Category Archives: Autism in Movies

The Horse Boy

The Horse Boy

I haven’t written about documentaries so far in this blog, and so I figured I should probably begin this post by laying out some basic truths about documentary films. You know, just so we’re on all the same page here.

A documentary film uses selective filming, editing, and narration to tell the viewer the story it wishes to tell. Nothing more, nothing less. That is absolutely fair, of course; Storytelling is what documentary films are all about. However, seeing as that is the case, documentary films should never be taken at face value. They do not give the whole picture; and they don’t necessarily – nor are they obliged to – give even an honest picture. The fact that the raw material of which they are crafted is footage of mostly spontaneous social interaction contributes greatly to their magic and appeal.  But we must avoid using such terms as truth, reality, objectivity etc. when discussing documentaries. They’re not necessarily any more “real” than a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. So there’s simply no use in questioning their validity or truthfulness, any more than we would that of 50 First Dates. They’re stories. They’re representations of reality, yes; but that doesn’t make them particularly real.

Right? Right. Now that that’s out of the way, I can begin.

I have to admit that as a social anthropologist studying autism, I have made a decision (not necessarily a conscious one) to focus on the experiences of autistic people themselves, rather than those of the people around them. I felt the experiences and perspective of parents to autistic children, for example – important as they may be – are already getting quite enough attention as it is. And maybe I just didn’t want my own understanding of autism to be skewed by them. I can’t vouch that this is the best way to go; I did have parents suggesting to me that my perspective would be intolerably swayed without considering their perspectives. Well yes, maybe. The thing is that any perspective is always swayed, so you might as well be aware and in control of just how you allow yours to be influenced. Either way – the fact of the matter is that I mostly distance myself from the perspectives of parents to autistic children. This also means, almost inevitably, that I distance myself from the experiences of autistic children; except when those are reflected upon by autistic adults when recalling their own childhoods.

So The Horse Boy was, in a way, an important reminder of the very obvious fact that every autistic adult has a history of being an autistic child.  And that parents are very often the most influential factors in those children’s lives. I needed this reminder, strange as it may seem.

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I enjoyed The Horse Boy. It had a certain honesty to it that appealed to me and made me think long and hard not only about autism, but also about parenting – including my own. Because The Horse Boy wasn’t so much a film about Rowan (the child). It was more a film about his parents – particularly his dad, Rupert, who apparently was the one to come up with the idea of going to Mongolia in the first place.  It is a film about relationships – Rupert’s relationship with his wife, with his son, with autism (as a thing, a category, a concept), with horses, with Mongolia, and with himself. And yes, also, implicitly, with a camera-crew and the prospect of making a successful documentary. So The Horse Boy, the way I saw and interpreted it, is indeed a film about a parent’s journey; but as with any good parent, his child – his son’s well-being, comfort, happiness – is an inseparable part of his own experience of life; of his own well-being, comfort and happiness. These connections and interrelations are the stuff of which all families are made of. So ultimately, this is a film about a family. A family that struggles. A family that needs help – and that seeks an unorthodox way to relieve it of its struggles.

The Horse Boy isn’t about healing autism, and it deserves credit for that. Sure, they all struggle with autism; Rowan especially, but his parents as well. But autism is never framed as a rival or an enemy; the idea of somehow eradicating it is never brought up. Autism is not conceptualized as a separate thing from who their son is. Instead, the family is simply trying to deal in the best way it can with the challenges having an autistic child – or in Rowan’s case, with being autistic – presents. The Horse Boy is about healing the distress that often accompanies being autistic, and that which accompanies loving and caring for an autistic person. This cannot be done with a drug or any other sort of biomedical intervention; because such interventions inevitably focus on the body. But the problem isn’t in the body; or at least not just in the body. Indeed, some forms of distress are made of broken or loose social connections. Or impossible expectations. Or negative emotions. Or confusion. Or doubt. Or uncertainty. Or fear.

And it is these aspects of the child’s and parents’ distress that were targeted by the Mongolian shamans. And it is why – to the audience’s perceived amazement – the rituals actually helped.

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I don’t know hardly anything about the Mongolian belief system or its traditional medicine. From the film, I can infer that it involves some sort of ancestor-reverence and belief in spirit possession (so that the shaman argues that Rowan’s soul is possessed by Kristin’s deceased grandmother). Explicitly, the healing rituals are apparently meant to both appease the spirit and confront it in battle, in order to remove its grip of the child. But we don’t have to accept the metaphysical belief system of the shamans to appreciate the positive effect that such a ritual may have. There are other, more earthly ways to account for why this ritual – or rather, this series of rituals – had made a difference in the lives of Rowan and his parents.

It’s not so easy to tell what this effect could be, however. With the limited information we have, it is indeed quite impossible. To do that, we will have had to take a much, much deeper look at the rites themselves, where exactly they were performed and why these places are significant, who precisely performed them and what their exact role in society is, what artefacts were used and what they symbolize, what texts were recited and what they mean, as well as the specific interactions between the healers and Rowan, between the healers and Rowan’s parents, and between the various healers themselves. Not least, a very profound familiarity with this particular society’s beliefs, values, and language is required. Without any such knowledge, the best we can do is speculate. And speculate is precisely what I am going to do. I am hoping to show that whatever the specific characteristics and attributions of the rituals may be, such rituals in general may indeed have a positive, durable effect on relieving one’s distress. And this is regardless of whether one is willing to accept the existence of spirits and demons.

Mainly, what the series of rituals carried out during the family’s visit to Mongolia did was to put Rowan’s suffering in context – a different context. It has given it a narrative: a cause, a reason, an explanation. A history that goes far beyond his own still short existence. It has located Rowan’s suffering; and significantly, it has located it outside of Rowan’s own body (or more accurately, inside his body, but as an external intruder). The shamans never mentioned ‘autism’, mind you. ‘Autism’ was never the object targeted by their rituals. They targeted only the suffering; only the distress. So in the eyes of father, mother and son, what the healing rituals did was to strip Rowan’s distress – as well as his parents’ – from the binding label ‘autism’, with its usually-not-very-positive, Western and Modern and Medical connotations. Instead, they have placed them elsewhere. Once this change is achieved – and it’s not easy to achieve, as one can easily imagine – many other things are likely to change with it.

For example, the series of rituals had the rather immediate effect of altering Rowans’ surroundings – mountains, horses, streams etc. – as well as, arguably, his symbolic position within those surroundings. It has placed him in the centre – in fact, it has placed him as the centre – rather than viewing him as (metaphorically) lagging behind or being pulled forward to somehow keep up. It has altered Rowan’s parents’ understanding of him and expectations of him, thus in a sense modifying and revalidating Rowan’s presumed role within the family, within society – and indeed within the world.  It has probably affected the relationship between the two parents, perhaps readjusting it so that it is more geared towards Rowan’s own difficulties and capabilities, which are presumably very different from those imagined by Rupert and Kristin since before he was born. Or perhaps the rituals have somehow ruptured Rowan’s constant painful memory of a (short) lifetime of much distress, anxiety and discomfort, fixing his gaze forward instead, towards a more comfortable, accepting, bright future.

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Like I said, I can’t be sure of any of these claims. They are all mere speculations – if that. But my point is that too often, when we think of autism and the distress and suffering that accompany it, we think of brain wiring, cognitive functioning, DNA strings etc. Those all play a part, yes. But other factors are also meaningful. It could be argued that other factors are even more meaningful. These ‘other’ factors, such as those noted above, are neither fixed nor inevitable aspects of autism. Their transformation shouldn’t ever be conceived easy, but it shouldn’t be reckoned to be impossible either. Our experience of the world is constructed of many types of materials, connected in an infinite number of ways. At least some of them are potentially alterable.

 

What do you make of all of this?

 

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Playtime

Playtime (1967)

It was suggested to me recently that if I want to watch a movie that really sheds some light on what being autistic is like, then I should watch Jacques Tati’s 1967 Playtime.

