‘The love story [between the brothers] is only as good as its obstacle – and it’s a much greater obstacle if the guy’s autistic’ – Ron Bass
‘By putting one autistic person on the screen, the filmmakers had made innumerable others visible – to their loved ones, to their neighbours…and to themselves’ – Steve Silberman
As we watched Rain Man in our first class, it was the Chapter 9 reading of NeuroTribes which most intrigued me. For this analysis I have chosen two quotes that represent my mixed emotions about this film: the former, which indicates exploitation of autistic individuals for cinematic appeal; and the latter, which describes the positive impact of Rain Man for those same individuals.
On several occasions while reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but feel that the depiction of autism in the film was motivated by selfish agendas. Barry Morrow’s original script portrayed Raymond as intellectually disabled, and the decision to make him autistic seemed motivated by money rather than genuine compassion or a desire to raise awareness about autism. I was quite appalled with Barry Levinson’s insistence that the film end with Raymond returning to Walbrook Institute, as that would be more ‘dramatically satisfying’ (Silberman 2015) for audiences. Even more discouraging was the callousness with which Raymond’s character was treated. He served as a mere prop to foster Charlie’s character growth, and thus began a long tradition of autistic individuals ‘whose narrative function is to inspire those around them to be better people’ (Felperin 2011). In addition to exploiting autism, Rain Man greatly impacted peoples’ perceptions of the disorder through creating inaccurate stereotypes. Though I’m not proud to admit it, I also believed these stereotypes; I assumed that Raymond was the ‘norm’ among autistic individuals. As a result, I was very surprised to read about Peter Guthrie, who – like many autistic people – lives independently and performs day-to-day activities without too much difficulty. Rain Man underestimated those with autism while simultaneously taking advantage of them, and this has resulted in widespread misinformation.
However, Rain Man is also reported to have been a significant breakthrough in regards to awareness and acknowledgement of autism. The film’s success ‘made autism recognisable and familiar’ (Silberman 2015). Parents of autistic children now had a point of reference when explaining the disorder to others; wider society became more empathetic towards neurodivergent identities; autistic people themselves could feel that they were more accepted. There was widespread media coverage of the disorder, as well as a growing public interest. In many ways, Rain Man was essential in bolstering the autism rights movement and creating a sense of pride among the autistic community. Due to these positive effects, I find it difficult to take a definitive stance on whether the film’s influence was good or bad.
Chapter 9 of NeuroTribes highlighted the importance of Rain Man in the history of autism while also revealing its negative impacts. Although I can understand the necessity of this film, I believe that one must look outside of the mainstream to find more realistic portrayals of autism (some examples of such portrayals are listed here). In order to be authentic, these depictions must be the result of genuine interest in the matter rather than an interest in profitability.
Felperin, L 2011, Autism on film: can cinema get it right? Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/apr/04/autism-best-film-portraits. [10 September 2016].
Silberman, S 2015, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Avery, New York.