The effects of Rain Man, I think.
Mind you, there are things I liked about the movie. But Rain Man is the only thing I can think of to blame for what happened to me when I was looking for housing in Isla Vista, California.
I answered an ad in the paper that was for a room in a woman’s house. I would live in that room and there were some stipulations but nothing I couldn’t handle.
She found out, somehow, that I was autistic.
Suddenly, she said, and this is a near quote:
“Oh, I’m sorry. I have a three-year-old child. I can’t have you compromising his safety. You’ll have to find somewhere else to live.”
Just because I was autistic.
I’m sure I could have pushed back somehow, legally, but when you’re trying to move into someone’’s house, it doesn’t feel like legal action is going to make the relationship between you and your housemate particularly good. So I went ahead and sought housing elsewhere.
This was the year 1999, I was 19. There was not a lot of representation of autism anywhere. But somehow, somewhere, she must have seen the scene in Rain Man where Raymond reveals that the reason he was put into the institution was because he’d accidentally hurt his baby brother while trying to give him a bath.
(And don’t get me started on the way, at the end, they manipulated his language disabilities to make it sound like he didn’t understand the choice he was making to stay out of an institution. That scene was so triggering I can barely think about it, because I’ve literally had agency workers do similar things to “prove” that I couldn’t understand decisions I was making, and it’s horrible. They’d also deliberately provoke me into meltdowns or shutdowns in order to score points against each other in games of office politics.)
Anyway, I can’t think of any other autism movie or media portrayal in 1999 that would have given the impression that simply because I was autistic, I could not be trusted around a small child.
These days, of course such portrayals are a dime a dozen. You can hear that we are mass murderers, and violent, and that we kill our parents, and that we can’t be trusted around anyone at all.
And this is why it’s important to do things about media portrayals. They aren’t some kind of abstraction that hangs in the air and has no effect on reality. They squirm their way into people’s brains, and then people make life-altering decisions based on them. I wonder how many autistic people have been made homeless due to Rain Man alone, let alone the rest of these portrayals that came along later.
When we discuss media portrayals, we should discuss their real, concrete consequences. We shouldn’t just discuss why they are wrong. We should say “This makes autistic people have trouble securing housing.” We should talk about what portrayals would have the opposite effect, and how to make sure that autistic people can get housing, can avoid homelessness.
And this isn’t true just with media portrayals. This is about everything. Where possible, there should be concrete examples of how a people is harmed by an issue and concrete examples of what would help.
It’s fine if specific people are incapable of coming up with concrete examples. We can’t all do everything.
But when you have an organization like ASAN or something, that is doing public service announcements and other stuff? Super important to include concrete examples of the effects of the idea in everything. It’s important for lots of reasons. It shows people why things are important. But it also makes it cognitively accessible to a lot of people who can’t simply sit around debating abstractions.
I’ve had conversations with Ari Ne'eman that left me with my head spinning and a horrible headache afterwards, and left the only other autistic person in the room with the same symptoms. It is not his fault that he communicates in a highly abstractified way a lot of the time. Some autistic people communicate like that, there is nothing wrong with it, and I am not trying to say there is.
But in an organization that he runs, he should be turning to ‘translators’ for support. He should be finding people who can understand his highly abstractified ideas without dizziness or headaches. And then he should be getting those people to translate his ideas into concrete examples that just about everyone can understand. I’m sure he’s doing some of this already, or ASAN would not be the success that it is. But when I think of them doing work on media portrayals, I’m thinking of an area where it’s very easy to get abstract, to talk about ideas and principles, but to forget the human beings that are at the heart of the problems created here.
So when you discuss media portrayals of autism, be sure to discuss those in terms of actual people affected by them and then discuss how we are affected, and then discuss better portrayals, and then discuss how those better portrayals will help those of us already affected. Always, always always, begin and end with real consequences and real human beings.
Because that’s the whole point of everything – people are the only point of doing any of this. If there’s a point for you that is more important than the people affected by these ideas, then you really have to think hard about why you’re doing this. Plus if you get into the practice of communicating that way, by alway tying things back to real people and concrete examples, fewer autistic people will end up with migraines every time they try to discuss ethics with you. :-P
I understand, truly, that not everyone can do this on an individual level. I can’t always do it on an individual level. But on an organizational level, it should be policy that someone somewhere makes sure these things are communicated in a way that most people will understand, and that focus people on the real people who are why the issues matter in the first place.