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  • Russ Williams

BRAWD AUTISTICO "So, is your Brother like, Really Good at Maths?"

Updated: Jan 10, 2021



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I LIKE RAIN MAN, I really do. It’s a film about two brothers, one of whom is autistic, so how could I not like it, right? But I’m sure that most people who have an autistic family member would agree with me that, although the film managed to make ‘autism’ a familiar word to the masses and mainstream media, it also helped spawn one of the biggest myths surrounding it- that people on the spectrum are all suited-up, card-counting masterminds…


Released in 1988, directed by Barry Levinson and written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass, the fictional Rain Man follows arrogant car salesman Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) as he discovers that he has an autistic brother (Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman) after his father dies and favours another party in his will. When Charlie learns that Raymond is an autistic savant with little to no understanding of the money he has inherited, he essentially kidnaps him and takes him across the country in their late father’s vintage car (after Raymond refuses to get on a plane), with the intention of getting his hands on the money. As time goes on, however, Charlie grows fond of his estranged brother and his odd, infuriating ways, and fights to become his legal guardian. The title refers to what a younger Charlie, barely old enough to talk, used to call his older brother Raymond- ‘Rain Man’, his ‘imaginary friend’.


Barry Morrow based Raymond on a real-life savant named ‘Kim Peek’, as well as Bill Sackter, who was the subject of his earlier release, Bill. But Rain Man was huge, and the highest-grossing film of 1988. It won four Oscars at the 61st Academy Awards (as well as winning the Golden Bear at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival), namely Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Dustin Hoffman, though the crew did receive four further nominations, as well.


Thanks to its success, the whole world was suddenly aware of autism. However, everyone had the wrong end of the stick, entirely…


‘Savant syndrome’ is a rare condition, much rarer than autism. It refers to when someone with a severe mental disability shows cognitive abilities that far exceed the average person’s. You’ve probably seen a Channel 4 documentary about them at some point- people who can remember every line from every page of every book they’ve ever read, who can glance at a photo of a city landscape and recreate it perfectly, or who can calculate insanely large sums in their heads within seconds. Savants typically also have another existing neurodevelopmental disorder, such as autism, for example, and there’s a one in a million chance of being born a savant, with it affecting more males than females on a ratio of 6:1 (interestingly, autism also affects more males than females, on a similar ratio of 4 or 5:1). When it comes to people on the spectrum, however, they estimate that only around 10% of them are savants, and not all of them with talents worthy of a Channel 4 documentary. In fact, they reckon there’s less than a hundred savants with extraordinary gifts alive today!


Morrow’s inspiration for Raymond, Laurence Kim Peek, who died in 2009, was considered a ‘mega-savant’ and was also diagnosed with autism. However, he is now thought to have something called ‘FG syndrome’, a rare genetic condition linked to the X chromosome that causes physical anomalies (such as enlarged heads) and developmental delays.


So, not only did Rain Main help create the myth that all autistic people are mini Charles Xaviers, but, with hindsight, the character’s main inspiration probably wasn’t even autistic to begin with!


As such, before we get into what life is like with an autistic brother, I think it’s wise we all get a clearer picture of what autism actually is…


The word ‘autism’ was first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1908, when referring to withdrawn schizophrenic patients. It derives from the Greek word ‘autos’, which means ‘self’, referring to the withdrawn or ‘self-isolating’ behaviour witnessed in many people on the spectrum. You may have heard it being referred to as ‘ASD’ (Autistic Spectrum Disorder), ‘ASC’ (Autistic Spectrum Condition), or Asperger’s, though the latter term has been highly debated over the years…


Asperger’s syndrome was first mentioned by British psychiatrist Lorna Wing in the 80s and is based on a 1944 study by Austrian paediatrician ‘Hans Asperger’, though many people who fit the profile are now being diagnosed with autism, instead. It is generally assigned to autistic people with average (or above) intelligence. Individuals diagnosed with Asperger’s may choose to keep the term, but many prefer to refer to themselves as being ‘autistic’. This debate far exceeds me, I’m afraid… but if anyone has an insight into the difference between Asperger’s and autism, if there are any, please feel free to leave a comment below!


Autism is a developmental disorder that is mainly defined by difficulties with social interaction and communication, with many people on the spectrum also displaying repetitive and restrictive behaviour. Because it’s a developmental disorder, parents usually pick up on the signs when their child reaches milestone stages in the early years of their lives (so, for example, Mam noticed that my brother was still in nappies when he should have grown out of them, and he wasn’t making any attempt to speak nor make any friends, and so on).