Here’s what M Kelter from Invisible Strings had to say (this is copied from the comments section of my blog):

 m kelter November 25, 2013 at 4:04 pm

…I’ll tell you one thing: I said there’s no film that assumes an autistic POV…in a way, that’s not quite true. There’s a film by French director Tati called Playtime. I’ve always felt that, on many levels, this film replicates my experiences of the world. The sensory experience…the presentation of “normal”…all of it comes from a POV that replicates how the world feels to me. If an NT wants to understand how it can feel to experience sensory overload…or how it can feel to be confused by non-verbal communication, by systems of normalcy…Playtime is a great experience. I love the film, but I also think it puts the viewer in a world that is warped, confusing, hard to process…it’s a world I am very, very familiar with. Anyway, instead of films that present autistics as these walking diagnostic manuals, I’d rather see more films like Playtime, films that assume a POV that pushes normal to the side.

Well, I took M Kelter’s advice, and I’m thrilled I did. What a ride.

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Now, if you haven’t seen Playtime, I strongly urge you to give it shot. Granted, it’s not for everyone. It hasn’t got a plot – not in the conventional sense, anyway – and it hasn’t really got characters – again, at least not in the conventional sense. There’s really nothing conventional about this film, to be honest, but that’s exactly what makes it so magical. It’s an experience more than anything else – a trip, if you will. By ‘trip’ I don’t mean the kind you get from LSD. Or maybe, somehow, it’s exactly what I mean; the same sort of metaphor applies. You get a glimpse of a world experienced differently: sounds are accentuated; your sense of orientation goes awry; things are not what they appear; confusion ensues – even panic. Is this the sort of thing you were referring to, M Kelter, when you wrote that “it puts the viewer in a world that is warped, confusing, hard to process … a world I am very, very familiar with”? I suppose it is.  And so as an anthropologist trying to appreciate the experience of what it’s like to be autistic, I relished the opportunity for this masterfully crafted glimpse at a different way of seeing the world; however short and artificial.

Now, for those of you who haven’t seen the film, I should probably give a brief description of what goes on there. Yes, I will be doing Jacques Tati a terrible injustice, because the experience of watching this film is precisely the sort of experience that just can’t be put into words. It is very much a visual and auditory journey, not a narrative. But I might as well give it a try.

The film is set in an imaginary “modern Paris”. Not the old city with its unique architecture and very particular charm.  No, there’s nothing old in Playtime; everything is sparkling new. This city, which was constructed solely for the purpose of the film, is ultra-modern, by what I imagine to have been the standards of “modernity” in 1967, the year this movie was filmed. It depicts modernity gone mad, stretched to its absolute point of absurdity. It’s all glass and metal, right angles, spic and span cleanliness, and abundant technology. Tati makes a good job at not allowing his creation to be reduced to any crude or simplistic idea of good or bad; it is neither, really. It simply is. In fact, oppositions are a theme in Tativille; friendliness and alienation, order and chaos, dreariness and ecstasy are all present and are intermittently drawn to their extremes at varying degrees of simultaneity.

And the noise!! It’s everywhere and it’s relentless, it starts off as protruding from a distance, but gradually it’s made to feel ubiquitous and near, as it virtually becomes synchronized at some point, or so it feels, with the viewer’s own fluctuating hart rate. Roaring vacuum cleaners, buzzing intercoms, wheezing sofa cushions, pounding footsteps, beeping car horns, ear-deafening announcement speakers and screeching TV sets, and the list goes on and on… Oh and the chatter! The constant, rampant rambling, loud laughs and indistinguishable babbling are at times almost too much to bear. Also, Tativille and its residents are perpetually in motion – bustling roads and lively shops and escalators and elevators and construction work. Later, in the evening, increasingly frantic dancers and waiters blend in a less-then-perfect harmony, gradually seasoned by random drunkards, who quite naturally join in the seemingly improvised though endlessly complex choreography.

Utter disorientation is perhaps the hallmark of this film, as along with the protagonist Mousier Hulot, the viewer is ingeniously led to constantly wonder in confusion: wait – are we inside or out? That there – is that a wall, a door, or just an absence? Am I looking into this building, or is it merely a reflection of that other one? Are those people up there dancing to the music…? (No, they’re just taking a window apart) Is that truck going to pull-over or keep going? Are these people leaving or just standing up to say hello to friends? Is that desk an item for sale or is it a functioning desk in an office? Do I recognize this person from before or is it someone else entirely? What language is that person speaking? Is he speaking to me? Where is everybody gone? Where on earth is this film headed??

I could go on. There is so much more to Playtime. So many astute observations on the various layers of absurdity in modern urban living; on divisions and their breaking; on the fine, almost invisible line between intimacy and estrangement; on globalization, with its apparent effect of alienation, but the underlying reality that people will always be people, for better or worse. Their behaviour does take very different forms, though; because the environment matters, and our interaction with it affects us, often in ways that are unpredictable to us, but that make sense nonetheless.

Well that’s enough of that. That’s all I can do to put into words what was in fact never meant to be worded. Just watch the film. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

So let us get back to the issue at hand – what has Playtime taught me about what being autistic might be like? What do I make of this film as an anthropologist? What’s to be learned?

As I implied a moment ago, I think Playtime can help us to understand the interaction between people and their environment; particularly those people who are more susceptible than others to being affected by their surroundings. But wait, are autistic people more susceptible then others to being affected by their surroundings? Well, yes, I suppose they are. We all experience the world through our senses. When our senses are enhanced or very sensitive, our experience of the world is likely to be affected.

Thus, it should be interesting to use Playtime as an example and ask – What effect do autistic people’s enhanced sensory perception and sensitivity – often to the point of it being unbearable, sometimes to the point of it being mesmerizing and pleasurable – play in their lives?

These are difficult questions. Social anthropologists often struggle to incorporate the body – in any form – into their analyses. Try and ask yourselves: What’s the role of sensory input in social structures, in social relationships, in social forces, in social dynamics? It has a vast influence, clearly, but isn’t it inevitably just a bit vague and elusive?

What’s difficult about this is that when we talk of senses and sensory input, or the actual ways in which the environment becomes inscribed on our bodies and brains, we almost inevitably wind up over-generalizing. After all, every sound is different. Every sight, every texture, every smell or taste is unique. Even if two sounds – identical in every measurable way – are played to 2 different people in different contexts, they will have different meanings, they will be interpreted and experienced differently; indeed, they will be heard differently. Every single sensory input is, in many ways, singular and unique. How can such a singular occurrence be incorporated into any sort of general theory?

And how can this even be framed within a social science perspective?

Well, the single most relevant concept that can help us to start making sense of these questions is what’s known as ‘affect’.

I will not presume to define affect; better men and women then me have tried, to varying degrees of success; and I’m not yet at a point where I can synthesize these often very varied framings of this concept to anything very coherent, or even intelligible, without this turning into a heavy-laden theoretical discussion, which would be grossly inappropriate for this platform (and not a whole lot of fun to write, either). Instead, I will toss around some very partial explanations of what ‘affect’, in the context of the social sciences, might mean:

Affect refers to the universal and innate human capacity to affect one’s environment (including other people) and be affected by it. Affect refers to that elusive sense of one’s body playing a significant role in the intensity of one’s experience of the world. Affect refers to the immediacy of interaction, that layer of it that has not yet been “contaminated” or thwarted by meaning, interpretation, or language. Affect emphasizes the singularity of any human experience, those aspects of it that can never be accurately represented, duplicated, translated, or reproduced. Affect refers to that constant sense of motion in one’s state of mind, mood or thought. It is that unnameable sensation that follows an idea, right before that sensation is translated into language to form just another idea. Affect is that which is inscribed on us through our senses in a way that makes a difference – whatever that difference may be.

Ah, I wish I could offer a more structured or coherent explanation. But that’s the whole thing with affect; by its very definition, it eludes structure and coherence. It is exactly that thing that language could never quite get a handle on, whether because it is pre-lingual, or extra-lingual, or simply ineffable. Affect pertains to those sensations we feel that we can never find quite the right words for. And the instant we find the words – the sensation is gone.

