Saturday night saw the premiere of HBO’s original biopic Temple Grandin, the story of the renowned autistic animal scientist and best-selling author who pushed herself to succeed in the sixties when her disorder was widely misunderstood. Grandin was just the latest in an increasing number of movies, books, and TV shows that have focused on autism in the last few years. Much like any other illness, disease, or issue that hits critical mass in the news, autism has become — and wow, this feels crass to say — hot. There was John Elder Robison’s 2007 memoir, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s, while last year’s Sundance Film Festival had two movies about autism: Adam, a sweet romance with Hugh Dancy, and the claymation Max and Mary. On TV, last season’s Amazing Race had a contestant with Asperger’s, the first episode of Community introduced Abed as having the same disorder, and in the pilot of the upcoming NBC drama Parenthood, Peter Krause’s son is diagnosed with autism.
Increased education about a disorder is a positive thing. “These portrayals do bring awareness to the issue, making people more comfortable with autism, and raising sensitivity,” says Sabeeha Rehman, the President of the New York metro chapter of the National Autism Association. But it’s hard to ignore that nearly every autistic we see in movies or TV is of the high-functioning sort: a quirky Asperger’s genius with social issues, say, rather than someone uncommunicative and incapable of interpersonal connection who needs full-time care. And the majority of those with autism are not high-functioning, says Rehman.
Movies and TV are entertainment, so it makes sense to have uplift in plots about those with autism. Danes did a wonderful job of capturing Grandin’s anxieties, fits, and difficulties relating to others, but in the end, Grandin comes out on top, rising to extraordinary professional heights. She’s an aspirational story, the kind on which Hollywood thrives, but she’s not an example of a typical autistic child. The takeaway from movies like Grandin, Adam, and TV shows like Parenthood (in which the autistic child overcomes a social hurdle in just one episode) is so hopeful that it’s not representative: It educates, but in a happy, slightly misleading way. “Most of the movies have been about those who are high-functioning, with Asperger’s, with sharp memories and unusual traits,” says Rehman. “But it’s really the low-functioning part of the spectrum that needs the awareness. It’s a condition that affects you physiologically, there is severe pain. Some of these people are completely non-verbal, and it’s very draining for parents. But I realize that doesn’t make for good entertainment.”
St. Elsewhere and Rain Man showcased autistic characters incapable of a climactic hug or dramatic progression, but very little since has. Rehman recommends The Horse Boy, a 2009 documentary by a father whose severely autistic son forms a special relationship with a horse. “It shows a child with very difficult issues, but still how he makes the world a better place,” she says (Even The Horse Boy is hopeful — the boy’s speech and behavior is markedly improved after a visit to the horse-driven culture of Mongolia). But Rehman admits that it’s not an easy film to watch. “It’s upsetting, of course, to see the true realities of autism onscreen.” So which is more important: being realistic about what audiences want to see, or giving a realistic picture of the whole autism spectrum?