Rain Man and Savant Syndrome
Fun Fact – Rain Man is a 1988 American comedy-drama road movie directed by Barry Levinson and written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass. It tells the story of an abrasive, selfish young wheeler-dealer Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), who discovers that his estranged father has died and bequeathed all his multimillion-dollar estate to his other son, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), an Autistic savant, of whose existence Charlie was unaware.
Fun Fact – Rain Man had a budget of $25 million
Fun Fact – At the box office it took $354.8 million
Fun Fact – People assume that every Autistic person is just like Raymond in Rain Man
When you first strike up the courage to inform someone that you’re Autistic the first thing they say to you is “Are you like Raymond Babbitt?” and my answer is always
But that’s the reality when you mention the movie Rain Man or bring Autism into the conversation.
I have to acknowledge Gidgit Von La Rue and the Retro Cinema at this point, Gidgit reached out to me about a week ago and asked me if I would comment on Rain Man and provide my thoughts and feelings around how this movie and how it dealt with Autsim. Which I did.
This this prompted me to write this article.
The Retro Cinema have podcast this movie and Gidgit read out what I wrote for them and you can listen to it here
Ok so, to dispel any myths here let me be clear about a couple of things.
One I have what is known as Dyscalculia which is
Dyscalculia is a term referring to a wide range of life-long learning disabilities involving maths.
It includes all types of maths problems ranging from an inability to understand the meaning of numbers, to an inability to apply mathematical principles to solve problems.
So, I won’t be expecting Tom Cruise to swing by in his 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible to drive me back to Los Angeles on a cross country road trip.
You can read more about Dyscalculia here (https://autisticnick.com/2018/12/10/dyscalculia-and-autism/)
The reason for this week’s blog post is because I wanted to discuss my thoughts on the above movie. And not to talk about road trips in convertibles and watching Judge Wapner on TV each day at a set time.
So, before we go any further I need to point this out. The character of Raymond Babbitt is based on two real people one named Kim Peak and the other Bill Sackter.
Kim Peak unfortunately died in 2009 aged 58 in Utah.
You can read more about Kim Peak here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Peek)
In 1964, when new light was being shed on the treatment of the mentally ill and disabled, Sackter was moved to a halfway house and worked odd jobs to support himself. He eventually became a handyman at a country club, where Barry Morrow, a filmmaker, and his wife Bev, befriended him. Morrow began slowly to make life a bit more comfortable for Bill, getting him new dentures and becoming his friend. Morrow became his guardian, and when he took a post at the University of Iowa, Sackter followed him to Iowa City, and became the sole proprietor of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop on the campus, in which he excelled.
Sackter died in his sleep in 1983. You can read more about him here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Sackter)
But what is Savant Syndrome?
“Savant syndrome is a condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities. The skills at which savants excel are generally related to memory. This may include rapid calculation, artistic ability, map making, or musical ability.
How common is Savant Syndrome?
“Approximately one in 10 people with Autistic spectrum disorder has some savant skills
What are the typical savant skills?
Particularly striking is the consistent observation also over this past century that savant skills typically, and curiously, are generally confined to only about five general areas of expertise — music, art, lightning calculating or other mathematical skills, calendar calculating and mechanical/spatial skills. This very limited, but spectacular, array of special skills is noteworthy considering the much wider palette of skills in the human repertoire, and the rarity of the obscure skill of calendar calculating in the general population. Curiously, calendar calculating ability seems almost universal, innately so, among savants.
Music is generally the most common savant skill – usually playing piano by ear and almost always with perfect pitch. Other percussion instruments such as marimba or drums can be mastered as well, but much less frequently. Musical performance abilities predominate, but outstanding composing skills have been documented as well, most often linked to performance ability, but not necessarily so. The triad of mental disability, blindness and musical genius occurs with a curious, conspicuous frequency in reports over this past century, particularly when one considers the relative rarity of each of those circumstances individually.
Artistic talent, usually painting or drawing, is seen next most frequently. Other forms of artistic talent can occur as well, such as sculpting. Lightning calculating or other mathematical skills, such as the ability to compute multi-digit prime numbers contrasted with the inability to perform even simple arithmetic, has often been reported. Mechanical ability, constructing or repairing intricate machines or motors for example, or spatial skills such as intricate map and route memorizing or being able to compute distances with precise accuracy just from visualization, do occur, but are seen somewhat less frequently.
Calendar calculating is curiously and conspicuously common among savants, particularly considering the rarity of that obscure skill in the general population. Beyond being able to name the day of the week that a date will occur on in any given year, calendar calculating includes being able to name all the years in the next 100 in which Easter will fall on March 23rd, for example, or all the years in the next 20 when July 4 will fall on a Tuesday. The so-called ‘calculating twins’ reported extensively in the literature, have a calendar calculating span of over 40000 years backward or forward in time. They also remember the weather for every day of their adult life.
Other skills are occasionally seen including multilingual acquisition ability or other unusual language (polyglot) skills, exquisite sensory discrimination in smell or touch, perfect appreciation of passing time without access to a clock face, or outstanding knowledge in specific fields such as neurophysiology, statistics, history or navigation, to name a few. While always controversial, there have been some reports of extra-sensory perception skills occurring in savants as well.
Typically, one of these skills occurs singly in each person with savant syndrome. However, in some instances multiple skills occur in the same person. Regardless of the type of skill, it is always combined with prodigious memory, and it is this special kind of memory-extraordinarily deep but very, very narrow — that cuts across all the various special skills and welds the condition of savant syndrome together.
But I am not here to discuss the ins and outs of Savant Syndrome.
I want to discuss my thoughts on the portrayal of someone with Autism being a main character in a movie.
Hoffman’s roll in this film is probably the most famous portrayal of an Autistic character to date.
Due to his self-centred personality and lack of understanding about Autism, Charlie, Raymond’s brother, displays a cruel insensitivity toward Raymond’s challenges indeed Charlie is forced to grudgingly adjust to Raymond’s idiosyncrasies, frequently being pushed to the breaking point at his frustration of trying to comprehend how he interacts and communicates with Raymond due to Charlie’s lack of knowledge and understanding around Autism.
The film’s focus is on the bonding power of family and how when you take care of someone else it also teaches you not to be so self-centred. Raymond can’t change, but Charlie can, and does.
Rain man is in a nutshell a story about two estranged brothers, their journey and their fragile redemption.
Some people within the Autism community believe that Rain Man was damaging to bringing about Autism Awareness.
But I disagree.
“In my opinion I believe that no representation of Autism is ever going to satisfy everyone, because it’s such a wide spectrum and the people within it are so enormously different to each other, including in how their Autism affects them
The Autistic community is certainly much more than Raymond Babbitt.
While this wasn’t apparent in 1988, it is clear now, and yet, 31 years on, Rain Man’s enormous influence on Autistic characters on screen shows no sign of abating.
You can watch a trailer for the movie here
And you can watch Kim Peak being interviewed here
You can check out my resources page here for Autism Organisations Australia wide here
Carry on the Conversation
What are your thoughts on the movie Rain Man?
Do you think it’s an accurate portrayal of Autism and Savant Syndrome?
Let me know in the comments below
As always, I can also be found on Twitter: @AutisticNick9 and at my email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thank you for reading and I will see you next time for more thoughts from across the spectrum.