The Bridge and The End of Asperger’s Syndrome

From Vulture.com, NYmag:
The Bridge and the End of Asperger’s on TV

By John Elder Robison

Watching Diane Kruger dive head-first into the awkward, by-the-books Texas detective she portrays on FX’s The Bridge on Wednesday night, I suspected I was witnessing the last of a kind. For reasons I’ll explain shortly, we have entered the post-Asperger’s era of television, and the intense Sonya Cross may well be the final character with that condition who’ll get grandfathered into the new age.

Because Asperger’s, a developmental disorder that falls on the autism spectrum, came out on television quietly, it’s hard to say for certain when the condition made its prime-time debut. But I do know when I first took notice of a character with the disorder: in December 2005, when Boston Legal introduced us to Jerry Espenson, the quirky, socially awkward attorney played by Christian Clemenson. Many viewers noted that, as depictions of what it’s like to live with Asperger’s, Jerry and the brilliant but difficult Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds were exaggeratedly and unrealistically — a better word might be crummily — drawn. But still, these characters had an impact. Quite sneakily, like a raccoon rearranging the pantry, things began to change and awareness of the disorder grew.

The tipping point in the mainstreaming of Asperger’s arrived in 2007 with the high-functioning, haughty and hilarious theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper and The Big Bang Theory. As the show was a hit, winning two Emmy Awards for actor Jim Parsons in the process, characters with symptoms resembling Asperger’s syndrome poured out of our television screens and infected our brains: Dr. Dixon on Grey’s Anatomy, Max Braverman on Parenthood, Abed on Community, and seemingly countless others. Almost overnight, Asperger’s had become a shorthand TV trope used to explain and excuse a character’s maddeningly inconsiderate genius.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade before these portrayals started cropping up, and for the longest time, I was alone, the only Aspergian I knew. Not anymore. In the span of just six years and countless utterances of “woof!” Asperger’s has gone from being unknown to being ubiquitous. And I don’t just mean on TV: Asperger diagnoses in the real world have skyrocketed in that same stretch of time.

The uptick in Asperger cases led to some mild hysteria. People started getting scared. Wild accusations and stupid questions were bandied about. Do televisions cause Asperger’s? What about its programming? Is there a vaccination I can have? What about lead supplements? No one knew. But we insiders did know this: If Big Bang Theory aired on a Monday, you could count on more than a few parents bringing their kids in for an Asperger diagnosis on Tuesday.

And so the CDC swooped in to do studies, and legislators convened. Time passed. Optimists hoped TV bigwigs would police the situation on their own. Finally, the American Psychiatric Association sprung into action. “We can solve this problem,” they effectively said. “It’s so simple: Let’s get rid of Asperger syndrome!” And they did just that. May 18, 2013, with the publication of the fifth edition of the APA’s industry-standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), was the last day that Asperger’s existed as a distinct psychiatric classification. From that day forward, any newly diagnosed patients who would have previously been classified with Asperger’s syndrome would be designated with the tag of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, the rejiggered catchall category for autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.

Just like that, Asperger’s was gone. You can do things like that when you publish the rules. Like corrupt referees at a rigged college football game, the APA removed Asperger’s from the field of play and banished the term to the locker room of psychiatric oblivion. Their new and improved DSM went on sale two months ago, and shrinks everywhere lined up to buy it. Meanwhile, my 2007 memoir about living with Asperger’s is now deemed diagnostically obsolete. (Luckily, consumers don’t know that!)

Conveniently, the new classification lets television producers off the hook. Any current TV character ascribed with Asperger’s-like symptoms can no longer inspire real-world diagnoses of Asperger’s, and television can no longer be blamed for the real-world overdiagnosis of the condition. Because, as you now know, Asperger’s no longer technically exists. All you can get now is an ASD diagnosis, and who’d want that? What kind of cache could a three-letter acronym possibly have? None. And I checked the records: As of today, not one single person has reported catching ASD from a television. The fix seems to have worked.

