Being autistic and being in love with films only seems to have brought us a greater sense of connection with the films that we watch, but it seems that there’s another sense of difficulty that gets in the way: when a film addresses its own characters as being autistic and oftentimes, it feels like a stereotyped portrait that casts ourselves in a negative light. With all the Sheldon Coopers, the Rain Mans, and Forrest Gumps that have supposedly wanted to portray a “typical” representation of the autistic spectrum, it seems that we find more compassion in yet another area, characters that we read as having autism rather than directly being a part of the spectrum.
Take a look at Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in Being There. He has lived his whole life behind bars, and only learns about the outside world based on what he sees on television. When he finally has to confront the outside for once, all he carries with him is his remote because it’s where he finds his own sense of comfort. It’s a film that I point to when it comes to defining characters that can be read as having traits much like autism because it questions how people outside his perspective see him, yet carries a sense of compassion for his own. Everyone thinks that he’s a prophet, offering his own philosophies to the political scene of the time – yet he’s only talking with gardening terms because it is all he knows. I only imagine myself to be a polarising figure among the many people I talk with and I’m paranoid about what they think of me, because much like Chance, all that I learn comes from a screen, watching movies and interacting via social media.
It isn’t just this that makes Peter Sellers’s performance resonate. It’s the fact that director Hal Ashby keeps locked into Chance’s own eyes so that everyone knows exactly what he’s making of the world around him. It isn’t just television he’s watching anymore, almost like it isn’t just a film I’m watching when I walk through the hallways of my college campus. I try my best to keep a straight face, and when I’m being pointed out to share something to say, I only utter out the layman because I know it’s what everyone understands. And it’s what I like to express when I write my own film reviews for others to read, just what I pick up from experience. But I stick to living my life as an introvert in the same way Chance does, because upon social interaction up close I feel overwhelmed to the point I even stop myself from saying what I want to, worried about embarrassment.
And how does the world see him? Some said he was a genius. Others were not so fond. But Chance doesn’t know much beyond what he sees on television in the same way I, as mentioned in the prior paragraph, don’t know much beyond the many films I watch and the way I always measure how I interact with others on social media. And how I talk with others just follows along with what I know everyone else seems to be fussed over, and I barely even have time to express myself properly. Because the “proper” me is behind this image of what everyone makes of me. And it doesn’t seem to instill a good sense in people who I wish to talk more actively with at my own campus, whether it be with other students or teachers. And once my own feeling of comfort is gone, I just feel stunted. I can only imagine it’s what Chance seems to feel, when he’s away from his television or his beloved garden, just as I would be when I can’t watch a film or have access to my phone.
A film that I consider to be defining of our generation (and one that anyone who’s met me will say I talk about way too much) is David Fincher’s The Social Network. A movie that not only succeeds as a snapshot of the development of human communication, but as a Shakespearean drama in which the protagonist is equal parts vindictive as he is empathetic. My main point at which an attachment is formed is the concept of Facebook itself; I am not a sociable man, communication is a concerted effort on my part that can cause great distress and upset. Facebook – and social media on a larger scale – has allowed me to talk with others on my terms, where I’m not struggling with words or eye contact.
In watching The Social Network, I see a lot of myself in Mark Zuckerberg, which I do not think of as a negative association. It is very much a film about obsession and defying those who are obstructing one’s pursuit of a goal. In Mark’s own head, Facebook is very much his and what he says goes, and I can honestly identify with him. When I have an idea that I like, it will become an obsession, an all-consuming flame that takes over my life for an indeterminate amount of time. And while I try not to alienate those around me, it’s not as if I don’t understand the thought process of those who do. Paranoia has plagued me for years, and is only amplified by my autism. Forming friendships is not easy, I have no natural inclination towards it. So, when I do have a friend, accepting it is not as easy as it should be.
A line from the film I particularly adore that resonates with me is Mark’s exclamation that everyone who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to the person who invented the chair. After hearing that, I was convinced Mark was in the right. He didn’t steal Facebook from anybody, he took an idea and “made it better”, in his own words. From there, I was sat in his position, rooting for him to succeed and finding anger in other characters not seeing his brilliance. While much of the film is fictionalised, the portrait painted through the writing of Aaron Sorkin and the performance of Jesse Eisenberg speaks to me as if I were watching my own biopic. Sometimes, I’m moved to tears just thinking about it.
It’s not that filmmakers shouldn’t strive to create characters who are representative of ASD, but it’s somewhat egregious when the mark is missed so spectacularly. Perhaps the best approach is to simply write characters who happen to be autistic, and not make that their defining characteristic. Autism does not define us, it merely aids in shaping us. Characters who are defined by a single quality, be it autism or otherwise, are one-dimensional at best and damaging at worst. So please, do not pigeonhole us as nothing more than “autistic”, we’re people, just like you, the creative process should not affect that.