This may be a good film being done a disservice by a poor ad campaign; it wouldn’t be the first and it certainly won’t be the last. Trailers often fail to capture the true story of a film, nuances in character, intent. But this trailer struck a nerve, and to sit silently until I’ve seen the finished film doesn’t seem reasonable due to the subject.
Watch the trailer for Gavin O’Connor’s film (starring Ben Affleck, J.K. Simmons, and Anna Kendrick) before you read further.
Barry Levinson’s RAIN MAN premiered in 1988. My child was diagnosed with Autism about six years ago, at least once a week we are asked what his special skill is. My son is at the low end of the spectrum; though he’s coming up on his 10th birthday he is functionally 3. He is non-verbal, does a lot of hand-over-hand communication, he’s a sensory seeker so playing with beans and feeling them slip through his fingers is a calming technique that he employs most hours of the day. He’s kind of a miracle. They said he wouldn’t walk, he walked. They said he wouldn’t talk, despite being non-verbal he found a way to communicate. Just a few weeks ago he ran for the first time, gives me a lump in my throat just thinking about it. You tell this kid no, he’ll find a way to get it done.
What’s his special skill? Perseverance.
What’s your child’s special skill? Can they just be kids? Can they just experience the freedom to identify who they are? Likes? Dislikes? Do they need a special skill?
Levinson’s film won Academy Awards, it was celebrated, it’s a fine picture that I think genuinely had its heart in the right place but it created a myth that the Autism community still battles to this day. Not everyone with that diagnosis has “a skill” or “special talent.” If you’re on the high-end of the spectrum you can work well with Autism and have a great life, others struggle to function, the very diagnosis can be isolating for both the child and the family. It’s not about special skills, it’s about routine, small victories, and getting through the day without a meltdown. That’s life on the spectrum for a large percentage of those in our community, so put away your box of toothpicks.
Here we sit, in 2016, and yet another film is attempting to frame the diagnosis as one with the particular perk of advantage, a savant like quality. It’s an exception within the Autism spectrum, nothing more. Hollywood, always stubborn and resistant to change, continues to improperly articulate the diagnosis and by doing so continues to create false levels of expectation when meeting someone with Autism. “He doesn’t have a special skill? Oh something must be REALLY wrong with him.” It’s kind of a cheap trick, and a mean one at that. And really, what’s the point. Autism in this case is just gimmick. Why does the character have to have Autism? What does that add to your story if you don’t properly frame the diagnosis to begin with?
I could be wrong, I hope that I am wrong. I have a saying: never judge a book by its cover, never judge a film by its trailer. When it’s this tone deaf though, I would feel like I wasn’t protecting my son if I didn’t say something. Word to the wise: stop using Autism as a senseless prop unless you are committed to covering it properly and fairly in the future.