tarting this year, autism is officially defined as autism spectrum disorder, instead of the five separate diagnoses that used to be lumped under “the spectrum.” There’s a lot of discussion whether that’s wise and what it will mean for treatment. We’ll see. In the meantime, since we’re stuck with it, I thought a parallel spectrum depicting the portrayal of autism in popular culture might be a fun exercise. From left to right, lower-functioning to higher, here goes:
Rain Man: Premiering in 1988, Dustin Hoffman’s character of Raymond Babbitt is introduced as an “autistic savant” with an extraordinary memory. He’s lived most of his life in an institution — probably more a reflection of his times than his abilities. He adheres to rigid routines, notably watching Jeopardy every day, where he knows all the questions. He can’t tolerate flying, so he and his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) embark on a 2,000 mile journey by car, during which their family story unfolds.
Christopher Boone, protagonist, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Published in 2003, this novel was a watershed moment in autism awareness. Author Mark Haddon‘s international best-seller is the story of 15-year-old Christopher Boone’s investigation into the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Along the way, Christopher, who has autism, finds out much more than he bargained for about his parents and himself.
Robby Palmer, my protagonist, Sparrow Migrations and Plover Pilgrimage — Notice the orange background? That’s a deliberate homage to Curious Incident. While Robby has some precise routines (on the school bus, he always chooses the sixth seat back on the driver’s side) he’s not as rigid or OCD as Christopher, who won’t eat if something on his plate touches something else. Robby, 12, can tolerate touch from his parents, Sam and Linda, while Christopher can’t. But both are left-brain inclined; Robby is good at biology while Christopher is a maths whiz. And they have similar sensory sensitivities to noise and crowds. Robby copes with hoodies and headphones; Christopher with rocking, groaning and covering his ears. Robby likes to spin, either in a chair or by himself, while Christopher strokes his pet rat, Toby. Robby and Christopher’s parents are similar, too. Both are loving but worn out and frustrated from coping with the stress of autism.
Max Braverman from Parenthood: Max was introduced as having Asperger’s Syndrome when the show debuted in 2010. That’s one of the sub-spectrum diagnoses that the American Psychiatric Association has now lumped into the broader autism spectrum. Max is obsessed with bugs and seemingly isolated inside his large, boisterous, affectionate family. Like the others, his facial affect is typically flat, revealing little emotion. I’m two seasons behind in my show viewing (hey, I’ve been writing a novel!) and on Season Three, Max was just “mainstreamed” — moved from a special education class into a regular ed classroom.
Temple Grandin: Some might say Grandin, 65, doesn’t belong on my spectrum since she’s a real person. But as the world’s best-known person living with autism, I had to include her. Her niche, like Max’s bugs, Christopher’s investigation and Robby’s birds, is animals — specifically the humane handling of cattle in feedlots. A PhD., she revolutionized feedlot operations with her handling systems that capitalized on the intuitive behavior of cattle. She’s written extensively about living with autism. As a woman with diagnosis, she’s a minority within a minority, since males are four times more likely to be affected than females.
Who did I miss? If you’re a neurotypical, does my spectrum help you understand autism better?
–The letter S brought to you by Daily Drop Cap.