TV is now forced to adapt to this new, Asperger’s-free reality. But this week, with the debut of The Bridge, we met Sonya Cross, who, like those of us veterans who identify as having Asperger’s, is already an anachronism, developed as she was before the term for the condition Kruger has been name-checking in the press was rendered obsolete. So in a way, The Bridge is a kind of period piece, like a movie about female hysteria, but that’s not going to stop me from enjoying it or Kruger’s serious, realistic depiction of Asperger’s.

I suspected that she would be rendered with care, because the showrunners hired my friend Alex Plank to be their Asperger consultant (perhaps he will now have to change his business card). Like me, he is an adult with Asperger’s. He, too, got his Asperger diagnosis while you still could — before those shrinks pulled it out of the catalogue. He parlayed his own eccentricity into a website — Wrong Planet — that has become the biggest Asperger site going, and now advises networks like FX. Judging by the veracity of Kruger’s portrayal, his instruction seems to be working. Yet although the character in the Swedish/Danish show that The Bridge is based on has Asperger’s, and Kruger has discussed the disorder in interviews, not one character on the FX series makes mention of the word.

The timing couldn’t be more ironic, of course. Sheldon and Abed, those simple geeks and freaks, are harmless stars of situation comedies, successfully designed to make you laugh — but don’t reflect what having Asperger’s is like. And other dramas have yet to portray the struggles adult Aspergians go through with accuracy. But Sonya Cross is a different animal entirely. She’s serious. She’s smart. She’s beautiful. She’s a hardworking, by-the-book Aspergian cop who is misunderstood by her peers yet genuinely confused when people are put off by her.

In other words, there’s finally an Asperger’s character we can identify with at the very moment she can no longer be called that.

John Elder Robison is the New York Times best-selling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby. A free-range Aspergerian, he lives in western Massachusetts among family, animals, and machines.

Original Drama Spotlights Asperger’s Syndrome

from VOA News:
News / Arts & Entertainment
Original Drama Spotlights Asperger’s Syndrome
Ray Kouguell

September 03, 2012
An original young adult drama tells a story about tolerance that puts the spotlight on a problem not usually associated with the subject for a movie – Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism.

Those who suffer from it have difficulty in social interaction often with repeated patterns of behavior and clumsiness. But for some, there is better than average language and cognitive skills.

Nick Young, the main Asian American character in a new movie called “White Frog” has Asperger’s. His situation is made more difficult by a tragic family crisis, the sudden death of his older brother Chaz, who is killed in a bike accident.

Nick, a high school freshman, reacts badly to losing Chaz, his protector and confidante. He later finds out his brother had kept a secret from his family – that he was gay. The grieving parents struggle with the revelation about their deceased son in addition to never fully accepting Nick’s behavioral problems.

“White Frog” is directed by 41-year-old Quentin Lee. The Asperger’s Syndrome idea “was written into the character” Lee said and had special meaning for him. Lee’s younger sister “was diagnosed with Asperger’s in Hong Kong, literally two weeks before the production, so that gave me more personal perspective on the movie and the role.”

Now Los Angeles-based, Lee was born in Hong Kong and later emigrated to Montreal with his family as a teenager. Lee said the movie’s gay theme might be a bit troublesome for the Asian American community. “I tend to think they’re a little more conservative,” Lee said, “hopefully the movie will help to open the community up more.”

Although the film is centered around the life of a troubled suburban California Chinese American teenager, Lee explained that “the composition of the kid’s friends is very multi-cultural” and “hopefully is a very universal kind of thing.”

The metaphor of the “White Frog,” revealed late in the movie, promotes the idea that while people are different, friendship and understanding can overcome biases and rejection.

The Asian American community has responded positively to Lee’s work. “For every artist it’s your own struggle but support wise I’ve been playing Asian American film festivals since my first short films,” Lee said.

“White Frog” opened in March at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival and also played at the Los Angeles Outfest in July. Negotiations are being held for wider distribution.

