I know what you’re thinking. “I deal with autism all the time. I hate the Rain Man stereotype.” I do too, but I think its worth discussing. I think, given the right approach, Rain Man can be used to raise awareness. The key is to focus on the positive aspects shown. It doesn’t hurt to bring up the change in approach, from an institutional model in the 80s to the current community based ideal.

For those who haven’t seen it, Rain Man is the story of a callous brother Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, and his estranged and unknown brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman. Raymond has autism, and Tom Cruise kidnaps him in an attempt to get money from his deceased father’s estate. With no money forthcoming, Charlie decides to use Raymonds savant skill, the ability to visually track and mentally simulate mathematical formulae at lightning speed, to cheat a Vegas casino out of a small fortune.

As far as the movie goes, it is well done. Performances are compelling all the way around and it won a ton of awards, including Best Picture and Best Leading Actor, in 1989. It is an engrossing movie, or at least that’s how I found it when I saw it in 1989. I was transfixed by Hoffman’s character and the concept of autism paired with savant syndrome. I’ve seen that movie at least 15 times through the years, and it is gut wrenching every time I see it. As a film, I give it 5 out of 5 stars. I can’t think of anything, based on its time of release, that could have been done better.

However, as an advocate in the community I have a small wish list. As the father of a son named, ironically, Raymond I have a few requests. As the parent of a child who shares both the disorder and, possibly, savant syndrome I would like to ask for a couple things.

First, realize that Dustin Hoffman’s performance, while incredible, was modeled on a person named Kim Peek. Kim Peek, although not autistic, did have a developmental disability with similarities to autism. He was also a savant with an eidetic memory. Unlike the movie, Kim Peek’s father was with him every step of the way and supported him throughout his life.

Next, realize that every person with autism is different. Autism is not like diabetes, where everyone gets insulin but the level is different. Autism doesn’t affect any two people the same way. There may be similarities but not sameness, if that makes sense. Try not to expect every person with autism to be a savant, and certainly don’t expect every autistic individual to act like Hoffman’s character!

Finally, realize that many of the ideas of that movie are outdated. We don’t put people in institutions any more if there is any way we can help it. I know some people think that institutions are the “answer,” but that’s only true if the question is “how can we totally invalidate someone’s right to choice and due process.” If you don’t know someone with autism, try introducing yourself. You might make a lifelong friend.

I have only managed to watch that movie once since we found out Raymond has autism. Its hard to watch, because I do tend to draw similarities between my Raymond and Hoffman’s Raymond. However, I also feel like it helps me see the differences. I always come back to the fact that my son is his own person, and always will be.

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