Autism in the Media
I grew up around film. My aunt attended Julliard with Robin Williams and I remember her telling quite a few stories about her time there growing up. My family history can be traced back on IMDB. The art of film has been something that has both been ingrained in me and something that I naturally gravitate to. Media, in general, has always posed a fascination for its ability not just to tell a visual story, but to create a world and to place you in it. Sometimes in a comfortable way, and sometimes in an awkward way. It gives you the ability, if you allow it, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. A story makes a struggle relatable to people outside of that realm while humanizing the protagonist.
Autism in the media has always been a strange subject and one that seems to overlook or either over-or under-dramatize many of the struggles for the sake of a story. How do you approach it? Are you doing the community justice? I’m sure there are many more questions but those are the two that pop into my head.
Over the past 15 years or so there has been a rise in Autism in the media. Especially film and TV. I will get to those in a bit, but first, there is an issue with how Autism is portrayed in more mainstream media such as the news. Many of the stories you read about are some forms of “disability porn”. These are news stories that make you feel good, and that the world is headed in the right direction. They are also human-interest stories that news stations use as fluff or time fillers. And while they are nice to read about, as they show that there is still a warm light flickering in an otherwise cold night, they often miss the struggles that went on behind the scenes. Without knowing about these struggles, these stories become unrelatable.
However, there is one story that haunts me. It was a news story that tells about the darker side of autism and some of the issues that we face, but it’s also relatable to multiple groups.
In 2016, Arnaldo Rios Soto, an Autistic man from North Miami, Florida ran away from his group home. His therapist, Charles Kinsey, was able to locate him in a street, sitting and playing with a silver toy truck. Police arrived at the scene and ordered both men onto the ground, only Kinsey complied. The video shows him not only asking for help but also trying to get Rios Soto to comply. The police opened fire with an AR-15. Despite aiming at Rios Soto, Kinsey was struck in the leg. The officer responsible for the shooting, Jonathan Aledda, was charged with attempted manslaughter and negligence, and found guilty on negligence, fired from the police force, and served 5 month’s probation.
Stories like these are the worst nightmares of people. Many of the stories about autism in the media fall into 2 categories: The Great Success or The Missing Person. If you google “Autistic man” and just click on news stories, you are inundated with missing person reports. Ironically if you google “Autistic woman” you are met with much different, but similar, headlines. This might be due to the underdiagnosis of females with autism. At one point, I thought they were as rare as Ahab’s white whale, then I met one, fellow blogger Out-of-Sync Woman, and she has since become a very dear friend.
Movies and TV are no exception to this. From the wildly inaccurate Change of Habit (1969) staring Elvis Presley to the much more relatable Please Stand By (2018) starring Dakota Fanning, autism in the media has always been a good story point. Even in Television, you have a TV show like The Good Doctor and Bones that showcase the traits and try to show the struggles of autism in daily life (The Good Doctor Comes closest in my opinion)
But not all stories have a happy ending. I think this is important. Not all stories need the Happily Ever After ending to relate. In fact, I think the more emphasis that is put on the struggle, the more the story becomes relatable to a wider audience. It is with this in mind that I would like to tell you about a movie that deserves much more attention than they are worth.
There is a Chinese movie from Hong Kong called Beloved Son of God (1988), a sequel to Why Me? (1985). Directed by Dick Cho and Staring Kent Cheng as Fat Cat, a man with a severe mental disability. An interesting note is that the word autism is never used and while I do not know if it is on purpose, it adds to tension where the other characters and even society as a whole treat those with mental conditions as less than people. The movie follows the struggle of Fat Cat after the events of the first film in which he is released from an asylum and is helped by a social worker, Bi Bi Cheung (portrayed by Maggie Cheung). After Bi Bi is killed in a car accident, Fat Cat embarks on a journey to find the only person that ever showed him true affection.
Along the way, he encounters a local doctor Uncle Wu (portrayed by Wu Ma), and after some initial reluctance, Uncle Wu kind of adopts Fat Cat and they learn to live together. In the end, their lifestyle is deemed unlawful, and Fat Cat is taken away from Uncle Wu.
Is this an accurate movie? Nope, not in the least! There are so many inaccuracies with this movie it makes my head spin, however…
This is a movie that to me, really shows the struggle between autism and society, and how the sometimes side effects of autism affect interpersonal relationships. There are points in the story that I can very much relate to in both the ways that society treats and views me as a person with autism and in some of the frustration behind the struggles that I face, as well as the simple joy of those times when things fall into place. Again, it’s not an accurate movie in its portrayal, and it’s not always an easy movie to watch, but I feel it is a necessary movie to watch, and at the end of the day, it’s a damn good film.
Some Other movies I would recommend, but will not go into too much detail about (#NoSpoilers):
Mary & Max (2009 Australian Claymation film starring Phillip Seymore Hoffman about a girl and her pen pal with Aspergers)
Adam (another 2009 film about a man with Aspergers and his relationship with his next-door neighbor Beth)
The Night Clerk (2020 crime drama about a man with autism that becomes the center of a criminal investigation when someone is murdered in the hotel he works at.)
Loop (2020 Disney/Pixar Short Film about an autistic girl and a day boating on a lake)
And no, I still have not, and will not see the movie Music.