Normal People Scare Me

Normal People Scare Me is a unique film because it features interviews with people who are living with autism speaking for themselves, as well as a handful of parents of children with autism, some of whom get diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders themselves while their children are going through the process.
Besides the parents and siblings sharing candid observations about people with autism, a diverse group of youths with various degrees of ASD are given the opportunity to speak out on certain distinctive aspects of their symptomology and how it affects their daily lives. (One who does not speak nevertheless sits for interviews, and responds to verbal cues from his father by squeezing a finger as a response, with statements broken down into multiple-choice questions by his father/interpreter for this purpose.)
Among the examples of sensory sensitivities not felt as intensely by “normal” people, but remarked upon by people with autism, were food textures, loud, sudden, high-pitched sounds, itchy clothing tags, certain smells and tastes. This gives a window into a daily existence where some seemingly mundane experiences which might not bother “normal” people loom fearfully for people with ASD. Other collations of sound bites show a range of experiences with socialization, scholastic aptitude, and life with “normals”, i.e., “neurotypicals”, better known on websites for the ASD community as “NTs”, who are at best mysterious and ignorant, at worst, school bullies and judgmental parents on the outside looking in.
No wonder that a few people with ASD, given the opportunity to express their thoughts in sound bytes on the video format, allow that “normal” people scare them. (A few hint that some of the so-called “normal” people might well be other, more nefarious things, merely masquerading as “normal”.)
Some of those who are young adults with ASD, including the filmmaker, additionally discuss their future plans, such as entering college, and their prospects of success with academic work and peer socialization.
Someone who commented on the YouTube trailer of the movie shared the desire for quality captioning of the movie, albeit for different reasons:
“I hope? you will consider captioning the film so that it will be accessible to people with hearing impairment or auditory processing difficulties. The automatic captioning is not very good, so adding the correct captions is crucial.”

Men in Black 3

What is it with Tommy Lee Jones and one armed men? Boris “the Animal”, the villain in Men in Black 3, had his right arm blasted off in 1969 and spent the next forty years in a lunar prison plotting revenge against Agent K in particular, and the wholesale destruction of Earth in general. (Being from a race of aliens whose entire reason for existence is the consumption of other planets, this sort of anti-social behavior is almost to be expected, but the source of his existential rage is portrayed as being the loss of his arm.) Boris goes back in time to attempt to kill K before he loses his arm, and meets up with his younger Hell’s Angel self who can’t stop staring at his residual limb. Boris won’t put up with that, nor can he abide the appellation “the Animal”. We’d agree his treatment was dehumanizing, if he was actually human.

Of perhaps more interest is the character of Griffin, portrayed as a gentle eccentric capable of spouting off almost autistic levels of detail about the events unfolding around him. Griffin has lost his entire planet and civilization to Boris’ kind, but instead of becoming bitter he prepares a defense mechanism for his beloved Terran civilization. His ability to see infinite possibilities results in almost crippling indecision, yet occasionally he’ll react to the prospect of danger with childlike glee. Griffin well embodies the character type of the magical disabled person, better in tune with the mysteries of the universe than even the Men in Black, and is indeed referred to by them as a “unicorn”.

Hollywood Loves It Some Autism (Sort Of)

from Strollerderby via babble blogs:
[url]http://blogs.babble.com/strollerderby/2012/04/02/hollywood-loves-it-some-autism-sort-of/[/url]
Hollywood Loves It Some Autism (Sort Of)
Posted by joslyngray on April 2nd, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Between The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, and Parenthood, autism is totally hot in Hollywood. Or at least Asperger Syndrome, a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum, is. Some television shows and movies handle it well; some don’t.

Last fall Glee botched the introduction of a character named Sugar who had “self-diagnosed Asperger Syndrome” and used it as an excuse for terribly self-absorbed behavior.

“I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s so I can pretty much say whatever I want…I’m pretty much like a diplomat’s daughter”, she said.

Many people in the autism community were less than pleased with the one-dimensional nature of the character, who was seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes. Considering Glee’s sensitive handling of issues like cognitive impairment, what it’s like to be a gay teen, and bullying, the one-note character of Sugar was surprising.

Here’s my take on several of the most popular movies and shows with characters who are autistic, or who have autism-like traits. Some of them are great, some of them are … less great. And some, honestly, are just meh, because the connection to autism isn’t necessarily really there for me.