I don’t think I have ever spoken to anyone on the autism spectrum who hadn’t told me at one point or another about sensory sensitivities that they have. And this is never regarded as inconsequential, trivial, or insignificant.  Quite often, in fact, sensory sensitivities are mentioned as the single most important aspect of living with autism. And it makes perfect sense, after all. Our senses are our window to the outside world; it is the media through which our environments affect us, right from the moment of our birth (and, indeed, even beforehand). It is the basis of all learning, of all knowledge, of all experience. So when our senses work differently, this is likely to make pretty much everything different. Social interaction, language, communication, control of one’s limbs, the sense of one’s body, preferences, emotions – it impacts it all.

Have I explained anything at all? No, I don’t believe I have. But by throwing these observations around, I am merely hoping to sow some seeds of understanding. You know, for later.

So allow me to end this post with a question for those of you on the autism spectrum: what sensory sensitivities do you experience? And more importantly, how do you feel these affected you throughout your life? Feel free to give one or two examples, or if you don’t mind, a lengthier answer will do perfectly. I genuinely look forward to hearing your replies.

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Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin (2010)

Temple Grandin is probably the best known autistic person out there; to say that she’s a global celebrity would not be going too far. She has written several bestselling books, she is an extremely respected professional in her field, she is often cited and quoted in all sorts of discussions about autism (popular and journalistic, as well as academic) and she gives frequent lectures and interviews on various media. But maybe the most significant contribution to her celebrity status outside the autism community (and the cattle industry) is this 2010 film which is based on her memoir.  The first time I watched this film was when it came out. I knew very little of autism then, and I have never met an autistic person (as far as I knew). And at the time, I loved Temple Grandin. In fact, I have a strong feeling that (warning: cliché) this film was one of the reasons that made me want to study autism in the first place.

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I was slightly hesitant before watching it again earlier this week. Was it really that good, I asked myself, or was I simply too naïve back then? Won’t I be terribly disappointed? I’m a bit more knowledgeable about autism now, I’m a lot more suspicious, and I’m also a bit cynical. In short, I was afraid to find that Temple Grandin wasn’t half as good as I remembered it. And seeing as I know something now of the actual person who inspired this film (not personally, unfortunately, but from reading her books and watching her lectures), I was worried of finding that Hollywood – as it often does – had done her an injustice.

I was happy to find I was wrong.

I mean yes, ok, a lot was left out (obviously), and yes, the film came short of offering a complete account of the array of different aspects of autism (again, of course it would), but all in all, I felt Temple Grandin the movie is a beautiful, sensitive, and honest telling of a remarkable story about a truly exceptional person. As far as representations go, I thought the makers did a very good job. The autistic protagonist mostly makes her own choices, and while the love and care of those around her are framed as indispensable for her growth and achievement, these are acknowledged as secondary to Temple’s own intelligence, talent, and formidable sense of self-worth. The makers of Temple were not (as is often the case) rushing to spread some simplistic message about autism that downplays its disabling features, or reducing it to a generic form of mental disability that stands for weakness, dependence, or deficit. “Different, not less” was actually the film’s catch phrase, and the movie remained loyal to this message from the beginning.

In other words, I loved Temple Grandin. Possibly even more so now than when I watched it first.

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Temple Grandin was born in 1947, merely 4 years after autism was named and identified for the very first time. In a way, her life story can be said to parallel the history of autism itself.

Often, when people think of autism, they imagine a sort of static quality that exists solely within the confines of the body. A biological condition that if not properly understood by science, it is only because we still lack in scientific knowledge; that the truth is still unveiled, but science is slowly and surely progressing towards this very goal. This is a somewhat narrow view of a much more complicated reality. Like any medical category, and perhaps even more so, autism is as susceptible to historical, social and cultural conditions as it is to biological processes in the genes or in-utero. After all, it takes people to recognize autism, define it, study it, explain it, treat it, experience it, represent it, and make sense of it. And those people come from different cultures, subscribe to different theories, value different methods of inquiry, and have different perspectives about what’s desirable, what’s normal, what’s important and what’s right. As time goes by, as society changes, autism, in a very real sense, changes with it.

Who are those people who arguably have so much influence over an apparently unbending neurological condition? Well, it’s quite a long list, actually. Neuroscientists of various sub-disciplines (cognitive neuroscience, neurophysiology, neurochemistry etc.), psychiatrists, and geneticists usually make up the group in charge of scientific research into autism, which obviously has a massive effect on how it is framed, categorized, understood and treated. Epidemiologists make a huge impact in determining ­and communicating the prevalence rates of autism. Psychologists are responsible for characterizing its cognitive and developmental aspects. There are speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists who possibly know best which therapies work and which don’t (not that they are all in agreement). There are teachers in charge of instructing and educating autistic children and adults. There are those who provide welfare services, devise policy, and design legislation. There are those who advocate autism awareness and acceptance, and those who advocate the search for a cure. There are those who spend their everyday lives with autistic people, those who love them and know them best, namely their parents, siblings, partners, children or caregivers. There are those who write autism into books, make films, or write about it in newspapers and journals. There are those who study it from a humanities or social science perspective – like me. And ultimately, of course, there are those who are themselves autistic; living, talking, writing, acting, connecting, and making; they are sons, daughters, parents, partners, and friends; some are teachers, writers, researchers and artists; and they have significant influence on how autism is understood, treated, explained, experienced and even performed. Autism is therefore anything but static – it is as dynamic, fluid, and mutable as social categories get.

So wait, who are the real experts then? Well, they all are, but you know what happens when you have too many experts in one place. You get tension, disagreement, and conflict. And autism, with its myriad sorts of experts, is a fertile breeding ground for exactly that. In one of the very best books written about autism (on my opinion, that is), Gil Eyal and his colleagues, a team of sociologists, take a deep and thoughtful look into this field of contention, which they call (and named their book after) “The Autism Matrix”. Give it a read if you have the time. It’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth your effort.

Temple Grandin offers a wonderful insight into how these disagreements between the various sorts of experts come about.

The earliest scene in the movie, chronologically, depicts four-year-old Temple and her mother in a meeting with the doctor – most likely a psychiatrist. He diagnoses Temple as having autism. At that time autism diagnoses were scarce, and autistic children of Temple’s generation were very unlikely to be diagnosed as autistic. The clinician is thus arguably very well read and well trained, being familiar with such a “rare” new condition. Yet he still considers autism as interchangeable with childhood schizophrenia; this was an extremely common misconception at the time, and it remained common for decades more to come. Well trained as he may be, the doctor regards autism as hopeless and destructive. Temple will likely never speak, he says. It’s caused by a lack of bond between mother and child, he reproaches. And he recommends she should be institutionalized. The psychiatrist represents the common scientific perception of the time. He is an expert.

But Temple’s mother – a strong, educated, intelligent, and outspoken woman –rejects the doctor’s prognosis, and refuses to accept that her daughter will amount to nothing. She thus effectively opposes the psychiatrist’s expertise, and situates herself and her own understanding of her daughter’s condition – namely her own expertise as a mother – as equal, if not superior to that of the trained physician. Decades later, such opposition by parents will become widespread, as parents begin to collectively question the medical establishment’s approach to autism, its prognosis, and most importantly – its etiology. So that in contrast to what most experts claimed during the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s (and in some parts of the world still do), mothers knew they didn’t cause their children’s autism. It took a while for medical professionals to accept this as true – and nowadays, the fact that autism is innate is near consensus.

Another scene shows Temple’s team of school teachers frustrated by her behaviour. They consider expelling her. Only her science teacher realizes that her “bad” behaviour is not an integral part of her condition; but a result of a lack of support and care in the school environment. He takes it upon himself to mentor her, challenge her, and indeed love her.  “Just a science teacher”, but nevertheless an expert in his own right, he has a huge positive effect on her life.

