To the majority of the U.S population, the phrase “autism spectrum disorder” is still a bit of a mystery. But this little-known and frequently misunderstood disorder will quickly grow in recognition and understanding if the media has any say in the matter.
Two new movies are scheduled for release within the next year that feature characters living with the neurological disorder autism.
In August 2009, the romance, Adam opened, introducing audiences to a title character played by Hugh Dancy who has many of the characteristics of people with autism: superior intelligence and verbal skills, an obsessive interest in particular topics (astronomy in Adam’s case) and social awkwardness.
According to Max Mayer, the 54-year-old writer and director of Adam he became inspired to make the movie when he heard a radio interview about autism spectrum disorder and became so enthralled he had to pull off the road. What struck him most was the desire for social connection that all human beings share, whether or not they have autism.
In the film, Hugh Dancy plays a young man with autism who falls in love with a “neurotypical” woman. What follows is a series of misunderstandings, from typical to relationships issues to problems understanding Adam’s symptoms of autism.
“Adam is about life, not his disability,” Jonathan Kaufman, the founder of the Manhattan-based consulting agency Disability Works Inc., who worked as a technical adviser on the film, told The New York Times during an Aug. 3, 2009 article. “It uses his Asperger’s (a high-functioning form of autism) as the lens that colors his life, not the central focal point. It’s about relationships, love, family. The illness is not separate from the person.”
Kaufmann also served as an adviser on an HBO film debuted in 2010 starring Claire Danes, who plays a woman with high-functioning autism who became a professor at Colorado State University and a pioneering designer of humane livestock facilities.
Adam, distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the Sundance festival for outstanding feature film focusing on science and technology. More importantly, the film has been well-received by those in the autism community as well as experts in the field.
“The portrayal of someone who is enthusiastic about science rather than dismissed as geeky was very genuine,” said Fran Bagenal, a professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado. Raymond F. Gesteland, a professor of human genetics at the University of Utah, praised the film, saying, “Adam will help the rest of the world look at autism with a new realistic light.”
Mary and Max
Another movie that made its debut at the Sundance festival, an animated feature called Mary and Max, also highlights the idiosyncrasies of a person dealing with autism spectrum disorder. The film focuses on the pen-pal relationship between an autistic 44-year-old New Yorker, who lives on chocolate hot dogs and a lonely 8-year-old Australian girl.
Awareness of Asperger’s Syndrome has expanded exponentially since Dustin Hoffman portrayed an autistic savant in “Rain Man” over 20 years ago. With greater awareness comes more accurate diagnosis, greater support, and more programs for children with high-functioning autism.