Note: I have two kids with Asperger Syndrome, but I don’t speak for anyone in the autism community but myself (my kids speak fine for themselves). I’d love to know what shows and movies you love for their portrayal of autism, and which ones you think really missed the boat.

Victims of bullying, including Iowa boy, featured in documentary

Victims of bullying, including Iowa boy, featured in documentary
Written by
PERRY BEEMAN
The high-profile documentary “Bully,” released in limited U.S. cities Friday, features Sioux City’s decade-long anti-bullying program and a Sioux City student who moved after being harassed repeatedly, especially on the school bus.

The Sioux City district plans to show the film at schools, incorporating a curriculum now under development, said spokeswoman Alison Benson. Other Iowa districts are weighing use of the film as a teaching tool.

The film follows the stories of five bullying victims. “Bully” shows Alex Libby, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, when he was a seventh-grader at Sioux City East Middle School. The filmmakers recorded a student smashing Alex’s head into a bus seat in 2009.

The documentary shows Alex’s mother, Jackie Libby, telling school officials: “He is not safe on that bus.”

It also portrays Sioux City officials as downplaying the threat.

“I’ve been on that bus,” a school assistant principal responds. “They are just as good as gold.”

The Libby family has since moved to Oklahoma.

Benson said the Sioux City district has been a national leader in the fight against bullying. But, she added, “You cannot say bullying doesn’t exist in schools.”

“We knew something might come up,” Benson said of the production crews’ visits to three Sioux City schools. “But we thought it was more important to have the conversation nationally about bullying than to worry about what might be filmed.”

That’s why the district is looking to arrange viewings at schools.

“Children need to have a deep conversation,” Benson said. “It’s a community-based issue. Any school that shows this film should talk with the children about what they saw and what they can do.”

The movie, directed by Lee Hirsch, originally received an “R” rating for profanity, leading to petition drives and appeals by Hollywood stars. Now it’s unrated, but that means many chain movie theaters won’t show it.

The trailer says 13 million kids will be bullied in the United States this year.

“The problem is real,” the narrator says. “The problem is being ignored.”

The film shows parents in various school districts pleading for their children’s safety, and officials making assurances that all is OK.

“Kids will be kids. Boys will be boys. They are just cruel at this age,” an official says. A parent describes a student getting punched, strangled and sat on. The film shows some of this.

Benson has seen the documentary three times, but won’t comment on whether she considers it fair to Sioux City’s schools. A special screening there Nov. 1 drew 1,600 people.
No release planned in Iowa for a while

It was unclear Friday when the movie will next be shown in Iowa. Fleur Cinema general manager John Peterson said the Des Moines theater hopes to show the film if it’s offered.

“If I had to take a guess today, I would say Des Moines might get it in late April or early May,” Peterson said.

If the film’s box office results are huge this weekend, the Weinstein Co. may want to expand the film to 800 screens quickly, Peterson said. If not, it may hit only 20 theaters.

Peterson said the ratings controversy has spurred interest, and he has received quite a few phone calls and emails asking about the film.

The Varsity Theater in Des Moines also hopes to show the film, said owner Denise Mahon.

The Sioux City district worked with Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention in South Dakota for 12 years on anti-bullying efforts, receiving a prize from the institute recently.

As part of the effort, the district hosted Kirk and Laura Smalley, parents of 11-year-old Ty Field, another of the five bullying victims featured in the film. The Oklahoma boy shot himself after he was bullied. Two of the five students featured in the film killed themselves.

A boy had bullied Ty his entire sixth-grade year. As the school year wound down in 2010, the bully picked on Ty, who was sitting on bleachers with friends before school, according to media reports. Ty shoved back and got suspended.

His mother took him home and told him to do his chores and homework.

Instead, the boy took a .22-caliber pistol into his parents’ bedroom closet and shot himself in the head.

The grieving parents formed Stand for the Silent to battle bullying.
State law requires reports on bullying

The Iowa Legislature in 2007 passed a law that requires districts to report bullying and what action was taken.

Bryce Amos, Des Moines schools’ executive director for learning services and secondary schools, said the district has no plans to use the documentary, but thought its distribution could help.

