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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Rain Man at 30: The Good and the Bad

Karl Knights at The Guardian:
The film has become such a shorthand, that I and every autistic person I know immediately has to caveat the statement “I’m autistic” with “I’m not Rain Man”. Autistic people are frequently met with the same question that a doctor asks Raymond in the film: “Does he have any special abilities?” Rain Man was also the birthplace of what has now become a common trope of autistic portrayals in film and TV: autistic savants. The most recent incarnation of this is Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore, in The Good Doctor. The idea that all autistic people are geniuses, or that they all have savant abilities such as extraordinary memory, is a myth, a myth that is largely alive and kicking today due to Rain Man. Yet the cultural stereotype of Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant, persists.

As a beginning for autism on screen, Rain Man deserves applause. It gave autistic people a visibility that had previously been denied them. In one fell swoop Rain Man achieved almost overnight the kind of representation that parent advocacy groups had been working towards for decades. But as the dominant depiction of autism on screen, it also deserves derision. The autistic community is more than Raymond Babbitt. While this wasn’t apparent in 1988, it is clear now, and yet, 30 years on, Rain Man’s enormous influence on autistic characters on screen shows no sign of abating. Rain Man continues to affect autistic lives, whether we like it or not.