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The myth of the autistic automaton

The movie, 'Rain Man,' for which actor Dustin Hoffman won an Academy Award, has shed some light on the behaviors of persons with autism. It has also led to a few misconceptions and stereotypes.
The movie, 'Rain Man,' for which actor Dustin Hoffman won an Academy Award, has shed some light on the behaviors of persons with autism. It has also led to a few misconceptions and stereotypes.Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI

The movie, “Rain Man,” opened the eyes of many to the world of autism.

While some autistic people display the kinds of behaviors that Raymond displayed, not all autistic people are the same.

Raymond generally made no eye contact and loved routine to the point of having a meltdown when it appeared that he wouldn’t be able to watch his favorite T.V. show, “Wapner.”

He displayed very little emotion and said exactly what he felt even if the words were inappropriate. These are symptoms of autism.

Yet, autism can present in many different ways. To say, “This person has autism,” is like saying, “I’m buying food.”

You can get produce or packaged macaroni and cheese. You can buy ice cream or canned peas, it’s all food.

An autistic person can be an uncommunicative child that needs constant care and supervision, or a completely self-sufficient computer programmer.

They may talk in a monotone voice, or they may not. Eye contact can vary from person to person.

An autistic person can be the life of the party and some become Hollywood actors and performers.

The difference may be one that is not seen: An anxiety that is kept secret through treatment with prescription drugs, a need to leave the room after a few minutes, a behavior such as, pacing or hand flapping that might be done in privacy.

Along with the automaton myth is a belief that autistic people have no empathy or emotions.

In the movie, when Raymond has a meltdown, one can hardly say that there was no emotion involved. It is true that many autistic people do not openly display emotions, but that is not the same as not having them.

For autistic people, emotions are usually so overwhelming that they must be put aside to process at another time when it is safe to do so.

If emotions build up or are too overwhelming, the result is a meltdown. Meltdowns cannot be controlled so avoiding them is best.

Like the Vulcan race on the Star Trek television series, many autistic people work hard to keep emotions under control. This attempt to act “normal” is often what leads to the automaton stereotype.

Autistics are people. They have feelings and empathy and want to be accepted and loved just like anyone else.

Each in his or her own unique way. Facilitators are welcome friends, judges need not apply.