“The more people are aware of what’s going on, and how it can hurt kids, the better for us,” he said.

The district investigates all allegations of bullying, he said. In extreme cases, bullies are suspended. In fewer than 10 cases in the past four years, bullies have been reassigned to a different school, he said.

Des Moines, which has a middle school and high school anti-bullying curriculum, has no plans to show the film, but officials hope students, parents and others will be able to see the film locally, said district spokesman Phil Roeder.

Students at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines last month produced their own short films and public service announcements on how to handle bullying, Roeder said.

West Des Moines schools don’t plan to show the documentary this year, but might next year after reviewing the content, said spokeswoman Lauri Pyatt.
Mom: Film’s director feared for son’s safety

Jackie Libby recalls that she and her husband, Philip, once found their son Alex passed out in the front yard of their Sioux City home.

“He said some boys were slamming his head into a seat on the bus,” Jackie said. “We thought he made it up.”

Then Lee Hirsch, director of the documentary “Bully,” showed them a few seconds of footage showing Alex being assaulted by other students. “He feared for Alex’s safety,” Jackie said.

They learned that Alex had interrupted a school bus ride to tell a fellow student he hoped to be friends. The classmate not only firmly declined the invitation but also told Alex he would kill him with a knife and assault him with a broom handle, Jackie said in an interview Friday.

“He was assaulted every day,” and the Sioux City district didn’t do enough to stop it, Libby said from the family’s new home in Edmond, Okla.

“Bully,” released on Friday, shows a student slamming Alex’s head into a bus seat. The family asked for the school district’s camera footage from the bus and were told the camera wasn’t working. But a camera installed by the producers of “Bully” caught the whole thing.

“When we looked back on it, we just made so many mistakes because we didn’t know what was going on,” Jackie said. “We thought he was coming into being a teenager. We thought he was being mouthy and secretive and rebellious, but really he was just trying to cover up what was happening in school because he was embarrassed.”

Alex’s grades fell from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. He switched schools last fall in Sioux City, partway through his freshman year, and things were better, Jackie said. But the family still decided it was time to leave.

He has not faced abuse in Oklahoma, where school officials take a hard-line stance, she said, and his grades have skyrocketed.

At Sioux City, “We were treated like they wanted us to go away,” Jackie said. “They treated us like it wasn’t a problem. They wanted us to go somewhere else.”

Eventually, Alex told his parents the abuse had been going on since the beginning of sixth grade. His Asperger’s syndrome made it tough on him socially, his mother said.

Jackie said millions of children are being bullied, and their parents often don’t know. She hopes the documentary helps. “My son was assaulted every day,” Jackie said. “And we sent him into that. We felt horrible.”

Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman, who wasn’t available Friday, has shared statistics showing students in the district who witness bullying are now more likely to intervene.

“I am proud of our efforts,” he writes on the district’s website. “I am proud of our team’s willingness to do the work, and I welcome the conversation about where we have found success and where we can grow even stronger for each and every student.”

“Joyful Noise”, new Queen Latifah/Dolly Parton movie, includes character with Asperger’s

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“Joyful Noise,” which was filmed in metro Atlanta last year and hits theaters Friday, is all about dreaming big.

Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton star as church members whose choir competes for a national title. Jeremy Jordan plays Parton’s grandson, a teen with a troubled past but hopes for the future (not to mention a huge crush). Dexter Darden plays a boy with Asperger’s syndrome who knows he is different and longs to find his place in the world.

And Keke Palmer portrays Olivia, who is juggling a demanding mother (Latifah) and a persistent suitor (Jordan), along with the pressure of competition and plenty of family drama.

The Social Network

In The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of the book ‘The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal‘, the actor who plays FaceBook founder Mark Zuckerberg portrays the character with certain characteristics which are suggestive of Asperger’s Syndrome and/or autism spectrum disorders. On many occasions, Zuckerberg’s character is shown as having a flat affect (especially if he is asked something while concentrating on his work at the computer), and in one instance, he engages in hand motions similar to those exhibited by Temple Grandin.

