There is something I must confess.
For someone who writes about autism, and publicly proclaims to have some knowledge on the subject, you would have at least thought I would have seen the most recognisable film about autism?
Well guess again.
It’s even more astonishing when I have also come from a film and theatre training too!
Well this week I popped that little cherry and finally watched the masterpiece that is Rain Man.
It was thirty years ago the film was made and it has had such a huge impact, rightly or wrongly, on our current understanding about autism.
It is often criticised for the fact that not every individual on the spectrum will all be geniuses or have magnifying talents – we must not assume that anyone with autism will be a carbon copy of Raymond Babbitt.
But it is based on one person and is just one presentation.
There are plenty more behavioural traits, rituals or quirks to show.
Should we dismiss this purely because it’s one person with autism?
Or should we commend it for what it is, a film made in a period of time, when knowledge on the subject was virtually unheard of?
It is uncomfortable to watch in our current climate – I personally had to leave the room when Raymond or Rain Man was being shouted at by his brother, or far worse even being referred to as a ‘retard’ or an ‘idiot.’
In fact it hit my stomach with such rigour I felt emotionally enraged afterwards.
Parts of the film I even found myself so embroiled in the plot that I felt venom towards Tom Cruise’s depiction of Charlie Babbitt.
And to not be drooling over the TV when Mr Cruise was as hot as his heydays in Cocktail, but to feel the opposite with such contempt and repulsion – that says even more in terms of script, acting and plausibility.
The ignorance, the greed and the discrimination was beyond uncomfortable to watch and reminded me that this type of behaviour still goes on.
I’m viewing a film but my mind is far away to the vision of my seven year old daughter, of the invisible disability she has and of the daily challenges she still faces.
It got me thinking, this film was so powerful at the time that it managed to infiltrate current social understanding to the level that we now use the term Rain Man as a point of reference in modern language.
The film is of its time, that really is a given, and it’s certainly not without some flaws.
However, it has succeeded to shine a light onto a human condition that was very unknown of at the time and launch it into popular culture.
We need an idea to be planted so that others can germinate it into a whole new way of thinking.
That’s what happens with an ideology.
But we must not rubbish the predecessors for they have had a very important part to play in this concept chain, even if they seem outdated to us today.
So, how can this move on in 2018?
Well, I personally would like to see a woman with autism represented in mainstream media.
And just this week I watched a bulletin of news that told me just that.
Many people will have seen already that Talia Grant (the daughter of David and Carrie Grant) has landed herself a part in a popular TV soap.
She is also an incredibly beautiful and inspirational young woman who is on the brink of spreading much needed awareness about autism in girls.
She is about to play an autistic character in Hollyoaks and is in fact also autistic – apparently making Hollyoaks history. As Talia says herself, in an interview featured on the BBC, that she would have loved to have grown up with an actor who was open and to whom she could have looked up to.
The fact that Talia is autistic and playing a character with autism is pivotal to a true female dipiction on screen, as the actress says herself:
“You can put yourself in someone else’s shoes as much as you want but you can’t first hand be in their shoes because you are not them.”
What a fantastic thing to do to talk so openly in the media about being a woman with autism.
When my girls grow up it will be powerful to not only have a female as an autistic role model, but someone who is also very contemporary.
So what can we do?
Keep on writing and keep on sharing that’s what.
SEN writers contribute to this process too – after all the reason they are deemed as ‘influencers’ is that they can really alter preconceived oponions and social rhetorics.
So here’s my offer.
What if us parents, who have become so frustrated that we’ve turned our downtime into writing, could collaborate with future screen writers?
What kind of characters and plots could we make?
You see, I personally think Dustin Hoffman deserved his Oscar, I mean he inhibited the traits of an individual with an authenticity that many others could not (and having my actor’s hat on right now) I know that is no easy feat.
However, there are plenty more subtle nuances of someone with a social and communication disorder and how they may look on screen, particularly if it was for a girl.
Dustin Hoffman may have done a good job but I’m pretty sure there could be many actors who could do even better.
What if the character submerged themselves into an imaginary world where the line between fantasy and reality soon became blurred?
Or if she was a young person, always on the edge of the group, observing and mirroring, but without the full understanding of what is really happening.
And maybe this person could get extremely angry if their ‘perceived’ sense of control seemed under threat.
All of these behavioural traits could appear and we would develop our current thinking on autism.
So let’s aim high (I’m picturing my BAFTA speech as I type), and let’s augment change in popular culture.
Us SEN parents could really have our part to play in this too.
I’m excited already at the prospect of seeing the next Rain Woman on screen, with a greater depth and understanding that is needed to show the subtleties of being on the spectrum, and I hope that this could be the precedent for many neurodiverse individuals to follow.
So for now, I shall wish Talia Grant my greatest wishes for success and will carry on dreaming about a future film script that SEN parents could be a part of.