these two shows as a good place to start if you want to learn more about autism, because they portray two people who are on the one hand completely different to each other – extreme ends of the spectrum –but in reality deal with a lot of the same issues.  Also, Derek is obviously male, but displays what is normally perceived to be a very female version of autism, whereas the main character in the bridge portrays what is typically thought of as a very masculine profile of autism.; perhaps the reason why, to the best of my knowledge, neither of them has ever been diagnosed with autism on the shows.

Now I am not saying that if you go away and watch these shows you will have a full understanding of autism, because that would be nonsense.  I don’t think you can ever have a full understanding of anything just from films and books – you need to do research.  And more important that any of those things, you need to talk to autistic people in real life.  The Bridge, Derek, and Rain Man, amongst others, are good portrayals of autism, but because the spectrum is so vast, and complex none of them give you a complete picture.

You also get characters like Roy Cropper in Coronation Street, who is almost a mix of male and female profiles of autism,  Again, I don’t think there has ever really been anything said about whether he has autism or not, but it is fairly obvious to see if you know anything about autism, that he does.  I think that as a lot of people do their learning through what they watch on T.V. or the cinema, the more varied and well-acted performances of characters with autism, or autistic traits there are in T.V. and cinema, the better.  Basically, there is nothing wrong with Rain Man; the problems lies with people judging an entire group of individuals on the basis of one movie.

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9 thoughts on “The Rain Man Effect

  1. Finally I come across a fellow autistic who doesn’t feel offended by Rain man. I feel offended when people say “but we aren’t like Rain man” in a generalizing way. It seems they, particularly those with Asperger’s, want to distance themselves from the portrayals of “lower-functioning” autistics. I do understand why there are differences between every real autistic, even Kim Peek (on whom the film was based), and Rain man. This is, however, simply because Rain man is fiction and besides, every autistic person is different.

    I do understand your issue with people having seen one film and then concluding they know all aobut autism. I have dissociation and at one point had a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. I was watching a documentary with some fellow patients in the institution about a woman who had it too. Someone commented on the woman becoming a child. “You have this?” she asked when I disclosed that I had DID. “You don’t become a child do you?” Well, I do, at times. (I currently don’t carry the diagnosis of DID anymore and several fellow DID’ers have told me I probably don’t have it, but that was based on my weird presentation that is largely due to my autism and their lack of knowledge beyond what they themselves experience.)

    1. I do understand why there are differences between every real Autistic, even Kim Peek (on whom the film was based), and Rain man.
      Kim Peek wasn’t a ‘real Autistic’ because he wasn’t Autistic at all. People just assume he was because the title character in Rainman is, and like the man the movie was based on, has Savant Syndrome (Past tense used accurately).

  2. My cousin is autistic. Although 20, he lives in a home about 1 hour drive away from his parents. He can only talk about things that interest him, and I have to speak to him using very short and straight-forward sentences (which suits me fine).
    He doesn’t understand social structures – e.g. he didn’t realise that my kids are , by proxy, part of his family. He creates social havoc where he lives by dropping one girlfriend for another and going back and forth etc. I think in some ways the psychopaths and autistics are similar in that they both cause social havoc, one intentionally one unintentionally….

    Anyway, the worrying reality is that he can’t look after his practical needs and is extremely vulnerable to more malicious characters (which is pretty much everyone), which causes huge problems for the people who care about him. The sad part though, is that he can’t be left alone to his own devices, he needs help with almost everything other than the most basic of tasks.

    Having said that, he can be very caring, has amazing intuition, something like ESP, I seem to be able to predict when he’s about to call. It’s possible he sensed my Grandfather was about to die. I’ll have to ask him more about that one, it was strange….

  3. IMHO, Derek isn’t actually Autistic; rather, he’s an extremely insulting caricature of people with mild intellectual disabilities. In short, Ricky Gervais is in Derek what Warren Mitchell was in Till Death Us Do Part. I say this as someone who’s Autistic myself.

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