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Marty Morantz


by Marty Morantz, July 14, 2013

Just to get this out of the way, I loved the movie “Rainman”.

Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of “Raymond” was among his best works. In fact, in 1988 he received The Academy Award for Best Actor for his role.

 Ironically though, that portrayal was so good, that it has become for many, the definition of autism. In essence, it “typecast” Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The key word being “Spectrum”.  In other words, the character of Raymond had become the face of autism for those who previously knew nothing about the disorder.

In fact the Rainman character has become so ubiquitous, that as a parent of a 13 year old child with Autism, I have for years, patiently and repeatedly answered these types of questions:

“Oh, your son has autism, is he gifted like Rainman?” 

“What are his special talents?”

“Oh, your son has autism, he must be great with numbers, like Rainman?” 

“Is he a savant like Rainman, all children with autism are gifted musicians or artists aren’t they?”

To be fair, I think in many respects when people find out about a person with autism, they really don’t know what to say, and so they will automatically default to what they know, which in the case of autism is for most people, Rainman.

Now, as I said I have nothing against Rainman, it was a great movie. What Rainman is to me though, is a testament to the power of movies and media in general; to shape opinion, whether or not that opinion is fully and fairly presented.

Most often when a news or human interest piece is broadcast about autism it is a wondrous story of how someone was cured of their autism because of a new diet (unproven) or how they magically started to speak after many years because they just got their new ipad, or better yet went horseback riding, or perhaps a got new dog (all unproven)!

Now I am not questioning the veracity of these accounts. I do however caution the consumer of these broadcasts not to let these stories bind your full understanding of the disorder.

On a positive note, in the embodiment of Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond, was a persona of autism that people could learn from, like, and be comfortable with. It also introduced a face of autism, that most people never knew about and thereby raised awareness. All of this is very important. 

In fact, millions of people who knew nothing about autism were introduced to the disorder. They became aware of it, in large measure because of the power of Mr. Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal and so they were educated in part.

The difficulty is that for many of those people, the idea of autism begins and ends with that character; Raymond.

As a parent of a child with autism, I think it is important that people know, that not every person with autism is like Raymond. In fact the opposite is true. Just like no two individuals are the same, no two people with autism are the same. Although many individuals with autism share similar traits, they are most often in varying degrees.

Autism is defined by the Autism Society Of America (ASA) as: "Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism typically show difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities."

Some people with ASD are very high functioning like Raymond. Others are extremely low functioning, while most others are toward the median.

 Less than ten percent of persons diagnosed with ASD possess extraordinary savant skills. Most individuals with autism do not possess such extraordinary skill and in fact often struggle with the most basic of skills such as language and social integration.

Many individuals with autism suffer from motor control issues, the ability to make eye contact, pervasive learning difficulties, limited or absent social skills, limited or no language skills, limited comprehension, language which is non-contextual and repetitive, serious aberrant behaviors such as engaging in self-harm or pica (eating inedible material) and as well, echoalia. 

Many people with Autism also display repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping, spinning, and rigid adherence to routine.

Young children with autism are often noted playing with toys in a way not intended. For instance if given a number of different toys such as trucks, buses, trains etc. instead of playing with them as neuro-typically developing children would, the child with autism might simply line them up in a particular order.

The stress and toll that autism takes on families including siblings is also an area that has received little attention.

Although Rainman certainly raised awareness, I for one believe it is time to shed more sunlight on the world of autism.


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