Medical Humanities and the Fantastic
Autism, Film & Estrangement
What do we think of when we consider autism and cinema? It may be that we still begin with Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), that autism-and-cinema urtext that seemed to become instantly synonymous with the condition. The success of that film created a stereotype: the difficult but loveable (and usually male) ‘idiot savant’, good only for feats of mathematical wizardry. We might also be familiar with subsequent dramas like Snow Cake (2006), Adam (2009), and Mozart and the Whale (2005), or, more recently, the thriller The Accountant (2016) as well as the documentaries Life, Animated (2016) and The Reason I Jump (2020). Readers might also be aware of Music (2021) by the musician Sia, which received an angry backlash from autistic commentators for its caricatured representation and its misguided scenes involving violent restraint (Thornton 2021). Beyond the films themselves, we might think of the various endeavours by cinemas to create ‘relaxed screenings’ designed for the neurodivergent who find the more common cinema-going experience to be too sensorily overwhelming. While these screenings are a largely positive attempt to accommodate disability, autistic journalist Laura Kate Dale has noted that they tend to be arranged exclusively for family-friendly films aimed at children rather than as standard across all types of film (113).
When we narrow the criteria even further and ask where we find autism in science-fiction films, the challenge increases. It is hard to identify a mainstream sci-fi feature that openly takes autism as its subject matter. The closest is Shane Black’s reboot of The Predator (2018), which features a prominent autistic savant who the titular aliens decide is a prize worth stealing when his mathematical abilities are recognised as valuable. One of the entrapped characters in Vincenzo Natali’s horror sci-fi film Cube (1997) is autistic, again blessed with the superhuman numerical ability that enables him to escape the mathematical death trap. Rather better is Dean Isrealite’s Power Rangers (2017) reboot where the Blue Ranger is openly autistic and is a key member of the superhero gang rather than someone side-lined or rendered wholly vulnerable. Although even here the stereotype of savantism is utilised, as Blue is positioned as the brilliant technician of the gang who deciphers alien technology to help accelerate the plot.
Nevertheless, science-fiction as a genre remains a particularly pertinent realm for explorations of neurodiversity given its thematic interest in estrangement. For autistic people, feelings of estrangement can be a daily occurrence. Social interactions can prove baffling and frustrating, while issues around sensory sensitivity can make commonplace environments like schools, supermarkets, and cinemas feel alienating. It is not uncommon to hear autistic people describe themselves as feeling like aliens from another planet, with pervasive cultural stereotypes only adding to these feelings of distance. In this context, Darko Suvin’s foundational theory of sci-fi as the genre of “cognitive estrangement” (3) might be productively read as a synonym for ‘neurodivergence’, a move that serves to illuminate how the taken-for-granted real world can feel science-fictional for those who it does not appropriately accommodate.
This article aims to consider where estrangement is positioned in cinematic explorations of autism. The analysis is largely guided by the discussions that have taken place on the Autism Through Cinema Podcast, which I have co-hosted since May 2021 alongside fellow researchers and film fans. The podcast consists of conversations between the hosts and special guests, the majority of whom identify as autistic, and each episode focuses on a single film that has in some way resonated with the autistic way-of-being. This article is guided by these discussions to reflect on how estrangement operates in films where an autistic presence has been depicted or detected. It begins by acknowledging a fuzzy divide between depiction and detection, before reflecting on the term ‘estrangement’ and identifying its usage across a range of films.
Autism Films & Autistic Films
As a collective, the co-hosts and guests on the Autism Through Cinema podcast are asked to suggest films to be discussed. Invariably, the autistic contributors have gravitated towards films that they have felt a particular connection with, rather than those that profess to depict the condition outright. The autistic film critic Georgia Bradburn, for example, admits a fascination with the work of David Lynch, suggesting that his films offer her something she “can really identify with” (ATC, episode 8). Video artist John-James Laidlow brought Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), an idiosyncratic exploration of outsiders captured by Varda’s distracted and playful camera, which he suggests is Varda “taking pleasure in digressions” (ATC, episode 5). For film journalist Lillian Crawford, there are autistic evocations in the neat tableaus of the work of Wes Anderson, particularly in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) (ATC, episode 29), while illustrator Ash Loydon waxed lyrical about the joys of autistic pleasure in the world depicted in Disney-Pixar’s Cars (2006) (ATC, episode 17).