In college, a psychologist interviews Temple about her squeeze machine; utterly oblivious to the communication barrier between them, he asserts it has a sexual purpose, and forbids her to use it. Her mother, concerned of the impression that Temple’s use of her machine might create among her peers, follows suit. This time it is Temple’s aunt that insists that if the machine helps Temple, it must be allowed, and encourages her niece to devise an experiment to demonstrate that the machine is in fact helpful. The authority of the mental health specialist is thus undermined by a caring relative, who shows herself to be more of an expert then he is, at least in this regard. When Temple conducts her own study as to the possible benefits of her squeeze machine, a remarkable social process unfolds: she situates herself as an expert on autism not only by being autistic, but also by employing scientific methods to substantiate her assertions. The division between experiential knowledge and scientific fact is becoming blurred.

In the very last scene, we witness what is to become a revolution in autism expertise, as Temple’s own experiences, theories, ideas, and perceptions of autism and its meaning impress heavily on the conference participants, who very symbolically banish the “expert” speaker from stage as they ask her to take his place and speak in his stead. Autism self-advocacy is born.

It is important to remember that no type of expertise ever fully replaces another. Parents’ and educators’ expertise gained its rightful position alongside that of doctors and psychologists. Neurologists and geneticists (the more recent sciences) followed. Therapists and advocates, policy makers and social scientists, and not least autistic people all claim their right to make assertions, suggest theories, devise treatments, design priorities, and speak the ‘truth’. But truth is a problematic notion. One can never be sure that an objective ‘truth’ about autism can ever really be achieved. Instead, we are likely to witness an ever-lasting struggle between opposing or simply differently-focused discourses. A dynamic, ceaseless, complicated “matrix of expertise”, in the course of which the meaning of autism is never definitively unveiled, but is instead constantly negotiated.

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Marathon

Marathon (2005)

Roy Richard Grinker is definitely one of the best social anthropologists out there to study autism. If you’ve never read Unstrange Minds – Remapping the World of Autism, I strongly recommend it; it offers a wonderful overview of the social and cultural context of autism, and it’s extremely well-written and engaging. Among other things, Grinker presents the reader with a picture of how autism is framed, interpreted, and understood in various cultures throughout the world. One of these is South Korea.  So to me, Marathon was not only a beautifully made film about a topic that fascinates me, it was also a visualization of a world I was somehow already partly familiar with, and it made it all the more appealing. Anyway, in case I need to make it even more explicit – I loved Marathon. I thought it was excellent in so many different ways. Representations wise, it’s not perfect, ok. But honestly, when the protagonist is a barely verbal, quite severely autistic character, you always run the risk of painting a very specific, not necessarily representative picture of autism. But within the remits of their protagonist’s individual capabilities, he is a positive, well-rounded character, with personal coherence (so that his autistic traits don’t just ‘dissolve’ during the movie like in so many other films) – and that’s really all anyone can ask for.

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Cho-Won loves animals; one of his favourite things to do, ever since he was a child, is watching nature documentaries on TV – and he knows the narration by heart. His absolutely favourite documentary is the one about the Serengeti Wilderness, an African region “uncontaminated by people”, where wild animals can roam free. He sympathizes not with the lions or cheetahs, but with the grass eaters, the animals of prey. He adores the zebra, which is a prominent theme throughout the movie. This reminded me of a point Temple Grandin often makes, about the similarity of experience between autistic people and prey animals, for both of whom fear is an overbearing emotion (what do you think about this?). According to Grandin, this shared experience is what allows her to understand cattle as well as she does – and she obviously does.

But Cho-Won’s love of Zebras didn’t lead him to become an animal behaviorist; instead, it mostly got him into trouble. Running away at the zoo, for example, or grabbing ladies’ purses or trousers if they happen to have a zebra pattern. Yet, in various stages of the film, his love for the striped animal also has benefits; he seems to understand motherly compassion, as he repeats the narration about the mother zebra caring for her cub; he understands danger, knowing that zebras can’t afford to stop running or fall over, as they will be eaten; he understand fear, sympathizing with the zebra’s constant need to look out and take care.

Understanding and expressing emotions are other themes common throughout the movie, and they’re articulated very carefully. “Your dad goes on a trip…” his therapist posits, “your mom is in the hospital … how would that makes you feel?” she shows him drawings of faces: “Happy? Sad? Angry? Scared?” His dad incidentally did go on a long trip, and his mother did lie sick at the hospital. The film seems to indicate that in some indirect way, these exercises have indeed helped him sort out his emotions. Also halfway in the film his mother teaches Cho-Won to smile, which he doesn’t quite get, until the very last scene, where he finishes the race, and his picture is taken. His running away at the zoo, in the beginning, was later recalled by him as a traumatic event, when he accuses Kyeong Sook of deliberately letting go of his hand, wanting him to run off. And his hesitant participation in the hiking trips with his mother evolved into a complex relationship between mother, son, coach, and long distance running, where prizes (choco-pies, medals) are awarded for success and the fear of pain (injection) thwarts defeat; this ultimately leads to the important and interesting dilemma that marks this film: whether Cho-Won enjoys running or was he numbed into passive submission by his mother’s constant pushing.

In Grinker’s writing and others’ about autism in South Korea, what stands out is the significant and often frustrating role of mothers; they are held responsible for their child’s autism; they are expected to subdue it, treat it, or at the very least conceal it; they must negotiate the diagnosis, often exchanging it for an arguably less stigmatizing (but false) ‘reactive attachment disorder’ (RAD); often, the concept of ‘border’ autism is used to frame the condition as uncertain, contingent, and temporary. Mothers of autistic children (adults too) are required to simultaneously be both assertive and respectful as they battle exclusion and discrimination in a society where individuality and defiance are frowned upon, and conformity is mandated.  They need to ceaselessly explain, apologize, and excuse their children’s slow progress in school, in an environment where academic excellence is revered. To top it all off, fathers seldom take any part in caring for their autistic child, or negotiating his/her place in society. Yes, none of these problems is entirely unique to Korea; but this specific combination of societal expectations and limitations make the Korean “version” of autism quite idiosyncratic, and make the role of mothers challenging in very particular ways.  It is apparently within this social context that Cho-Won’s mother faces the formidable challenge of raising an autistic child.

This blog, and my research in general, is not about the experiences of parents, siblings, caretakers, or children of autistic people. These are of course very significant. It is important that they are recognized and dealt with, and many researchers very successfully do so; but it was my explicit decision to limit my research, within reason, only to the experiences of autistic people themselves. However, Marathon represents a good example of one of those situations when the mother’s and child’s experiences become virtually indistinguishable. In fact, this is the very question the film’s makers pose: is running what Cho-Won wants, or is it what his mother wants? Is it him that can’t live without her, or her that can’t live without him?  Was he upset by the coach’s unorthodox methods, or was she? Seeing as Kyeong Sook always had to make nearly every single life decision for her son, either big or small, how can one even tell what are his choices anymore?  And is that really a valid question? In other words, can Cho-Won even make choices?

Still far from being able to answer these questions, I could try and suggest a way of approaching them.

Cho-Won’s mother struggles with her inability to determine whether he chooses running. She knows he likes zebras and choco-pies, meatballs dipped in ketchup and dancing in the supermarket. These preferences are easily communicated. What’s different about running is that it is painful (as his coach goes to great lengths to illustrate) and potentially dangerous. It is a more complex question than whether he likes choco-pies, for example, because running involves risk. Although she knows Cho-Won better than anyone, Kyeong Sook repeatedly fails at getting him to communicate his choice about running.

But perhaps we’re thinking about this all wrong; perhaps it’s not a problem of communication at all.

