Rain Man, a 1988 Oscar-winning drama, has been instrumental in defining the general public’s view on autism spectrum disorder for years to come. The film dispels the popular misconception of persons with autism as unable to form and sustain relationships via the development of the protagonist brothers’ awareness and understanding of one another’s needs. The viewers are familiarized with other peculiarities of an autistic person’s behavior, such as a need for strict routines, stimming and self-stimulation.
Raymond “Ray” Babbitt, one of the main protagonists, is identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Savant syndrome. A resident at Wallbrook Mental Institution for 20 years, where he is comfortable with his routines and rituals, such as having his bed by the window and a bedtime of 11 pm sharp. Upon first meeting him as an adult, his brother Charlie is seen rather insensitively asking his doctor, Dr. Bruner, “What is he?”. The doctor then states that Raymond is an autistic savant, and proceeds to explain that he is high-functioning, but has a dysfunction that “impairs the sensory input and how it’s processed,” problems with communicating with others, expressing himself, and a learning disability.
The movie does not portray Raymond’s brother as supportive at first – Charlie objectifies his brother, and presumes him to be either mentally handicapped or a weirdo. This only surviving family member is insensitive to Raymond’s needs, depriving him of his stable environment via a kidnapping. Upon becoming aware of Raymond’s genius skills with numbers and exceptional memory, as with the telephone book memorizing, Charlie starts perceiving him as a useful tool for personal financial gain, as evidenced by the casino scene. Thus treated, a person with autism would present excessive stimming, withdrawal or a complete meltdown. Charlie’s further actions are more beneficial towards his brother’s functioning in a social environment.
At the beginning of the movie, Raymond is excluded from the community life, having been placed in an institution. In the course of the film, he is slowly reintegrated via various interpersonal interactions, the most prevalent being those with and under the guidance of his brother. As evidenced by the K-Mart exchange with Dr. Brenner, he gains an understanding of the concept of joking.
Employing a person with ASD, I would take into account their interests and preferred style of learning, and let them adhere to routine. In the movie set, they would benefit from a job such as a car dealership accountant – as it does not demand traveling and employs their skills with numbers and prodigious memory
The film would broaden my perception, enabling me to see those with autism as individuals with their own, often highly specific, interests, preferences, and contributions to society. Alternatively, the film focuses on the high end of the spectrum and the savant syndrome, present in a small number of persons with ASD. Therefore, it draws attention on those that could most contribute to society, and have a higher degree of visibility, as opposed to people on the lower end of the spectrum – those who need much more visibility, care and acceptance.
The film shows the interpersonal communication and relationships as more beneficial to an autistic person’s condition than being in a safe environment that enables the routines and rituals but discourages changes, and thus – progress.
Johnson, M. (Producer), & Levinson, B. (Director). (1988). Rain Man [Motion picture]. United States: United Artists.