I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
April is Autism Awareness Month in the United States, but while autism is something that families and schools and pediatricians are dealing with at ever increasing rates, there isn’t much awareness of neuro-atypicalness in pop culture. Rain Man — now more than a quarter of a century old — is probably still the film that first comes to mind for “autism in pop culture,” though there have been a few recent films with protagonists whom we might suspect are on the autism spectrum, though it’s never mentioned: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for two.
So documentarian William Davenport’s short but enlightening portrait of 12 adults from across the autistic spectrum sheds some much needed light on the topic. None of his subjects are quite as dramatically autistic as Rain Man, but many of them are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and so tell stories of growing up in the time before autism was diagnosed except in the most extreme cases, and before Asperger’s was even identified. Yet they knew something was different about themselves from young ages: they didn’t fit in, found socializing with other kids difficult, and were often bullied for it. Here, they share their ongoing anxieties and sensitivities (such as to sounds, textures, or smells), and methods for calming themselves in stressful situations, and for dealing with the other challenges they face. But this is not a movie about disability but simply other-ability, for there are gifts that come with autism and Asperger’s, too: varied creativity from a perspective that others don’t share; an ability to work well with crafts or computers.
And while the most famous real autistic person may be engineer Temple Grandin (the made-for-TV biopic about her starring Claire Danes is probably the only other well-known mainstream film about autism), who appears here in a brief introduction to the film, the perception of autism seems to be that it primarily impact boys and men. Yet Davenport’s subjects are about evenly divided between men and women, which makes the film even more important as a peek into a subculture — and more than one person here makes it clear that that’s what they consider themselves — that could do with some demystifying and mainstreaming. I suspect that anyone who is on the spectrum or knows someone who is will find much that is comforting, familiar, and welcoming here.