These choices, I suggest, might be categorised as ‘autistic films.’ Using the term as an adjective suggests the films themselves are in some way autistic, or at least are suffused with an autistic sensibility or aesthetic. This latter is not easily or neatly defined (which is entirely fitting for a condition that itself evades neat categorisation), however, if we were to entertain the idea of an autistic cinematic aesthetic, we might find some shared characteristics that begin to form a theoretical approach. It may be said that autistic films foreground sensorial experience through a mise-en-scène rich with detail and imagery and may feature a cinematographic style that aligns with a neurodivergent protagonist, such as Henry in Eraserhead or Sam in Moonrise Kingdom. The gaze of the camera may favour a form of distracted looking, as seen in The Gleaners and I, while the narratives of the characters will often relate to experiences of being a misunderstood outsider. For the ‘most’ autistic of these autistic films, the experiences of these characters are evoked through the audio-visual aesthetic, rather than purely captured as an exhibit for a presumed neurotypical audience.
In comparison (but not always in contrast), an ‘autism film’ is one where the explicit subject of the film is autism itself, or where autism plays a significant role in the plot. These include Rain Man and Music, but also films like Mercury Rising (1998), Please Stand By (2017), My Name is Khan (2010), as well as Temple Grandin (2010) and Keep the Change (2017). These latter were featured on the podcast and favourably received, not least Keep the Change, a celebrated romantic drama featuring a predominantly autistic cast. Documentaries that position autism as the central subject also feature in this category.
Due to the nature of the audience’s continued fascination with autism as a phenomenon, autism films inevitably stake a claim into the cultural construction of the condition and, like Rain Man, risk becoming an authoritative text in the minds of consumers. As such, autism films have tended to be the ones that have formed and perpetuated certain stereotypes, often preferring to exaggerate elements of the condition that best fit the narrative structures of mainstream cinematic storytelling. In comparison, autistic films are those identified by autistic viewers as evoking the lived experience of the condition, whether through aesthetic choices or via narrative metaphors that explore divergence. Curiously, many autistic films are not necessarily created with autism in mind, which perhaps enables a greater authorial freedom on the part of an interpretative viewer.
Of course, this summary is neither exhaustive nor complete, and it is true to say that there is an enormous amount of cross-over between the categories, with some films occupying space in both. I would contend, however, that one shared element is the presence of estrangement. Furthermore, the use of estrangement differs depending upon the intentions the film has towards autism as a state-of-being. To elucidate further, it is firstly useful to reflect a little more on the word ‘estrangement,’ how it is defined, and where it may be encountered in narratives involving neurodivergence.
Returning to Suvin, estrangement in science-fiction is placed in an inextricable relationship with the “cognition” of the author and reader’s apprehension of an empirical reality (4). The tension between these two elements—the latter as a basis for comprehending and assimilating the novelty of the former—generates what Suvin terms a “novum,” or new thing, which becomes the core of the science-fictional attitude (63). The concern here, however, is Suvin’s relatively rigid approach to the two halves of his formula. If, for example, a cognitively apprehended scientific ‘truth’ in a work of sci-fi is later found to be incorrect, should that result in the removal of the generic label? And, most pertinently to this discussion, is the readerly experience of estrangement essentially universal? Fantasy author China Miéville has noted that texts do not exist “in an a-sociological vacuum,” asking “whose cognition” does Suvin prioritise (235)? Following this further, we could also ask: whose estrangement? As autistic commentators frequently indicate, the behaviours and social organisation of the so-called ‘neurotypical’ are so fundamentally at odds with an autistic experience as to be alienating and estranging in their own right. Star Ford’s book A Field Guide to Earthlings (2010) playfully explores this concept while also acting as a guide for other baffled neurodivergent outsiders.