Usually, when one thinks of ‘choice’, one imagines an autonomous, individualized thought process, which might be influenced by the opinion of others (namely through advice and council), but is ultimately achieved within the bounded self. But is that really the only possible way to frame choice? After all, people make decisions in context. For example, a person is usually ‘ascribed’ with certain markers of identity at birth: gender, nationality, or ethnicity. Others are similarly innate (I use this word here sloppily) but are found out later, such as sexual orientation. Still others are considered to be personal preferences, such as political affiliation, hobbies, or an inclination to monogamy. But what if we don’t regard any of these as either purely ‘given’ or purely matters of ‘choice’; instead, what if we imagine choice as situational, whereas any ultimate state of being is a consequence of one’s environment, historical context, milieu, social expectations, and indeed some personal choice – this time in the traditional sense of the word.

Is being Jewish my choice? Choice has something to do with it, yes, because no one is forcing me to accept Judaism as my religion. But is it entirely my choice? Of course not. I was born to Jewish parents, grew up in an environment where almost everyone is of this faith, and I am expected by the people close to me to accept it. These factors aren’t the least bit marginal in the question of my choice of religion; they’re constitutive of it.  You could say “yes, but if you decide to become a Buddhist tomorrow, that would be entirely your choice”. Not true. The only way that were to happen is if other social influences not only encouraged me, but also allowed me to convert to Buddhism – and that these influences would in some way overpower the former influence of my family and childhood friends. In that case, these new factors would have a significant share in “my” decision to convert. This is arguably true of any choice, large or small. Even my decision as to what to eat for lunch today would be affected by all sorts of influences; my upbringing, my cultural preferences, my budget, my grocery store’s inventory, and how much time I can spare to prepare lunch for myself. It’s never really just “my” choice, is it? Ok, you could frame it as ultimately my choice; but I propose a different perspective; that it’s partly my choice. Every individual’s choice is always just a part of the story of how things came to be.

Cho-Won may not have become a runner on his own accord. That his mother ‘pushed’ (a quite judgmental term) him into it obviously had a huge part in it. But who is ever unaffected by the decisions made for them by parents? And grandparents, and teachers, and political leaders and policy makers? Kyeong Sook may never get her son to articulate whether he accepts the risks of running marathons and chooses to do it anyway; and in no way am I implying that his desire is irrelevant or insignificant! But if he was given every opportunity to stop running, and kept at it; and if he enjoys the activity while he is pursuing it; and if he seems content with life in periods where he runs regularly; then his part of the ultimate choice to run seems more or less resolute. The question of whether it is his choice or his mum’s might simply be misguided; the choice is situational (a situation which includes Cho-Won’s communicational difficulties, among all other factors). It is both his and hers. The fact that he’s autistic, the fact that his coach believes in him, and the fact that he’s a good runner were all important parts of this. The circumstances seemed to have led him to register for running a marathon; but then again, actually completing it – well, that was entirely up to him.

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The Story of Luke

The Story of Luke (2012)

Like several others of the films previously discussed in this series (e.g. Snow Cake, Adam), The Story of Luke also begins with the death of the autistic protagonist’s main carer. This similarity between the movies is not surprising, because they actually share something quite fundamental between them; in all three films, autism is not engaged with in any serious way, but instead it is merely a plot device. Here’s how they work: the main carer of the autistic person is dead; someone else must now take care of him/her, and cope with the difficulties this entails; that someone will now learn valuable life lessons thanks to this experience, and come out fulfilled, happier, and morally better. Along the way, the autistic person him/herself will rather magically overcome hitherto insurmountable challenges due to an extraordinary newly-acquired will-power.

But what’s the problem, you may ask. Wouldn’t inheriting a responsibility to look after a person with a developmental disability indeed be a huge challenge, so as to inspire a story worth telling? Perhaps. But then it’s not only autism, is it? The same is true for any other newly found, and not necessarily sought after, responsibility for a fellow person; an elderly parent that suddenly needs care, a badly injured relative, or a baby born prematurely. So why bring up autism? Why this puzzling disability and not another, more straightforward one? I suspect the reason why the movie makers chose autism is mainly for its potential for creative dialogue, unique acting mannerisms, and humorous rhetoric. The specific and particular circumstances of living with autism, both positive and negative, are never treated seriously. Ok; The Story of Luke is meant to be a comedy, I get that. But I happen to think that when a movie maker takes it upon him or herself to engage with a neurological condition, they need to actually have something to say about it, rather than using it to make some loosely relevant point (at best) about human compassion and people’s capacity for betterment.

The Story of Luke - Movie Stills 06

So unsurprisingly, there are many problems in how autism is depicted in The Story of Luke, but one thing really annoyed me: out of all the ambitions and desires that motivate people to go out, to do stuff, to struggle, and to ultimately overcome – couldn’t the makers of Luke think of something a little more sophisticated than his desire to screw? His sole reason for wanting a job – and this is repeated constantly throughout the film – is to get Maria on a date and look at her “pretty breasts” again. If Luke weren’t autistic, we’d think he was an immature chauvinistic moron, and root for his failure just out of spite.  So instead of using autism as an excuse for such a questionable ambition, why not just give him a proper motivation to get a job; like, I don’t know, to contribute to society, to challenge himself, to earn the respect of his family and friends, or to, you know, pay the bills and buy groceries? We’re meant to believe Luke wants a job so desperately simply because he eventually wants to have sex with a lady with whom he spoke once. I doubt that such a haphazard motivation would drive anyone to make such huge, life-changing decisions and overcome massive difficulties as he did – pretty as Maria’s breasts may well be.

But there I go again, getting all worked up about representations, when this shouldn’t even be what this blog is about. So once again, let us shed our disbelief, and instead follow the path paved for us by the makers of this film and see how, despite it all, we can use The Story of Luke as an inspiration to discuss some important issues about autism in its social and cultural context.

My favourite scenes in the film were the ones in which Zack (Seth Green) – who’s presumably also on the autism spectrum – shares with Luke his knowledge of neurotypical behaviour. He takes his study very seriously – he observes neurotypicals carefully, takes notes, and makes inferences based on what he sees. In more than one occasion he refers to his approach as ‘scientific’. He makes use of all the tools at his disposal, including computer hardware and software, to devise experiments and practice interactions. When Luke is taken on board as Zach’s student, they treat Luke’s attempts at socializing with neurotypicals in the ‘outside world’ as field experiments. This is reminiscent of many autistic authors’ experience of constantly trying to ‘figure out’ other people. Seeing as people with autism often lack the capacity many of us apparently share of somehow automatically knowing what people mean, think or feel, they need to apply a rational method to interpret human behavior. A ‘scientific’ method, so to speak. Temple Grandin succinctly compared this feeling of constantly being on-guard and always having to think and analyze people’s behaviour and actions to being ‘an anthropologist on Mars’. I wrote in a previous post about the alien metaphor commonly used in autism discourse. Today let’s discuss the other half of that statement by Grandin – the ‘anthropologist’ theme.

In my post about Mozart and the Whale I discussed the common issue of autistic people feeling pressured to mimic neurotypical behaviour and ‘act normal’ (with an emphasis on ‘acting’). But the scenes with Zack and his binoculars made me realize something that I was somewhat oblivious to up until now, or at least that I’ve never fully appreciated; that in order to mimic neurotypical behaviour, you first need to have a pretty good idea of what actually constitutes ‘neurotypical behaviour’. And, well, that’s quite a tricky bit isn’t it?

I remember reading in many memoirs and blogs by people on the autism spectrum about how, as children in the school-ground, they were looking at the kids around them; how strangely they were behaving, how inexplicable their actions often seemed. Similes such as ‘it was like they were speaking a foreign language that I just couldn’t understand’ are quite common. Indeed, aside from the aforementioned (and not a favourite of mine, as you may have realized) alien metaphor, the culture concept, stretched to its broadest meaning, is perhaps the best tool around to try and understand the sort of difference that autism brings about. The experience might be something like being in a strange land, not knowing – or even recognizing – the local language, habits, customs, and rules. I can only imagine the confusion and frustration one must feel, and the resulting sense of exclusion and solitude – as well as fear.