However, in an early scene of the movie, his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend has other ideas about what ails him. In a tete-a-tete at a restaurant, when his conversation was dominated by his fixation on how he wanted to get into a one of Harvard’s influential clubs, and how he would go about “gaming” the process, she speculates that he might be “OCD”, and would benefit from medication. Later on, she comes up with a more colorful assessment of his character: he must have some exceptional flexibility, in order to get his “head up his ass”.

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a professor of child psychology at California State U, had this assessment:

Jesse Eisenberg’s character qualifies as showing signs of many DSM-IV psychiatric conditions including adult antisocial personality disorder, Asperger’s, ADHD, and narcissistic personality disorder. But on the other hand, he defined a socially connected world where those behaviors are acceptable or at least accepted. If you examine our behavior behind the screen we feel comfortable acting in any way we can because nobody can see us and we have some sense of safety in that we can’t see them. We can’t see them crying, or feeling hurt. So Eisenberg’s behavior is actually acceptable online but unacceptable in person and is precisely what we’re seeing exhibited now behind one of the many screens countless hours each day.”

It is initially made to seem that certain extremely negative characteristics, including a conspicuous coldness to others including those who are supposed to have the status of friends, are inherent personality defects on the part of Zuckerberg.

His separateness from the general population is even emphasized by what must be the producers’ and scriptwriters’ decision to riff on or to rip off A Beautiful Mind, by having him write the algorithm for the functionality of FaceBook in paint marker on his dorm room windowpane. Zuckerberg’s social milieu, however, can hardly be said to be stocked with eusocial examples for him to emulate. Many of his peers who are ostensibly “normal” may have different daily conduct, but in many cases, it could hardly be called “better”. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that a number of individuals, both co-founders and rivals, spend a great deal of time engaged in manipulating and sabotaging others for material and psychic gain. Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) at one point seems to be exerting undue influence over Zuckerberg in the newly-formed corporation and this contributes to a falling out with Zuckerberg’s former best (and only) friend, Edwardo.

The Winklevoss twins, in an effort to get Zuckerberg punished by the official power of the university, alleging that Zuckerberg had violated the institution’s honor code while working on the similar software development project they had contracted, The Harvard Connection, by stealing their idea and turning it into facebook, go to the then-president of Harvard, Larry Summers (also reputedly an Aspie) who tells them to simply “find another idea”.

Clinging desperately to that idea, having attached a disproportionate amount of potential profit to it, every one of the principals ends up suing everybody else, resulting in a legal, social, and financial morass which takes a team of lawyers a lot of time around a conference table to sort out. Zuckerman ends up learning remorse and regret for the damage done to relationships he had perhaps taken for granted, turning to a female lawyer for advice and support, and saying something genuinely indicative of caring to her.

Since we are not privy to the real Zuckerberg’s medical records, the audience is left to ask… Aspie or Asshole?

A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back To Autism

A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism is a sweeping documentary endeavoring to show snippets of daily life in families containing one or more autistic children in the USA, Iceland, and a smattering of other European countries. Added to each “slice of life’ in each family is a portrayal of the available interventions and major research centers dealing with autism which are in the home country of that family, or otherwise accessible to that family.

However, there is “the rub”: a great deal of research is being done on autism, and lots of knowledge has been accumulated in recent years, but using it to produce a cure, or develop better interventions is a long way off, and a dubious hope at best.
Temple Grandin is featured as a sound-bite-giving expert utilizing both her personal experiences and professional capacity to elucidate some of the behaviors of autistic children and the way in which their neurological systems work.

A method of teaching and intervention which is perhaps unfamiliar to many Americans connected with autism in some way is explained and demonstrated during the course of this documentary. Soma Mukhopadhyay, who developed the Rapid Prompting Method in order to better facilitate her autistic son’s contact with and functioning in the world, is another featured expert in this picture. The fact that the DVD includes a list of websites dealing with both research and teaching methods for autism is potentially helpful for those who want more detailed knowledge than the broad overview given in the feature.

My Name is Khan

This picture is an epic about the life of the fictional Rizwan Khan, a man who grew up in India and showed symptoms all his life, but didn’t get diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until after reaching adulthood and immigrating to America, having been sponsored by his presumably neurotypical younger brother, who left India for college in the US, because he felt overshadowed by the praise and attention his mother and the community gave to Rizwan as a boy genius who could fix electrical appliances and recite historical facts.

