Tag Archives: Rain Man

Marriage, Analysis 1: Money on Their Minds, or Doing It for the Love?

‘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.


Week Two Review

Our main focus this week was gaining a vocabulary for talking about Autism Spectrum  Disorder–a vocabulary we can hopefully apply to the works of fiction we’ll read in upcoming weeks.  This we did courtesy of Steve Silberman’s comprehensive book Neurotribes (listen to Silberman’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air).   We began by finishing the iconic film Rain Man, a movie that put autism on the map but also established some troubling stereotypes.  In our subsequent discussion, we wondered specifically about 1) the lack of agency Raymond has throughout the film, but particularly in the elevator scene 2) the necessity of re-institutionalizing Raymond at the end of the film, despite his ability to function at a higher level 3) the characterization of Raymond as a stereotypical “angel,”–that is, a person with a disability who makes all those around him better.  These and other questions showed that while the film did a great service for ASD awareness, it may not be the final word on representation of ASD in works of fiction.

We then turned to Neurotribes, re-examining chapters 9, 10, and 11 in small groups of 3-4.  After small group discuessed the issues below, we reconvened to talk about the terms and ideas.  I will add some of our ideas here:

Institutions v. Autistic Space
What is institutional space?
–A sorting mechanism for dividing the neurodivergent (ND) from the neurotypical (NT)
–A space created by the NT for the ND
–A space reinforced  and maintained by powerful social structures (government, law enforcement, hospitals

What is autistic space? (Chapter 11 of Neurotribes)
–A space created by the ND for the ND
–A space where ND behaviors are not regarded as deviant
–A space where NDs have autonomy and identity

Neurodivergent (ND) and Neurotypical are difficult to define because they rely on one another.  But neurodivergence is, like race and gender, a socially constructed term: that it, its parameters and definition are not innate but determined by socio-cultural forces.

Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder

The history of the DSM and the changing ASD diagnosis (Chapter 10)
–The DSM begins as a largely theoretical work, but shifts toward application.  It becomes the official diagnostic tool of the mental health industry with DSM-3, DSM-4, and DSM-5 (2013).
–In general, the diagnosis begins as highly limited and specific (Leo Kanner, one of the founding figures of the  field, thought 1 in 10,000).
–It moves from a limited age range (30 months or less) to an ageless range
–It moves from separate diagnosis with similar symptoms (Infantile Autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger Syndrome) to the broad diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (2013)
–Changing diagnostic criteria reflect how fluid the idea of NT really is
–Personal identity is wrapped up in diagnoses/labels, for better and for worse
–Diagnostic labels have practical value in that they can result in support from medical providers, insurance companies, and schools

Representing ASD in Fiction

Rain Man makes us consider the danger of stereotypes
Rain Man also raises awareness and helps with advocacy efforts
–Representing ASD in works of fiction allows autistic individuals to see themselves in these works
–What does a truthful representation of ASD in fiction look like?
–What does a dishonest or manipulative representation of ASD look like?

Lastly, we took a few minutes for some book talks on young adult novels that feature autistic characters/narrators.  Many of us signed up for literature circle groups and chose a work, at least tentatively.  For next time, we’ll ask some of these questions about “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a work that is often discussed as an early example of ASD representation.  Until then.

Kiessel, Analysis One

After this week’s readings I was acutely aware of society’s early view of those struggling with Autism. After watching “Rain Man” in class and then reading Chapter 9 of Silberman’s text, there was a blatant misunderstanding of people with autism versus those with schizophrenia and other psychological diseases. Moreover, most people classified those with autism as simply being dumb or lacking cognitive function. Silberman’s Chapter 9 really opened my eyes as to how people with autism were and still are treated. Bill was completely dehumanized by others, even his own mother who was afraid of the stigma that would be brought upon her family.

Once autism was starting to be recognized, much thanks to “Rain Man”, in Chapter 10 Silberman discusses the evolution of the diagnostic procedures. Among his information on diagnostic procedures he includes a piece of legislature called “IDEA”. This sparked my curiosity as to what has been currently developing in legislation with the spiked rates of diagnoses and awareness compared to the pre-“Rain Man” era. Upon my findings I believe that legislation, while there is a lot more work to do, is slowly heading in the right direction.

Michigan was the 30th state to enact Autism Insurance Reform on April 18th, 2012. This then allowed for the Autism Coverage Reimbursement Act, which was enacted to help cover high costs that insurers would be forced to pay (Autism Speaks).

Another feat was accomplished when in 2014 a student with autism was granted the use of a service dog in school. The case went to the Department of Justice after 6 months of the student’s mother complying with requests of extensive paperwork and was still denied because the school believed in the original use of a service dog to be exclusive with those with physical impairments such as blindness, etc. The DOJ found the school’s ruling to be in direct violation with Americans with Disabilities Act (Student With Autism Gains Legal Win To Use Service Dog).

And then in 2015, Obama signed the ABLE Act, which, “allows for tax-free savings accounts to help individuals and families cover lifetime disability expenses” (NY Times Highlights ABLE Act for Disability Savings). Meanwhile in Michigan, a 5.5 million dollar surplus from an Autism Fund allowed some funding to go to universities to, “train health workers to diagnose and treat individuals diagnosed with autism” (Michigan Redirects $5.5 Million Surplus From Untapped Autism Fund). This bill also allows for some money to be directed to provide resources for families dealing with autism.

I believe these legislative events to be a reflection of the growing rate of Americans who are concerned and aware of autism.



Michigan Redirects $5.5 Million Surplus From Untapped Autism Fund. Autism Votes, Autism      Speaks Inc., Jan. 06, 2015,  , Sep. 11, 2016.

NY Times Highlights ABLE Act for Disability Savings. Autism Speaks Inc., Jan. 30, 2015, , Sep. 11, 2016.

Student With Autism Gains Legal Win To Use Service Dog. Autism Votes, Autism Speaks Inc., June 26,2014, , Sep. 11, 2016.

Week One Review

Last night was our first class of the semester.  Like most first classes, ours was occupied largely with requirements and details, all of which are explained on the course syllabus.  If you have questions or concerns about the reading schedule, blogging requirement, literature circle assignment, or anything else on the syllabus, please email me or make an appointment with me during office hours (M 3-5).

Of course, we also spent some time raising questions about the course and its specific focus of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.  As I mentioned in class, my 11-year-old son was diagnosed with high-functioning ASD five years ago, so my interest in this topic is of course, very personal. You’ll probably hear more about him as the semester goes along. I am also writing a book on the literacy practices of adolescents on the spectrum, and I’ve published a couple of articles that you’ll read as part of the class.  In any case, I think ASD is a worthwhile topic to examine through the lens of fiction, and I hope that after our introduction last night, you think so too.

We began with a quick writing response to the following prompt: 1) What do you already know about ASD?  2) What would you like to know?  The answers to the first question were far-ranging: some of you have or friends or even siblings who have been diagnosed; others of you know only what you have heard from politicians and  popular culture.  Here is a screenshot of those responses (paper responses not included).

screenshot-docs.google.com 2016-08-30 14-45-57

In the answers to question two, I see a lot of interest in learning more about ASD, and I think fiction is a good way to do it (though we’ll read some non-fiction, too).  Our first piece of fiction was Rain Man, the 1988 film that won four Oscars and kind of put Autism on the map.  As we watched the first 90 minutes of the film last night, we thought about three major questions:

  • Why is Rain Man an important film?
  • How does Rain Man define Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • How does Rain Man define neurotypicality?

In the last five minutes of class, we had a brief discussion of these three questions–one that we will pick up again two weeks from now, when we reconvene.