‘Rain Man’: 30 Years of Misrepresenting Autism
Rain Man was first released in December of 1988. To say people were more ignorant about autism back then would be a vast understatement. In fact, I doubt this film would be made today — and if it were, it would be subject to ridicule or even a boycott. Honestly, though, that would be a shame, as it is generally a good movie. As a family drama (with some funny moments), it works. As the only reference point many people have for what autism is? Not so much.
Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a wheeler-dealer in both legitimate, and kind of shady, car sales. He is facing a crisis at work, and setting out on a trip with his girlfriend (Valeria Golino), when he learns of his estranged father’s death. Charlie soon learns he’s been left an old car (and rose bushes). Meanwhile, his father’s millions have been left to a group home, for reasons that are initially unclear. As it turns out, Charlie’s older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) lives in said group home, and has for most of Charlie’s life. Raymond Babbitt is autistic, and also has savant-like abilities when it comes to mathematics. Charlie sets out to essentially hold Raymond hostage until he is given his “share” of the family fortune. However, he ends up with much more than he bargained for.
A Little Background
If you’ve read some of my other articles, such as the one on Finding Nemo, you’ll know my daughter has autism. I also tick many of the “boxes” myself, though many children of my generation (especially girls) went un-diagnosed (or mis-diagnosed). We learned how to “pass” by masking ourselves in front of the neurotypicals. I still fake my way through life, and yes, it is exhausting. I was declared “gifted,” or “weird” as a child, depending on the situation. I brought social anxiety, depression, sensory processing difficulties, etc. along for the ride, too. I’d likely be diagnosed autistic if I were a child today. At age 40, I’ve faked it so long, I probably wouldn’t be.
My History (and Issues) With Rain Man
I was about 12 when I first saw Rain Man, though it came out right after I turned 10. I remember feeling very empathetic toward Raymond, and getting anxious when he did. This is a testament to Hoffman’s amazing performance. Even though he was perhaps given some stereotyped (even offensive) things to portray, he still did so in his method style, and you feel his emotions. It is a flawed script, not a flawed performance.
Unfortunately, I also remember thinking how sad I would be to ever parent a child who couldn’t stand to be touched, someone who was “in their own world.” Many people gleaned the same type of ignorant misinformation from the movie Rain Man. For many people, the only frame of reference they have for autism is this movie even to the point where people remain un-diagnosed if they aren’t like Raymond Babbitt.
Case in point: my daughter wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until age 4 1/2, even though I brought up the subject when she was 1 1/2. The excuses to dismiss me were plentiful: “She’s too affectionate to have autism,” or, “you just want something to be wrong with her, because you can’t parent” (seriously!), and the classic, “she’s a girl, only boys get that” (a doctor said that one). More frequently than all of those, however, was, “Like Rain Man? No, that’s not her.”
Where It Works
Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hate Rain Man with a burning passion, because I don’t. In fact, there are many things it gets right. The character of Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) is actually very well-written, and well-acted. He is someone used to, frankly, lying and charming his way through life. His brother Raymond cannot be so easily conned, much to Charlie’s chagrin. Therefore, Charlie finds himself having to get real. With Raymond, with Susanna (Golino), and, cheesy as it may sound, with himself. He learns there are some things more important than money.
As the story goes on, Charlie is more hurt by the fact that he didn’t know he had a brother, than by the fact that he was mostly ignored in dad’s will. He comes to realize the imaginary friend he remembers singing to him as a child was actually Raymond. He called him, “the rain man,” because he was too young to say Raymond. The scene where Charlie and Raymond discuss this is my favorite of the entire film. Both men act it out flawlessly. In fact, I teared up just typing this paragraph. It is a powerful scene that changes the course of the Babbitt brothers’ relationship. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the more accurate portrayals of autism in the film. It’s the most realistic scene in general.
As you can see below, someone on YouTube labeled it the “best scene” in the film. Agreed.
Where It Works, Continued
Rain Man sheds light on the fact that, for a great many autistic people of Ray’s generation, institutionalization was almost a given. Especially for parents with neurotypical children at home (like the Babbitts). Even the Kennedys, America’s Royal Family, had a child they sent away, because she was “different.” She was subjected to many torturous procedures. It’s not that the Kennedys were horrible people (well, I suppose the jury is still out), it’s just what was done then. Sadly, many things aren’t seen as horrible in their own time. Years from now, the things we subject autistic people to today (ABA “dog training,” horrific attempts to “cure,” etc.) will finally be seen as barbaric, as well. Hopefully sooner.
A point that Rain Man makes, even if it wasn’t trying to, is that Charlie is really the one living in his own little world. It’s a stereotype of autism that they (we?) don’t acknowledge the feelings of others, but the neurotypical Babbitt fits that profile much more than Raymond. He is so used to getting his way, that he never learned how to be an adult. Or to care about anyone but himself. This, in my opinion, is the real reason the late Mr. Babbitt didn’t leave Charlie any money in his will. Yes, of course, there was animosity involved. However, I think Sanford Babbitt wanted Charlie to grow up. To learn “how to adult,” as they say.
Charlie learns that some things are more important than getting his way. He may have never learned that if he hadn’t found Raymond. And that’s what makes this a good movie. For the love of all that is good and pure, though, please don’t use it as research into what autism is.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Rain Man, now that it is 30? Comment down below!
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