The Autism Spectrum on Screen

April 23rd, 2013 by Ran

April is Autism Awareness Month (among other things.) Autism is a good example of why awareness is very important. In the fifties, it was believed that lack of motherly love caused autism; they even gave it a name ‘Refrigerator Mother Theory’ – and you know the word ‘Theory’ makes it official. So parents of autistic kids not only had to deal with the difficulties of raising an uncommunicative child whose needs they did not fully understand, they also had to deal with the stigma of being conceived as emotionless bad parents. Knowledge about this disorder evolved over time, but not before people thought it was caused by vaccinations, prenatal stress, watching too much TV, or other factors which have since been disproven. Asperger syndrome, which now seems like the most common of conditions, was coined only in the 80s, and recognized formally in the 90s. So much has changed in our perception and treatment of autism; and let me make a (not so) bold prediction -  much will change in the future. A great medium to raise awareness for this difficult condition is the small or silver screen, but it does have its problems. Rain Man (which I forewent for originality’s sake) was the first significant film to feature an autistic man, and while everyone was moved by Dustin Hoffman’s character, for which he won a deserving Oscar, many later thought that all autistic people are wizards in math. Since then (especially in this century, when autism has become prominent in films and TV shows) and nowadays, everyone thinks that they can diagnose a person with Asperger.

Let’s take a look at those small and big screen titles that helped raise awareness for autism:

1. Adam (2009)

We’ll start off lightly with a romantic drama about an engineer with Asperger (Hugh Dancy) who falls in love with a ‘normal’ woman (Rose Byrne). Asperger seems to be comedy gold – because people who have it are usually high functioning, but socially awkward and tactless. This is because they struggle to decipher human emotions, sarcasm and other basic social skills. Luckily, this touching film does not overdo it.

2. The Black Balloon (2008)

This Australian drama deals with the heavier side of the autism spectrum. Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) is your ‘regular’ teenager trying to adjust to a new neighborhood, new school and new friends. He also deals with an autistic brother, and not the highly functioning funny one. It’s a great coming of age drama that averts clichés, deals with this subject matter with the sincerity it deserves, and presents some amazingly good acting.

3. Snow Cake (2006)

This Canadian drama rests on the shoulders of its actors: Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Carrie-Anne Moss. A high functioning autistic woman (Weaver) who lost her daughter in a car accident develops a strange relationship with the man who caused the accident (Rickman). In the hands of a great actress like Weaver, you can be sure that the subject of autism is dealt with much sincerity and humanity.

4. Elling (2001)

An autistic 40 year old man is thrown out of his home after his mother dies and is placed in a government home with the simple-minded and sex-obsessed Kjell. The uptight Elling and the uninhibited Kjell form a great odd couple, who somehow help each other function in a world which doesn’t really accept him. It’s an offbeat and touching Norwegian comedy, with great acting.

5. Ben X (2007)


Apparently, outside of porn and and pictures of cats, the Internet does prove itself useful at times. Autistic people are a case in point. Since autism is mostly manifested as a severe lack of communication skills and human interaction abilities, the mediation of the computer or the web helps autistic people develop those lacking skills. This Belgian film, based on true events,  deals with this issue, with great suspense and style.

6. Mary and Max (2009)


This Australian bittersweet animated dramedy shows how those who lack social skills find good ways to express themselves in a less hi-tech way than the web – through writing. A special friendship is formed between a young shy and lonely Australian girl and an elderly autistic and obese American man. The clay animation is excellently done, and the two misfit characters are very endearing.

7. My Name is Khan (2010)

How do you successfully combine Asperger syndrome, terrorism, 9/11 and song? Easy, make a Bollywood film. This is the journey of an autistic Muslim man (Shahrukh Khan) to the US, right after the attack on the Twin Towers and the wave of anti-Muslim sentiments that cost him his son’s life. This drama is not only for Bollywood fans, as it deals with themes like racism, fear and Islam in a very mature way.

8. Touch (2012)


A 9/11 widower (Kiefer Sutherland) realizes that his autistic son has the ability of foreknowledge through numbers and patterns that connect us all. Together they try to prevent bad things from happening. It’s a show about redemption that blends humanity with suspense and sci-fi elements with fantasy, but it’s done in a pretty believable way.

9. Mabul (2011)

This drama from Israel shows the struggles of a family whose autistic son comes back from the institution they placed him in, after it closes down. This unwanted presence forces the family members to come face to face with their guilt of not loving their son enough and causing his condition, and with this new ‘burden’ that had landed on their shoulders. It’s an in-your-face and complex character study that will leave you speechless.

10. Parenthood (2010)


Based on the 1989 film of the same name, Parenthood is the story of the extended Braverman family. Watching both versions will show you how far we have come in terms of awareness. While in the original film, Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen’s son has an undiagnosed disorder that causes him to be uncommunicative and behave erratically, in the new version we know the kid suffers from Asperger syndrome. The show does justice to its origin, and has great writing and a great ensemble cast.

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