Unlike his brother Zakir, Rizwan went to America not because he wanted to, but because his mother made him promise to pursue a career and a “happy life” in America following the example of his brother. Life in San Francisco may have been happy for his brother, but it is initially overwhelming to Rizwan: the cacophany of sounds and constant exposure to yellow, a color to which he has a strong aversion, overwhelm him, and lead to a near-fatal encounter with one of San Fran’s famed cable cars. It is this experience that results in his taking shelter in a beauty parlor where he eventually sells the cosmetic products his brother arranged for him to market, and meets his best customer, a Hindu single mother who later becomes his wife.

It is because of his late mother’s attention to teaching tolerance and the importance of looking beyond stereotypes and labels on other human beings that Rizwan develops the moral sense he exhibits throughout the movie and the ability to express emotions and function in life in the world which has resulted in him “being better off than most autistic people”, according to his brother’s wife, a professor of psychology. Another factor, which resulted in him having valuable skills which would later serve him well socially, was the seeming neglect in which as a boy, he was allowed to play in a junkyard and “learned to fix broken things”. Rizwan later applies this skill on his travels to fixing the roof of a church which the townfolks have taken shelter in during a hurricane when he goes to see if a woman who had helped him on an earlier part of his travels is all right. Rizwan may be slow to warm up to new people, but will go out of his way and above and beyond the call of duty when he has truly made a friend.

The timeline to this picture jumps around, opening in 2007 with Rizwan looking up President Bush’s itinerary on the internet and walking erratically around an airport, where he gets stopped by TSA agents who take him into one of their patented “sterile zones” to search and interrogate him. They find an “autism alert” card in his wallet, which prompts one of the agents to ask a bit more about Rizwan’s plans and intentions, and accept his explanation that he’s not a terrorist. (I later discovered that there is such a thing as an “autism alert” card for the wallet, but it’s issued by a nonprofit agency in England, which also provides instructional materials about autism and Asperger’s for law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, this is not duplicated in the US. It might be a good idea if it was: the internet is full of accounts of adults with autism and Asperger’s getting into similar dust-ups with law-enforcement and getting into further trouble involving the justice and/or the mental health systems because of anxiety-motivated, defensive, or seemingly evasive behavior that is the result of their condition.)

Shahrukh Khan, the actor who played Rizwan Khan, was similarly stopped and detained by airport security in August 2009, shortly after production had wrapped. While Khan is big in Bollywood, in Newark he was subject to racial profiling as a brown-skinned man with a “suspicious” name, which got “flagged”. In the case of Khan the actor, the Embassy of India intervened and he was released. Khan the Aspie, however, was subjected to what are euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” when he was seized by US law enforcement for the second time.

Unlike most movies, which evade or gloss over the anti-Arab/Muslim prejudice which erupted among the previously quiescent American public following the terrorist attack on 9/11, for this one the vigilantism that ensued is central to the plot. The quest upon which Rizwan embarks was the result of something his wife said in anger after a bunch of hooligans beat her son to death for having a Muslim last name: she told him to go tell everyone in an adjacent town and the president of the USA that his name was Khan and he was not a terrorist. Being a man of his word, and/or not understanding sarcasm, meeting the president and literally telling him that he was not a terrorist was what he tried to do. Actually shouting that out at a rally during one of his early attempts to fulfill this mission was what got him into prison.

Certain things about this movie are very realistic, but certain things are not. Both Shahrukh Khan and the actor who plays the fictional Khan as a boy do a very good job of portraying Asperger’s symptoms and behaviors, but at times both have seemed to do things that are more consistent with full-blown autism. When public attention is brought to Khan’s imprisonment, he eventually gets released because it becomes recognized by the powers-that-be that his actions were motivated by Asperger’s and that he was truly not a terrorist. In real life, many people with Asperger’s are not nearly so obvious, and neither do they receive public acclaim or understanding on the part of the officialdom to the extent that Khan did. (One wonders how many people with autism spectrum disorders there are imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and similar places for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as well as having the wrong name and skin color.)