Except – what if you were to take it upon yourself to study real hard, and come to speak the language, habits and so on? That would certainly make things much easier wouldn’t it? You could make friends, fit in, and become a member of the group. Even if you’ll never be a 100% like ‘them’, at least you won’t be a total stranger any more. Well, not really. This might be true when different cultures are concerned, but it does not seem to be the case with autism. Like I wrote elsewhere, a neurological difference is grounded not in language, history, faith, or even the body – it is inscribed in the brain; and as such, it cannot (nor should it) be made to go away. A person can change their clothes, religion, surname, and accent. If they will it, they can even change their skin color. But they can’t change their brains. They can’t change who they are. That difference is there for good.

So what’s my point? It is this: Zach confused things. His honest attempts to learn neurotypical behaviour in order to mimic it was misguided. Mimicking may get one so far in certain situation, but from what I gather, such attempts too often result in utter stress, frustration, and an anxiety of being “found out” (though sometimes, unfortunately, these attempt just can’t be avoided – the social pressure to conform is simply to overpowering.  Sometimes things like getting an education or employment depend – sad as this may be – on one’s ability to ‘pass’ as normal. This is not inevitable, of course. This is why political action is necessary).  But then what about learning neurotypical behaviour, not in order to mimic it or pretend to be it, but purely to satisfy one’s intellectual curiosity, and to make some sense of what too often seems nonsensical; that might be quite a positive enterprise, wouldn’t it? Understanding those different from oneself, I imagine, could go a long way in assuaging fears, feeling comfortable around those Others, and feeling more at ease in their otherwise intimidating presence. It offers the safety of knowing your surroundings.

It’s also just really interesting. I mean hey, it’s essentially what I chose to do with my life.

So here, I believe, is something anthropology can really contribute to bettering the lives of autistic people – as it can be employed not just to the study of autism by neurotypicals (which is what I’m doing), but also to the autistic study of neurotypicals.

It’s long been held in my discipline that in order to be a good anthropologist, you need to leave your familiar surroundings. That’s the best – and some say the only – way to ‘stumble on every rock’, as it were; to be intrigued by what others consider mundane; to be bewildered by the otherwise banal; to ask questions that no one had thought of asking; to offer new sorts of explanations to phenomena mistakenly thought to be sufficiently-understood. When Zach observes the ‘mating habits’ of the office NTs, his potential for coming up with novel ideas about human behaviour is in fact much greater than if a neurotypical anthropologist would observe the same activities. For example, the fact he attributed such importance to the frequency and duration of eye contact obviously derives from the fact that to him (presumably), any eye-contact is an inexplicable activity. This puts him in the best of positions to try and explain this ‘odd’ behaviour – because it allows him to ask the most unobvious questions about what makes it so.

But importantly, while Zach’s curiosity is potentially very productive, his methods are entirely wrong. Observation might lead you to ask interesting questions; but it alone will never allow you to come up with any valid answers. In referring to office flirtation as a ‘mating ritual’ Zack makes a mistake that is common among non-anthropologists (or early anthropologists, or just bad ones) – the assumption that human behaviour is as predictable and patterned as animal behaviour. It isn’t. Human behaviour, much like humans themselves, is as unpredictable as it is complex. Affect, agency, performance, subversion, selfhood, defiance, creativity, cultivation – these are just a fraction of the concepts social scientists use when analyzing social behaviour in humans, in order to emphasize just how irregular it is, and how different ‘social forces’ are (if those can even be said to exist) from the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology.

If Zach wanted to understand the ‘ritual’ he was observing (namely flirtation near the water cooler) – he would have no choice but to come out of his office and ask the people involved what they thought was happening. Why did she laugh when he told that obviously unfunny joke; why did he look away when she looked at her watch; that sort of thing. He needn’t take their answers at face-value though – he’s absolutely entitled to make his own interpretation. That’s what anthropology is mostly about. But collecting their own thoughts and ideas is an invaluable first step. Without it, one never really has a chance of understanding other people. Without it it’s just guess-work, and you’re very unlikely to guess correctly.

“The institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical” is a brilliantly articulated and witty example of what autistic anthropology shouldn’t be (it’s satirical, of course, and I’m just using it as a straw-man). It paints a grotesque image of neurotypical behaviour, that’s as invalid as it is funny. As a piece of social commentary, a satire – it’s brilliant. But this is not the kind of thing I’m proposing.

I wish we were all anthropologists – I honestly do. I think anthropological insight holds incredible potential for a better, more just society. But anthropology shouldn’t be taken too lightly, either, lest people are taken lightly; and that’s the very thing anthropology tries to avoid. In other words, be anthropologists, I urge you; it might just make things easier; behaivours might become less confusing, people might be seen as less strange, and the world a bit less chaotic. But be good anthropologists; take a course or several, read some anthropology introduction books, follow some anthropology blogs – do it right. Bad anthropology is often ridiculously bad, and is damaging more than it is helpful. Good anthropology, on the other hand, can be incredibly useful.

Is this what I was getting at this whole time? I sincerely doubt it. But I do like what came out. So I might just keep it.

What do you think about all this? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Ben X

Ben X

In what would usually be referred to as ’the real world’, Ben is a Belgian (Flemish) teenager; lonely, full of anxiety, practically mute, and autistic. Is he anxious and silent because he is autistic? Well, partly, yes. But it is also because he is treated ever so horribly by his classmates who tease him, bully him, beat him, drug him, and humiliate him. Despite having loving and caring parents, and at least one kind and considerate teacher, Ben’s ‘real world’ existence is full of suffering; it is quite unbearable.

But in the virtual on-screen world of Archlord, he is Ben X; a hero, a skilled warrior, an esteemed and respected figure; and the fellow in battle, travel, and play to the equally skillful heroine who goes by the name of Scarlite.

benx-loner-movies

“The princess of letters, on the other side of the land; who is always by my side when things get out of hand; who knows me without knowing my name; who could put me back together again; who could make me ‘sleep tight’.“

During the film, Ben constantly shifts back and forth between the two worlds he inhabits; master in one, victim in the other; admired in one, tortured in the other. Is it any surprise he prefers one over the other?

An excessive liking to video games is frequently framed as a problem; quite often, the word addiction is invoked. I don’t want to go into a debate about whether excessive gaming is really such a bad thing or not – I guess I just find it hard to generalize. In principal: yes, a healthy life should ideally consist of various kinds of stimuli, not just one. But if video games offer someone a place where they can finally shed their anxiety and have some much needed relaxation and fun, while socializing in ways that would otherwise simply be too overwhelming, frightening, or painful – I don’t know, who’s to say that’s wrong? But like I said, this isn’t the discussion I was going for. What I would like to talk about is the role that virtual worlds have in the lives of those who play it; the important role that is quite often misunderstood, and possibly unappreciated by others.

Tom Boellstorff is social anthropologist. Like many others, he has chosen to study a culture different than his own. It has its own rules, norms, values, and symbols. Like members of most other cultural groups, the members of his studied culture, too, have bodies and occupy a space. Except in this case, the bodies are avatars, and the space they occupy is the virtual world of Second Life. Years of bad rep by people who don’t quite understand this world have contributed to a conception of Second Life as offering a type of a shallow, worthless sociality; a fake. Boellstorff shows exactly the opposite: Second Life, and presumably any other virtual world, is as unequivocally social, and just as real as any other space where people live and act.

First, he says, let’s get rid of the useless distinction between real and virtual that only confuses things. Connections made online are every bit as real as the ones made offline; people make friends on chat rooms, meet life partners in virtual worlds, find support in discussion forums, and joke around with other people on twitter. What’s not real about any of these activities? Is it different than making a friend in a book shop, being on a date in a bar, or sitting in a therapist’s clinic? Of course it is different. But is it any less real? Nope. It’s mediated, yes. But hey, so is a phone conversation, and that hasn’t been said to be fake since probably a century ago. Once the landline has become widespread, and we became accustomed to it, we accepted it as a valid form of communication. Virtual worlds are not essentially different from the landline insofar as they are a means of communication; visually elaborate and creatively designed, yes (how is that a bad thing?), but merely a means of communications nonetheless.