So too are autistic people estranged from themselves. Activist Penny Winter relates how interventionist behavioural ‘therapies’ actively suppress the ‘weird’ behaviours of the autistic, resulting in people who “will likely grow to hate their autism, and themselves with it” (116). Culturally, the proliferation of autism represented as a white, male, middle-class, quirky, savant condition misrepresents the majority of autistic people. For activist Julia Bascom, such a narrowing of representation has “made us strangers to ourselves” (8). Autism thereby exposes the fragility of both of Suvin’s theoretical elements in his ‘cognitive estrangement’ formula and prompts a reconsideration of how we might more inclusively comprehend what it means to feel estranged.
Sara Ahmed provides a more dynamic definition of ‘estrangement’ than the one suggested by Suvin:
The word ‘estrangement’ has the same roots as the word ‘strange’. And yet, it suggests something quite different. It indicates a process of transition, a movement of one register to another. To become estranged from each other … is to move … from familiarity to strangeness. The term is suggestive precisely because it names the process of moving from one to the other, rather than referring to different states of being. (92)
The emphasis here is placed on a dynamic movement between the real and the unreal, or the familiar and the unfamiliar, allowing space for fluidity and exchange. Autistic scholar Remi Yergeau describes the lived experience of autism as a “negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds” (205), suggesting a similar transitory experience where the rigidity of patterns, schedules, and order complements experiences of chaos, sensory overwhelm, or the pleasures of self-stimulation. Importantly, Yergeau doesn’t suggest that one of these states is inherently better than the other, but instead attempts to highlight how the neurodivergent find themselves in a state of constant “betweenity” (177).
Considering estrangement in these more dynamic terms brings us closer to the lived experience of an autistic person in a world still predominantly structured around neurotypical codes. In terms of genre, the excising of the ‘cognitive’ part of Suvin’s formula may well push us beyond the strictly science-fictional into wilder fantastical realms. This is by no means a bad thing, however, as Suvin’s insistence on retaining a link with “the author’s empirical environment” remains a useful structural device (4). While the precise coordinates of autism as a diagnostic category still prove elusive and fuzzy, it remains important to continue to acknowledge that it exists, persists, and forms the fundamental core of the identities of autistic people. As such, we can now move forward with a reconfiguration of Suvin’s formula into the cinematic analyses that follow. I will briefly consider how two ‘autism films’ and two ‘autistic films’ make use of a ‘neurodivergent estrangement’ in their explorations of difference.
Estrangement, Autism, & Film
In Ben Lewin’s comedy drama Please Stand By, autistic woman Wendy (Dakota Fanning) has written a Star Trek script that she intends to send to Paramount Pictures as part of an open competition. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, often escaping to a Trek-style universe in her mind. Having missed the last postal date after a sensory meltdown, she instead decides to leave her assisted living home and travel across the state to hand the script in herself. Along the way, Wendy encounters a variety of commonplace neurotypical people: a bus driver, a check-out assistant, a ticket conductor, a police officer, and a kindly grandmother, among many others. At the point of each encounter, we see a reverse shot of the neurotypical looking at Wendy with puzzled and wearied expressions. The implications are clear; she is an alien that has disrupted their worlds, a crash-landed Captain Kirk.