In spite of the well-told and original story, I can’t help but have ambivalent feelings about this picture. I’m favorably disposed towards the idea that this is a story which shows that sometimes Asperger’s characteristics can be an asset rather than a “disability”, that someone with Asperger’s has the potential to achieve positive things in the world in spite of pretty obvious symptomology. On the other hand, this movie threatens with the potential to be an ethnic Forrest Gump.

While most people with Asperger’s do have a strong moral compass, just as there are many who are not nearly so “obvious” and manage to do a better job of assimilating socially (some even understand saracsm and get hints), people with Asperger’s are not by any means all as religious or as abstemious as the fictional Khan, who bought a book on intercourse in preparation for his wedding night, and had no interest in the “nude channel” a Hindu hotel-keeper touted as one of the benefits of his establishment. By anyone’s standards, Khan is an exceptional man, and would be a difficult standard for anyone, Asperger’s or neurotypical, to follow as a role model.

Mary and Max

Mary and Max

Mary, who experiences alienation in every aspect of her life, starts out with parents who are poor, weird, and unsympathetic (her father is into taxidermy, her mother is an alcoholic who seems to do nothing but yell at her) and eventually end up dead. The visible evidence that she is neglected at home makes her a pariah at school in spite of the fact that it is the other children who are overtly engaging in bad behavior (at one point, she comes to school with a coat fastened with clothespins because her pet chicken pecked off the buttons and nobody sewed them back on, and other children harrass her in the schoolyard, with one boy going so far as to pee on her sandwich in plain sight). In an attempt to remedy her loneliness, she picks Max’s name at random out of a phone book, and is lucky enough to get a reply back from someone who is obviously sympathetic and intelligent.  Max’s letters ring true to Asperger’s style: full of plain speaking, factual details, and jumping from one topic to another, but in the eyes of society and her mother, potentially dangerous and unsuitable for children. Maybe it was Max’s mention of having been a mental patient, or the frank but inappropriate discussion of his sex life (or rather, the lack thereof) that sets the mother off when she finds the first letter and throws it away, believing she is protecting her child. In spite of how this looks to her mother (and most average people), correspondence with someone who has been in her shoes as a social outcast is exactly what Mary needs. Contrary to a lot of recent portrayals, it is possible for people with Asperger’s to have friends, but in view of the fact that some of the things they do and say go against society’s notion of what is considered appropriate, this perhaps can lead to a bonding with people on the margins of society.

(Speaking of inappropriate things and portrayals of sexuality, Australia’s movie and video industry must have somewhat different standards of what is considered appropriate to show in a picture purportedly for children than prevail in the USA. Let’s just say this was the first time I’ve seen claymation genitals.)

Luckily for Mary’s emotional equilibrium, she is in a position to send another letter in which she describes the situation to Max, and comes up with a solution: he will henceforth send his letters to the address of an elderly neighbor whom she helps out.

The premise of the possibility of pen pals who can have a years-long and very intense relationship without engaging in physical contact of any sort is a theme of this and a handful of other films such as My Japanese Wife (perhaps it is increasing in popularity as global communications of every sort are becoming more widespread?)

Admittedly, some of the reactions they have to one another’s letters seem exaggerated for effect, such as the fact that Max’s objection to being used as a case study for the sake of her career in psychology sends her into a spiral of suicidality and some of Mary’s letters sent Max into “meltdown” mode and in one case, effected his return to the mental health system (where he would be told he had Asperger’s Syndrome, in spite of the fact that it was way too early in the timeline for such a thing to be possible in real life, as Asperger’s was only recognized by the American Psychological Association in 1994. And yes, someone who really does have Asperger’s really would have a problem with a purportedly serious and sensitive movie set in a specific temporal period getting a widely-known piece of factual information so glaringly wrong!)

In spite of the claymation medium, which is usually reserved for less-than-serious examples of the cinematic oeuvre, I found myself liking the overall gestalt of this picture in spite of having some problems with particular parts of it.

Movie Review by Laura Brose