But remember that autism is a ‘spectrum’, meaning that it affects people in different ways. Some even believe that we all sit somewhere on the spectrum, but what it basically means is that there are different ‘levels’ or ‘degrees’ of autism… consider the political spectrum, for example, with left-wing Hippies, right-wing Nazis and those who sit somewhere in the middle. With autism, people refer to those who sit at the ‘lower end’ as having ‘severe’ or ‘low-functioning autism’ (like my brother), and those on the other end of the spectrum as having ‘high-functioning autism’. This means that you can be autistic and still be able to make friends, get a job and live on your own, or you may need constant support and supervision in order to keep yourself and others safe.


People with autism often have other co-existing conditions, as well, and I’m not on about savants, either. More likely, they’ll have conditions such as learning disabilities (like my brother), ADHD, depression, dyslexia, anxiety or epilepsy- so no geeky party tricks for the majority of them, I’m afraid!


Scientists are not sure what the cause is, though I’m sure you’ve all heard the theory surrounding the MMR vaccine (which has since been disproven, by the way), but more on that at a later date- the conspiracy surrounding vaccinations is a big one and deserves a post of its own… scientists have tried to put the blame on all sorts of things, both genetic and environmental, from bad parenting to rubella, to alcohol and cocaine, pesticides, lead, air pollution, issues during pregnancy and autoimmune diseases, but they are yet to come up with a concrete answer.


It is estimated that it affects around 24.8 million people worldwide, or around 1-2 people per 1,000. The number of people being diagnosed with autism has been on the rise since the 60s, though it’s debatable whether this is because of changes in diagnostic practices (so, in the past, autistic people would simply have been classed as being ‘retarded’ or ‘insane’, etc) or if autism is genuinely on the rise, though we should also consider the growing global population. It is this rise in numbers that has led people to adopt this paranoid “there must be something in the water” attitude. In some cultures, autism is still being blamed on the family’s sins, or demonic possession or the child’s past life, so until we figure out the cause, I fear we haven’t seen the last of these conspiracy theories…


But what of a cure?! Ah… touchy subject!


A ‘cure’ is still a work in progress, though many people now view the notion of developing such a thing to be offensive, believing autism should simply be accepted as ‘something different’, and something we should learn to accommodate, rather than extinguish. One does not ‘grow out’ of autism, but early behavioural interventions and speech therapy can help people on the spectrum develop self-care, as well as social and communicational skills to help them better function in society, and autistic people can and do live fulfilling lives (in fact, many consider the term ‘suffering with autism’ to also be offensive, preferring the term ‘living with autism’). Again, the subject of a cure begs its own post, much like the theories surrounding what causes autism in the first place, but for now, just remember that autism is not an illness nor a disease- all it means is that some people’s brains function differently to that of ‘neuro-typical’ people.


But what does all this mean?! When describing autism to my friends, I often find myself spreading even more false rumours, mainly because it is so difficult to explain… I’ve described it as when someone lacks empathy, or having no self-awareness or having low intelligence, none of which are true. The empathy one, in particular, is a popular description, perhaps because it is easy to digest- you tell someone that a person can be intelligent but is totally void of empathy, which means they show no interest in developing language nor in establishing relationships, and they go “Oh! OK!” but it is far more complicated than that…


Common characteristics of autism include finding it difficult to communicate and interact with people, to understand how other people think and feel, finding bright lights and loud noises overwhelming, getting anxious around social events, taking longer to process information and engaging in repetitive behaviour, but I can attribute all of those things to many ‘neuro-typical’ people that I know!


But the effect autism has on one’s sensory perception is evident, though, again, it affects everyone differently… there are autistic people who are sensitive to noise, others who aren’t, some have a very high pain threshold, making it difficult for them to pick up on various ailments, then others shout and scream and accuse you of hitting them when you as much as tap them on the shoulder… there are autistic people who go clubbing on the weekends and ones who freak out at a busy shop… but however they are affected, they are affected, nonetheless…


Confused yet? Try explaining all that to every friend or partner in your life without spreading more myths or leaving them scratching their heads and asking stuff like “…but if they can do that, how come your brother can’t?!”


God knows (maybe!), but there’s only one thing I am certain of… my brother, much like myself, can’t do maths for shit!



-YOUR TURN-


For those of you with autistic family members, how do you explain the condition to friends, family and partners?

Hope you enjoyed!


Diolch,

Russ



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