So instead of talking about the real-world, when all we’re talking about is communication-that-isn’t-mediated-by-technology, let’s talk about the actual world instead, as the counterpart of the virtual world. Different as the actual and the virtual worlds may be, both are equally real.

So if we agree that the story is not that there is the real world on one hand and a fake world on the other hand, but that we are simply talking about two spheres of the real world, we might want to ask – what’s the relationship between the two? How does one relate to the other?

Try this explanation: the virtual and the actual are distinct, but they are not separate. What happens in the actual world shapes one’s experience of the virtual world, and what happens in the virtual world shapes our interpretation of the actual world. It’s basically a continuous two-way dynamic, with mutual effects. How is this outlook helpful? Well, we could say, for example, that Ben’s online experiences make him see his actual-life reality in a certain way – as compared to (compared to the virtual world, that is), rather than as simply is. This has both negative and positive consequences: it inspires in him hope, suggests strategies for improvement, and offers a reservoir of images for day-dreaming and fantasizing. But at the same time, it highlights reality (actual-world reality) at its poorest: a violent, cruel, uncompassionate existence, where people’s potential is not realized, and power is used for evil instead of good. At the same time, Ben’s offline existence affects his virtual-life: he uses his avatar to act out his emotions, to speak honestly to his friend, to exert courage, but also to show weakness.

In other words, Ben is not leading two separate lives; he lives one life, which is divided into two spheres. Ben uses relatively novel technology to do this, but other than that, is it really so unique? Think of a businesswoman, spending weekdays in the office and weekends with her family; think of an army commander who spends several months at home followed by several months in the battlefield; think of a football player – running and kicking on the pitch, then having dinner with his wife; think of how we all take holidays; isn’t it quite the same thing, at the bottom of it? Same world, different spheres of life; same person, different ‘selves’.

Also:

If Ben inhabits two spheres, and occupies two bodies, can he be said to be two people? Well I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely agree that Ben has two selves. Not a real one and a fake one, mind you, as we’ve already established that they’re both perfectly real. They are certainly different, though; so perhaps the better question would be to ask in what way his two selves are different. And in this respect, the most obvious difference between the living body and the digital body is that while the former can feel, hear, touch, taste, smell, and sense – the latter can’t; it is numb, indifferent, desensitized.

So the living body has the capacity for pleasure; but also for pain. We tend to idealize bodily pleasure, and lament its absence. But like Pink Floyd suggested, numbness can often be comfortable; particularly if the alternative is not pleasure, but pain and suffering.

Another important difference is this: there is only so much one can do to change their physical body; of course you can exercise, eat better, dye your hair, dress according to whatever fashion you like, and even have cosmetic surgery – but mostly, it’s a given. You keep what you draw. Your virtual body, on the other hand – now that’s just one big variable.  You can choose your gender (with the body parts to go with it), your appearance; even your species! Feel like a pixie toddler today?  A bi-sexual cross-gender giant? A carnivorous double-hump camel?  You can be that. And you can play the part with confidence, because no one will accuse you of acting childlike when you should be acting like an adult; for acting masculine when you’re expected to be lady-like; for making jokes when situations calls for serious behaviour – or the other way around. In other words, you can just be yourself – silly as that may sound – when you’re a made-up character. Self-fashioning – self-creation even – are real possibilities in virtual worlds. They afford a type of creativity that goes beyond drawing on canvas, or writing words on paper – they afford creativity that can be utilized to design your very self. And for some people, particularly those whose physical existence is an endless and futile struggle to either conform to, or reject their expected social roles – to finally be able to choose the role that suits you, down to the very last detail – how appealing is that?

 

 “In games you can be whoever and whatever you like. Here you can only be one person. The jerk you see in the mirror. I have to teach him everything. For example, I have to teach him to laugh. People like that. To ‘give them a smile’, as they say. Which means smiling when really there’s nothing to smile about. That’s how you create your own avatar.”

 

Get it? We create avatars in the actual-world all the time. Except it’s harder, and we get very little choice about what we want these avatars to be.

In his mind, Ben wishes for his two characters – his two selves – to unite. He can only fantasize how his virtual self would react in the actual-world events he is forced to cope with. If only Ben had Ben X’s strength, courage, swordsmanship, and way with words, his life would have been so much better. But he hasn’t; and it’s not. It’s as hard as anyone can imagine. Ben X might have it made; but Ben is miserable.

In one critical junction in the story, it seems as if at least one formidable achievement of Ben’s virtual self might finally be transported to his actual-world; the friendship and affection of his co-player, Scarlite. Her actual-world self is worried about his, and she’s coming on the train to meet him. But the embodied, actual-world version of Scarlite simply proves too petrifying for him to approach – he can’t even say hello. Then, at one tragic moment, the pain of Ben’s existence overwhelms him, and he decides to kill himself by jumping under a moving train. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I myself have confused the actual-world and the cinematic world, and cried “NO!!!” at the screen, with a very real voice, led by a very real emotion.

Ben doesn’t kill himself, luckily, though I dare speculate that his eventual decision to go on living was solely motivated by the movie makers’ concern for the intactness of their audience’s nearly-shattered hearts; not by any real motivation of the protagonist. In that sense, Ben’s delusion of Scarlite as a loving girlfriend is a classic Deus ex Machina (adequately defined in Wikipedia as “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object” – isn’t that precisely what Ben’s delusion of Scarlite is?) In other words, if Ben were to kill himself, this would have been a devastating story, and yet a remarkably sincere one (it seems the true story on which the novel was based did, in-fact, end with suicide). Adolescent suicide is a real-world problem, so an honest cinematic depiction of it would not have been ill-suited. But as it happened, the makers of Ben X chose to convey the dangers and injustices of high-school brutality in a different way; through their protagonist’s somewhat playful ploy, tricking his community into believing he had committed suicide, and noting their collective conscience at work. To actually have their main character proceed to kill himself would, I believe, send the same message, but so much more powerfully.

But at any rate, Ben X offers quite a brilliant depiction, I thought, of an important part of the experience of being autistic. It’s not always charming naivety, childhood innocence, good-naturedness, and a wholesome dash of some much-called-for honesty; instead, sometimes, it’s about suffering, anxiety, depression, distress, loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts. Aren’t these very often what autistic adolescents must cope with, in a society where antipathy, intolerance, and plain cruelty are all too common?

“Then it was time for truthfulness. Shamefulness, painfulness.” Indeed. Sometimes it is.

What do you think?

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Adam (2009)

Adam (2009)

I first wrote this post immediately after watching Adam for the first time – I wrote very fondly of the film, as I honestly enjoyed it at the time. I still think it’s a pretty good movie, but after reading this review by the awesome Caroline Narby at bitch magazine, I see now that I was actually overlooking some crucial points. This revised post is an attempt to reconcile my formerly held opinion of the movie with my new one.

(Which makes me wonder, which of my opinions of the film is more authentically ‘mine’? The one I formulated myself right after watching it, or the revised one, reformulated after reading someone else’s thoughts and reflections? I guess the short answer is: the latter.)

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Let’s start with the alien metaphor; it seems like you can’t read / watch anything about autism without coming across some mentioning of a life form from another planet. Why don’t we talk about that for a while?

In the very beginning of the film, during the opening captions, Beth has this to say:

“My favorite children’s book is about a little prince who came to earth from a distant asteroid. He meets a pilot whose plane has crashed in a desert. The little prince teaches the pilot many things but mainly about love. My father always told me I was like the little prince. But after I met Adam, I realized I was the pilot all along…”

So of course this is a reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, originally published in French in 1943. If for some reason you haven’t read it yet, stop everything you’re doing and go read it now. Seriously, I’ll wait.

Are you done? Ok.

So what’s the deal? Why is the association of autism and alienism so common?

