Neuroscience at the Movies

Autism

This lesson was developed by Ms. Heather Stewart, Neuroscience for Kids Consultant
"If he finds the warp, he can jump worlds."
--- Haley in The Wizard

Autism becomes evident within the first 3 years of life. It affects about 1 child in 500; four times as many boys as girls are autistic. Though they are normal in appearance, people with autism show problems with communication and social interaction skills. These problems persist in some degree throughout life even with appropriate intervention and alleviation of other symptoms. Considered a "spectrum" disorder, autism has symptoms that vary considerably in degree of severity and type. Hence, there is no single medical or psychological test for autism. Rather, medical tests are performed to rule out other possible disorders that may have a pattern of symptoms that overlap with those of autism. A final diagnosis of autism is made after the child has been evaluated as to communication, behavior and developmental level by a team of specialists.

In films featuring an autistic character, a wide range of symptoms are seen, including:

  • total silence and extended staring (The Boy Who Thought He Could Fly, House of Cards)
  • repetitive movement such as rocking and hand flapping (Mercury Rising, House of Cards)
  • spending time alone rather than with other people (all of these films)
  • "perseveration," the obsessive interest in a particular item, idea, activity or person (The Wizard, House of Cards, Rain Man, Little Voice)
  • difficulty with a change in routine (House of Cards, Rain Man, Mercury Rising).

All characters appear to live in their own, very ordered world but with rules that may not be apparent to outsiders. Except for Sally in House of Cards who is displaying autistic symptoms without having true autism, all of the other autistic characters would have difficulty living without assistance of some kind, though in reality, some autistic individuals are able to achieve some level of independence.

Filmmakers like to include a special "savant" talent or gift to their characters, such as calculating prime numbers or other mathematical feats, video game wizardry, memory feats, artistic and musical abilities. In reality, only about 10% of autistic individuals are savants. Among non-autists, about 1% are savants.

An overriding theme in each of these films concerns flying, whether actual flying or flapping by the main character (The Boy Who Could Fly, House of Cards), special rules for flying (Rain Man), flight from pursuers (The Wizard, The Boy Who Could Fly, Mercury Rising) or bird imagery (Little Voice). This could be a metaphor for the characters' internal flight from reality or even flights of fancy. It may also be a metaphor for the characters' paradoxical strengths and frailty (like a bird or a kite in a strong wind).

Another feature that is a constant companion to autistic characters in films is the loss of a close family member, usually a parent, especially the father (The Boy Who Could Fly, House of Cards, Mercury Rising, Little Voice). Since this event usually predates the appearance of the autistic symptoms, the films' writers may be under the impression that autism results from a psychological crisis, which runs counter to the current doctrine that autism is a biological, developmental disorder.

Questions to consider while viewing these films:

  • Which symptoms of autism did you see in the film? At what age did they first appear in the character?
  • Is the autistic character able to take care of himself or herself? Able to live alone?
  • Did the autistic character have special gifts or talents? What were they?
  • How did other people respond to the autistic character? How do they help the autistic character integrate and feel comfortable in an otherwise uncomfortable or unfamiliar environment?
  • How was the theme of "flight" or "flying" exhibited in the film? What do you think this was a metaphor for?
  • If you watch two or more of these films, compare and contrast how the characters met their unique challenges.

MOVIE AGE/RATING TYPE COMMENTS
The Wizard

1989

Elementary School

Rated: PG

Adventure

101 min.

Corey (Fred Savage) kidnaps his autistic younger brother, Jimmy (Luke Edwards), to save him from impending institutionalization. They escape in the back of a twinkie van on their way to California and the chase is on: their father (Beau Bridges) and older brother (Christian Slater) want to bring them home, a bounty hunter is after Jimmy for the fee his mother and stepfather will pay. Along the way, the brothers join forces with Haley (Jenny Lewis), an extremely resourceful girl ("I know truckers - they got a code") on her own after the breakup of her own family. When they discover that Jimmy has an extraordinary talent for video games, they're off to the Nintendo world championship in California. Everything comes to a head at Video Armageddon. Jimmy's autistic symptoms include social withdrawal, limited use of language, obsession with California, repetitive actions.
The Boy Who Could Fly

1986

Elementary School

Rated: PG

Family

108 min.

When her family moves to a new town, Millie befriends Eric. Eric is the autistic boy who lives next door with his alcoholic uncle Hugo since the death of his parents in an airplane crash. Eric spends a lot of time on his roof with his arms outstretched like an airplane, garnering him stays in the mental institution when his uncle Hugo goes on drinking binges. Despite his condition, Eric teaches everyone how far - and how high - faith can take them.
House of Cards

1993

Middle School

Rated: PG-13

Drama

109 min.

After returning to the states from Mayan civilization where her parents have been involved with excavation of ruins for the last few years and where her father died, six-year-old Sally begins to exhibit dissociational symptoms characteristic of autism. A battle of wills and minds between her mother (Kathleen Turner) and psychiatrist Dr. Jacob Beerlander (Tommy Lee Jones) ensues as they try to bring Sally back into reality with the tools they each have at hand. Mom tries to reach Sally from the inside by trying to reconstruct her path inward via computer generation and architectual engineering while Dr. Beerlander wedges his foot in the door and tries to pull her through from the outside. Though not strictly genuine autism, this film gives a good description of the dissociation and other symptoms associated with autism. The film also includes a delicate, haunting Mayan music track.
Rain Man

1988

High School

Rated: R

Drama

133 min.

Upon the death of his estranged father, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) discovers that he has a secret institutionalized brother who has inherited the lion's share of their father's estate. Driven with anger and not a little greed at this turn of events, Charlie kidnaps his autistic older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), and takes him on a road trip (Rain Man won't fly anything but Qantas - "They never crash") that neither will ever forget. Raymond's savant talents include a fantastic memory, especially for baseball statistics and cards played from a 6-deck stack.
Mercury Rising

1998

High School

Rated: R

Thriller

108 min.

FBI agent Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis) is entrusted with finding 9-year-old autistic savant, Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) following the sudden deaths of Simon's parents. But with assassins lurking round every corner, Jeffries suspects something's amiss and appoints himself as Simon's guardian. Seems Simon has cracked the government's latest and best super encryption code, making him a threat to national security. Miko Hughes turns in an excellent and believable performance as the autistic Simon.
Little Voice

1998

High School

Rated: R

Drama

97 min.

A girl (Jane Horrocks) withdraws inward following the death of her father into a world they shared - recordings of great artists of the 1940s and 1950s. Her mother (Brenda Blethyn) is an alcoholic, verbally abusive and self-centered, and one evening, brings home new talent-promoter boyfriend (Michael Caine). When the power goes off and they hear LV (Little Voice - "on account of you're so soft-spoken") sing in the voices of the greats, dollar signs flash in their eyes, and they try to capitalize on her gifts. The only person who appreciates the girl behind the voice is Peter, the telephone guy, himself an introvert whose main companions are his homing pigeons. If you can get past the language - the English accents are sometimes hard to understand, also very "blue" at times - this is an excellent film for examining social withdrawal, limited use of language, obsession with old recordings and extraordinary musical abilities of some autists, as well as the tendency for certain opportunists to take advantage of them. The film is best suited for high school students over the age of 17.

Related links:

Movie Topics
Amnesia Autism Blindness Cognitive Impairment
Deafness Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Brain Tumors Feral Children
Neuroscience at the Movies

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