For many people, one of the first things they think of when they hear the word Autism is to picture Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, from the famous movie Rain Man (1988). While Hoffman’s roll in this film is probably the most famous portrayal of an autistic character, it is most certainly not the most accurate.
In the movie, Raymond is termed high-functioning due to his ability to care for himself and communicate with others, as well as his savant abilities in mathematics (ie card counting) and memory. While it is may be that some autistics have specific talents or extraordinary skills, they are certainly not the ‘exception to the rule’. It is perhaps more accurate to say that an autistic person is more likely to be of average or above-average intelligence and possess certain skills, than to be considered ‘low-functioning’ (a term that is both cruel and vague).
Given these special talents, it is important to note that not every autistic person is the same! Just as each neurotypical has their own unique traits and abilities, so do autistics. They have different talents, skills, and interests, which does not mean that they can all be classified under the distinction of ‘savant’ or ‘retarded’. As Autism is a spectrum, there is just as much, if not more, diversity than amongst the ‘neurotypical’ population.
A few slightly more accurate depictions of autistic characteristics throughout the movie, even though over-acted or dramatized at times, were Raymond’s adherence to routines and structure and his sensory sensitivities. While order and routine are important in being able to predict and make sense out of certain events in the world, it is understandable why they would bring an autistic comfort. Yet, Charlie’s (Raymond’s brother) impatient and punitive reactions to his brother’s requests offer no example as to how one should approach these situations. If anything Charlie’s outbursts demean the importance of Raymond’s particular lifestyle making it seem even more unreasonable.
As Charlie learns to truly love his brother as the movie unfolds, Raymond too seems to have ‘opened up’ and created a lasting emotional attachment with his newly reunited brother. While this ending fits the stereotypical ‘happy ending’ where everyone learns something, and two people become better for their trials, it should be noted that Raymond’s development of a loving bond with his brother should not be seen as him ‘overcoming’ his autism, but it should be viewed as a relationship developed because of his autism. Two brothers growing together learning to love and accept one another as they are.
In the 5th season of the hit show, Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Virginia Dixon was introduced portraying a person with Asperger’s. In the show, she displays extremely stereotypical ‘Autistic’ behaviors, appearing completely void of emotion. The even more inappropriate irony of her ‘heartless’ cha racter is that she is a world-renowned heart surgeon.
While she exudes brilliance in the OR, performing her own meticulous rituals while operating, Dr. Dixon makes decisions based on cost-benefit analysis, keeping emotion and feeling out of the process. Not only do her emotionless and completely procedure-driven mannerisms push to create negative views of autistics, but they inaccurately perpetuate societal myths Autism.
In a scene where her specific plans and ideas were not exactly followed, Dr. Dixon has a sort of melt-down leading to an excessive outburst and a need for intense self-stimulation via deep pressure squeezing. This scene in particular is extremely offensive in the way it demeans an autistic’s adherence to routine and dramatizes the outcomes of deviations from these routines. While it may be that autistics are emotionally sensitive about certain points (notice, emotionally, they DO have emotions!!), a high-functioning (as aspies are sometimes referred as) adult, and doctor, would certainly be able to exercise self-control, avoiding such a public and over-acted scene.
Although Grey’s is certainly an interesting show that is packed with heaps of drama, the accuracy of its ‘medical content’ should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. The show may have the entertainment value to capture viewers, but from such a popular show that indeed reaches hundreds of thousands of viewers, I would expect better.