Ian Hacking, possibly one of the more prominent philosophers alive today, has written an article about exactly that. It’s called Humans, Aliens & Autism. Nothing too fancy or sophisticated, but a thoughtful explanation nonetheless. I’ll give you his argument in a nutshell.

“Aliens in modern space adventures may talk and walk like us, but by definition they are not human … Aliens can be better than us, as in moral fables such as ET. Most of the time they seem to be bent on destroying us … However, we seem to hold up aliens as mirrors to teach what is best or worst in us or in the human condition” (2009:45-6)

Hacking makes a great point here. When you think of it, aliens are always a metaphor; a metaphor for something that’s not us, but that’s not entirely different either. Some form of alter ego for the whole of humanity. An invention that’s meant to tell ourselves something about who ‘we’, as a species, are.

Ok, so what does this have to do with autism?

Well, Hacking believes this has something to do with the difficulty many with autism have with making eye-contact. This is because people – and this has been thought true for millennia – feel they can know the person in front of them just by looking at their eyes. You know how they say that “the eyes are the mirror to the soul”? Well, that sort of thing. Looking someone in the eyes allows us (well, some of us) to know the person in front of us, or at the very least feel like we know them (this distinction is crucial). Hacking calls this perceived ability ‘Köhler’s phenomenon’. If we are denied access to this proverbial “mirror to the soul” for whatever reason (either because the person in front of us isn’t making eye-contact, or we aren’t) we are confused, uncomfortable, frustrated, and mostly – we lack the words to describe our experience. It’s too unique. Hence, the need for a powerful metaphor.

Hacking argues that “…that kind of immediate understanding that Köhler described is not the common property and practice of that part of humankind that is autistic”, and he concludes: “We asked, “why does the metaphor of the alien crop up so often in fact and fiction?” We can now state an answer: because of the absence of Köhler’s phenomena in relations between neurotypicals and autistic people.” (2009:52) So the reason aliens come up so often in talk about autism is because autistics and neurotypicals do not share a certain ‘bedrock’ of experience that allows each-others’ inner being to be projected outwardly, and seen directly by the observer. This creates a feeling of unusual strangeness, which is well reflected by use of the alien metaphor.

Arghhh, I dunno. I mean ok, Hacking’s explanation is relatively straightforward and logical (if a bit obvious), and I don’t feel a burning need to confront it. But I’m not very satisfied with it, either.  Because what Hacking might be overlooking is the sort of power dynamic that is reinforced whenever the alien metaphor is used. Difference is very rarely neutral. Seeing as the alien metaphor invokes a very profound feeling of difference, we need to ask what is the political implications of referring to an entire group of people as ‘aliens’ (and I suppose this is where the tastefulness of the alien metaphor in Adam is brought into question). It’s not necessarily anything as simplistic as ‘we are good, they are bad’; we already saw that like in E.T. – or The Little Prince, for that matter – the alien is often morally superior to the earthlings. I would think the risk of using the alien metaphor is in that it reproduces a state of events in which one group (neurotypicals, in this case) is more privileged to determine the extent of the difference between it and the other group. The voice is always the earthling’s voice. Hence the voice of the autistic person, and his/her way of defining themselves or categorizing themselves is not taken into consideration. In Adam, the alien metaphor shapes the viewer’s experience of the story in the following way:  despite Adam’s name being in the title, it makes it a story about Beth. Because if Adam is the alien, then we are quite forcefully made to view the story through Beth’s perspective of him. As Caroline Narby rightfully points out, Adam becomes passive; merely a plot vehicle, whose “ultimate purpose is the moral instruction and betterment of the non-disabled Beth and, by extension, of the audience.” Spot on.

In its use of the alien metaphor, Adam is a striking example of Othering. It is not a bad-intentioned endeavour at discussing autism, but a misguided one nonetheless. Difference is fine – we need differences, we thrive on differences. Sameness should not be an ideal, and differences should not be concealed. But one has to be sensitive to power dynamics when discussing differences. To refer to another as so strange that he may well have come from a different planet is, well, plain wrong. Not just for its implications (the false assumption that autistics can never be sufficiently understood by us NTs – so what’s the use of even trying?), but for the very reasoning that brought it on: Autism means difference, but not THAT much of a difference. We don’t need to look up to the stars to account for this difference – the people on Planet Earth are sufficiently diverse. And we are all equally human.

And then a harder question creeps up: what to make of all those instances when autistic people refer to themselves as aliens. Wrong Planet being the most prominent example. I’m going to leave this question open for now. But I would love to hear what you all have to say about this!

I actually devoted way too much text to what is a very small part of the film – I’m aware of that. But I thought it makes an interesting point of discussion nonetheless. I want to briefly make one more point, though: I did think Adam was probably the most socially and politically aware movie about autism from all those I have watched so far.

About half way through the plot, Adam undergoes a series of unfortunate events. First, he unexpectedly loses his job; not because he did bad work, but for failing to adhere to his boss’s instructions (instead of a plain talking doll, Adam makes one with artificial intelligence; brilliant idea, but not too practical, from a commercial point of view). Then, cardboard box in hand (apparently the universal ‘I just lost my job’ signifier, in American cinema at least), he goes to watch kids in the school where Beth works. He just needed a splash of childhood innocence, to cheer him up a bit. Failing to see why an adult man watching children might worry some people, he is stopped by the police, and this quickly escalates into a violent and degrading affair. Then unemployment, and depression, and anxiety, and self- injurious behaviour.

This sequence was so political that I had to reassure myself that I wasn’t reading too much into this – this is an American movie after all. But no, it’s all there. And I have to give the creators credit; it’s very well done. See, I come across a lot of literature on autism in sociology, social work, public health, education, law etc. So much of this really good research is concerned with the type of difficulties autistic people face that are unequivocally social, similar to those depicted in Adam. Being thrown out of school / university; being shamed in public; losing jobs and failing to find employment; being arrested and incarcerated; even winding up living on the street – these are all relatively common experiences for people with autism; at the very least more common than for the general population. Of course, just because someone is autistic does not automatically make him/her unaccountable for their actions; But there is obviously room to take a person’s atypical neurology (and life history as autistic) into account when sanctioning him with expulsion / dismissal / arrest / incarceration. And this is seldom done. That’s a political problem for autistic people; and it is a problem that the makers of Adam rather courageously took it upon themselves to engage with.

So yes, sure, you would expect Adam to realize that complying with his boss’s directions is important if he wants to keep his job. You might expect him to realize that there’s a perfectly good reason for police to want to look at his ID when he’s staring at children through the school fence; and there’s definitely an unnecessary implication of violent tendencies in his banging his head against the mirror. In many subtle ways, Adam’s depiction of autism is inaccurate, stereotypical, or simplistic. But as far as creating some awareness to the sort of problems autistic people have to deal with in this world (those that go beyond social awkwardness or inability to pick up social cues), I thought the makers of Adam did a very decent job.

So good on them.

And while we’re at it, I thought it was really fair that Adam tells Beth about his having Asperger’s himself, rather than some doctor / psychologist sharing this information; I also thought it was very cool that in order to learn about Asperger’s and to form an opinion on whether Adam is good relationship material or not (a reasonable concern), Beth reads an autobiography written by an Aspie (it was Pretending to be Normal by Holliday Willey – haven’t read this one yet); I loved the fact that the term neurotypical is used in the movie, and even as a sort of caveat to psychologists’ expertise (most of them being neurotypical, and therefore have limited knowledge about autism); and I even thought it was a brave choice to write the following lines for Beth during her fight with Adam (after he freaks out about her lying to him, and wishes her dad to go to prison for life): “You’re a child Adam. Fuck Asperger’s. You’re a fucking child”. Was that over the line? Probably.  But I appreciated the implication: just because Adam is an Aspie, this does not excuse him for acting like an asshole. And that’s super fair, isn’t it? In some roundabout way, I felt this was a fairer treatment of autism than in most movies.

What do you think? I want to know.