Autism, Culture, and Representation

Archive for January, 2012

“Rain Man”: The Origination of the Autistic Savant Stereotype

After repeatedly encountering the phrase “Rain Man” in various works about autism, I’ve been hoping to see the film for a while now. At the same time, I was hesitant to see the movie that really created the autism stereotype.

Even so, I was not at all prepared for it. Not only was the representation of autism incredibly stereotypical, but the majority of the movie was just downright painful. I expected there to be some tension between the Charlie and Raymond, but I had no idea that it would last for more than an hour of the movie. I felt like I was sitting there just watching abuse.

It was one of the hardest movies to watch. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tempted to leave a movie unfinished, but I felt obligated to see it. I couldn’t see how it would ever be a “funny” movie, as was said on the back cover.

Anyways. I was especially intrigued to learn that the person who Raymond’s personality was based off (since this was somewhat based on a true story) was a person who did not have autism. It’s kind of ironic that the character who came to define autism as a form of genius was based on a person who was not autistic. What were perceptions of autism like before this movie came out?

While it was blatantly clear to me how this movie created stereotypes, I did think it was interesting that autism was portrayed in an adult. Since the predominant stereotype of autism is something only children have, I was surprised that they chose to represent autism in an adult. How did autism become stereotypically a childhood disorder?

Although it was painful to watch, Rain Man has helped set up the context I needed to better understand some of the stereotypes still prevalent today.

Continuing on the road to understand autism

During a busy winter break in India, I read Roy Richard Grinker’s Unstrange Minds: Remapping Autism. I came back to Ann Arbor eager to learn more abut autism and sad that since my English class had ended, I wouldn’t really have a chance to do that. After trying out a variety of English classes, I was having trouble finding one that I really liked that fit my schedule.

I had been thinking about the idea of doing an independent study, but it seemed unlikely that I would be able to make it happen this semester. Luckily, thanks to Melanie’s enthusiasm and flexibility, it turns out that I will be doing an independent study this semester!

I’m going to start by delving deeper into the controversies that surround autism that were introduced in my English class last semester, English 416: Disability Cultures, Autism, Culture and Representation. After exploring these at a greater depth, I hope to focus in on how autism is represented through fictional characters in children’s literature or how literature is used to help children understand autism.

To dive back into autism, the facts, and the controversies, I read Stuart Murray’s Autism. It provided a great introduction to autism in just 100 pages.

One of the things that I found most interesting was Baron-Cohen’s idea that “suffering is integral” to autism (p 21). Suffering implies that those who are autistic are all in pain, and that their life is in some way compromised in comparison to the life of ‘normal’ people. The integration of the word ‘suffering’ in the understanding of autism reflects not only how autism is perceived as an abnormality, but also how it is a form of illness that needs to be cured.

The term ‘triad of impairments’ was also new to me (p. 25). I am interested in understanding how the definitions and the use of this phrase has evolved over time.

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