Barry Levinson’s 1988 film, Rain Man, tells the story of yuppie Charlie Babbitt, a young Los Angeles-based automobile dealer and hustler who is shocked to find that, after his father’s death, he is left with a Buick and bed of roses while the rest of the $3,000,000 estate has been left to an anonymous someone by the name of Raymond. Charlie finds out that Raymond is indeed his unknown older brother, an autistic savant who has been cared for by his father’s money at the Walbrook Institute. Shocked by the fact that he has an older brother and by his developmental disabilities (or should we say, abilities), Charlie effectively kidnaps his brother on a cross-country roadtrip towards Los Angeles in an attempt to take the 3 million dollars as his own. Along the course of the road trip, however, Charlie finds a strong connection with his brother and hopes to care for him, though he eventually is forced to release Raymond back to Walbrook.
Before Rain Man’s release in 1988, the majority of the American population was still very much in the dark about autism and savant syndrome as well as developmental disabilities in general. Most pediatricians didn’t even know what autism was, not to mention how to look for signs of it in young children (when it first appears) and how to work with it. Most people with autism (or anywhere on the autistic spectrum) were completely misunderstood and casted away by society. They were brought down and ridiculed because of their inability to live up to social standards and norms.
After Rain Man hit theatres (and finally grew in popularity by word of mouth), society’s ideas about developmental disabilities were completely redefined. This was both beneficial and harmful to those with autism. On one hand, much awareness was raised in favor of autism as were diagnoses and funding for research. The autistic community (including families affected by autism) was met with increasing acceptance and an understanding that autism was very common in society. However, the film also gave society more misconceptions about the disorder.
Raymond is portrayed as an autistic savant, a syndrome found in the minority of autistics (about 1-10% of the autistic population) that is characterized by an uncommon increase in ability in a particular skill, such as rote memory, artistic ability, or musical talent. Rain Man gives the mainstream population an idea that all autistic people are like Raymond, extremely gifted at a particular skill. This is somewhat glamourized in the film, as it is an extraordinary ability, but is not accurate to all autistics. Most people with autism experience crippling developmental disorders that can disable them from even speaking. In these cases, autism is still not completely understood by society at large, no matter how common autism is becoming.
Nonetheless, Rain Man does an excellent job at introducing a new concept – Neurodiversity. Neurodiversity argues that people with autism should not be seen as sick or disabled but as a different kind of human. In a society that values total equality and open-mindedness, why should autism be anything else but a different way to see the world?