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January 2011



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Autistic impressions

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy in Adam
Adam – a new film that portrays autism

By Laura Schocker
BBC News Magazine

Hollywood movies rarely deal with disability – except for autism, when characters are typically shown as having special intelligence. Why do we like to think everyone with autism is especially gifted?

In one evening, he memorised every name and number from A to G in the phone book. While waiting for a meal in a restaurant, he committed the entire tableside jukebox to memory.

A dropped box of toothpicks? One glance and he is certain that 246 have spilt on the floor.

His mind was like a computer and, for years, Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man character has often been the first reference point for autism.

Rain Man

Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt – setting the mould for autistic savant characters

Other films since this 1988 release have depicted similar areas of brilliance that are sometimes associated with autism, known as savant qualities.

In 1998, for instance, Mercury Rising told the story of a nine-year-old autistic boy who used his savant abilities to crack a $2bn encryption code.

And in Mozart and the Whale, a 2006 film about two savants with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism, Josh Hartnett’s character could glance at his watch and then calculate exactly how long he has had his job as a taxi driver.

The link between autism and savant skills in cinemas is clear, but does art really imitate life? Do people with autism always have an amazing intellectual skill?

“The simple answer is no,” says Dr Stuart Murray professor of contemporary literature and film at the University of Leeds and author of the book Representing Autism. “By far, the majority of people with autism do not have any kind of savant ability.”

‘Autism celebrities’

In fact, the current estimate is that one or two in 200 people with an autism spectrum disorder have a savant talent, according to the National Autistic Society, although the exact numbers are still unknown in the UK.

A developmental disability that influences how a person communicates and relates to others
Often referred to as a spectrum disorder – because it affects people differently
Asperger syndrome is a type of autism at the less severe end of that spectrum
More than half a million people in the UK have an autism spectrum disorder
Source: National Autistic Society

Well known savants – including Kim Peek, who partially inspired Rain Man, Steven Wiltshire, a London artist who can recall entire cityscapes after brief observation, and Daniel Tammet, author of Born on a Blue Day, about living as an autistic savant – are the exception to the autism rule, Dr Murray says.

“These people are almost like autism celebrities,” he says. “It’s not something that crops up very much in the day to day life of living with autism.”

So if autistic savants are the exception and not the norm, why are they are they so over-represented in films?

Read More …  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8192895.stm

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