Autism in the Media: Do Movies Like “Adam” Enhance Public Acceptance/Understanding? (by Kate Altman)



Though the CDC reports that now 1 out of 150 children are being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), individuals on the spectrum have been woefully unrepresented or misrepresented in movies and literature. When I mention that I work with individuals with autism, I often get the response, “Oh, like Rain Man?” For many people, Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic savant man in 1988’s Rain Man, co-starring Tom Cruise, is the only (or at least most accessible) representation of person with autism they can conjure. Luckily, authors and moviemakers have recently begun to introduce the public to a wider and more thoughtful array (spectrum?) of autistic characters. We have Christopher Boone, the 15 year-old protagonist of Mark Haddon’s widely-read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Aspies-in-love couple Donald Morton and Isabelle Sorenson (who are real people) from the autobiographical book and corresponding movie, Mozart and the Whale, and even Mary McDonnell’s brave (if overly-stereotypic) portrayal of a doctor with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) on the ABC hit, Grey’s Anatomy. And now, we have Adam, the male lead character (played by Hugh Dancy) in the new indie flick, “Adam”.

In my opinion, “Adam” is the best onscreen representation of an individual on the spectrum. Though it is an independent film and is not likely to attract as many viewers as a summer blockbuster, I’m sure that many film buffs will see it and learn a thing or two about AS. What do you think? Can fictional characters be helpful in educating the public about autism and AS? Do they increase understanding and sensitivity, or provide fodder for stereotypes and even teasing (after all, it is not exactly a compliment when someone is referred to as “Rain Man”)? Please share your thoughts with us by posting in the comments section below.