Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Fantasy: Punching Dustin Hoffman in the Face

Okay. That's a bit strong. I don't really want to punch Dustin Hoffman in the face. I have no issue with Dustin Hoffman personally. He's a great actor who's portrayed many wonderful characters in some of the best movies of all-time, like 'The Graduate", "Kramer vs. Kramer", "All The President's Men", "Runaway Jury", and "Ishtar". He's also the source of many memorable movie quotes over the past forty years.

Who doesn't love the following heavily misquoted line:

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?"

My favorite line of his is from "Stranger Than Fiction":

"Little did he know? She said that? I did a whole seminar on little did he know!"

My issue is with the character Raymond Babbit from the movie "Rain Man". The movie is over 20 years old but most people know the reference (unfortunately). The character has several memorable lines ("I'm an excellent driver" and "K-Mart sucks"), which has helped the movie's longevity. But the character has become a great source of frustration for me.

Raymond is a savant, which is a rare disorder. People with several different conditions, including autism, may have savant syndrome. Yet, he has somehow become the picture of autism for many in this country. While the movie (and the character) may have brought some awareness to autism, it shined a light on only one of its rarest elements as it cast a long shadow over the rest of the autism spectrum.

As a spectrum disorder, trying to nail down one example of autism is like nailing Jello to the wall. It just can't be done. There are extremes at each end of the spectrum, with a seemingly infinite number of subtle differences and textures in between. Rain Man represents one very small datapoint along one end of this spectrum and an unusual one at that.

Sometimes, Rain Man presents a double-whammy for parents of an autistic child when the subject of autism arises. At first, he is the definition. After that, he's the relief. It goes something like this:

"My son's autistic."
"Autistic? You mean like Rain Man?"
"No. He's more high functioning."
"Oh, well. Thank God for that."

I've actually read someone try to sell that idea that "parents shouldn't worry about autism too much because not every kid ends up like Rain Man".

For a parent first receiving a diagnosis of autism for his or her child (at least this parent), there is no relativity along the autism spectrum. It's quite binary - a one or a zero. Either the child is autistic or he isn't (unfortunately, this train of thought reminds me of my new favorite joke: there are 10 types of people in this world - those who understand binary numbers and those who don't). I didn't think "Thank God Robbie's high functioning" for a long, long time. And when I did, it provided me no comfort whatsoever. Being reminded that others have it worse (and they certainly do) had no positive effect on me. It didn't make our lives any easier.
It didn't reveal any new therapies guaranteed to help. It didn't lessen the effects of Robbie's autism. It made me feel worse. Is that the objective for the comparison? I don't think so.

We need new characters anchoring society's image of what autism looks like; ones that accurately represent the entire spectrum. We need more heroes.

If I ever get the chance to meet Dustin Hoffman, I'll likely shake his hand and say, "Hello, Mr. Hoffman. Nice to meet you, Mr. Hoffman. Ishtar was awesome, Mr. Hoffman." I'll resist the urge of violence. If he starts quoting Raymond Babbit, however, I make no promises.

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