Wendy’s autistic difference has already been made explicit through a montage of her morning routine showing how Please Stand By, like many autism films, assumes neurotypical viewers who “have the interest to speculate upon, but not the time to know about, what the ontological question raised by autism might be” (Murray 129). These everyday neurotypicals become, therefore, a gallery of spectator stand-ins, as if the film is asking its presumed viewers how they would react in an equivalent situation. With incredulity? Deception? Kindness? Most curiously of all, everyone in the film seems to exist in an alternate universe where the word ‘autism’ is steadfastly avoided, where a clearly vulnerable young woman is dismissed out-of-hand as an inconvenience. Estrangement here remains located firmly inside Wendy, while her method of ‘escaping’ to otherworldly imaginings of Star Trek is shown on screen but only briefly, and only when there is a reflection to be made of the real world. In many ways the film’s title is apt: Wendy is perpetually waiting for guidance that never truly arrives.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was covered in the first episode of the Autism Through Cinema podcast as it was the first film eagerly pitched by co-host Georgia Bradburn. In the film, Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a highly-strung sales manager whose life spirals into chaos when his overbearing sisters set him up with a woman named Lena, played by Emily Watson. The film is essentially a romantic comedy, as Barry and Lena do hit it off, but along the way the ever-anxious Barry gets embroiled in a sex-line scam that results in him facing off with terrifying small-time crook played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann. There is much about Barry’s mannerisms and his communication style that suggests a neurodivergence, particularly autism, but the film is never concerned with diagnosing him. Instead, Anderson whips up an aesthetic audio-visual chaos around Barry, mirroring his confusions and frustrations. In one key early scene, Barry is at his workplace when his aggressive sister shows up with Lena demanding that they all go to lunch. At the same time, Barry is receiving threatening phone calls from the sex-line scam and, part way through the scene, one of the workers in the warehouse drives a fork-lift truck into a wall. The scene is frantic, the cuts are fast, the characters march around the space at speed, and the camera is constantly on the move. Low-angled shots show lights and shadows dancing on the ceiling while a percussive multi-instrumental score pervades the audio track. It is a funny scene, but stressful and exhausting, and the rest of the film barely relents. Georgia describes it as “one of the best representations of sensory overload I’ve seen in film” (Autism Through Cinema Podcast, episode 1). So, while Anderson avoids diagnosing Barry on-screen, and perhaps never even intended for him to be autistic, he does make use of an estranging cinematography to evoke the stresses and intensities of Barry’s state-of-mind. Together with a collection of strange narrative incidents, there is an autistic sensibility soaked through this film.
The subject of Roger Ross William’s documentary Life, Animated is Owen Suskind, an autistic man preparing to leave his family home and move to college. The film reflects on how Owen’s deep interest in Disney films has helped him to navigate life. This is mostly told through fly-on-the-wall footage of Owen and talking heads of his family and friends; however these are punctuated by multiple scenes of animation that show the young Owen dealing with difficult moments in his childhood. Eventually these animations are weaved into a story of Owen’s own creation, ‘The Land of Lost Sidekicks,’ an adventure tale based on his favourite Disney sidekick characters. The animations are lovely additions to the film, but are brief compared to the non-animated footage, and the story of the lost sidekicks is itself side-lined in favour of a more instructional reflection of Owen’s life. Like the Star Trek fantasies of Please Stand By, we as viewers are held at a distance from being fully folded into the estrangement of these fantastical realms. In a sense, they belong wholly to Owen. We are given a glimpse, but our ‘real world,’ the film seems to imply, is with the safety of the neurotypical talking heads.
Finally, let us briefly consider Eraserhead. There is a wider argument that might claim David Lynch as an auteur of the autistic film, but taking his debut feature as a starting point, we find another neurodivergent protagonist caught up in an estranging aesthetic as his angst-ridden life begins to unravel. Henry (Jack Nance) is a factory worker who lives in near-poverty in an uncanny industrial landscape recalling Philadelphia. He discovers that a former girlfriend has given birth to a sickly, alien-like baby, so Henry marries her and takes up his role as father. The baby’s constant wailing drives the mother away, leaving Henry stuck with the infant until, overwhelmed, he ends up committing accidental infanticide. Meanwhile, he also encounters a woman with cratered cheeks who sings to him from a radiator, and he regularly falls into deeply strange dream-visions featuring decapitation and decay. Eraserhead is a hard film to describe, and just as difficult to experience, as Lynch heaps surreal image upon surreal image into a nightmarish monochrome aesthetic of alienation and anxiety. Henry remains baffled throughout, but then so are we as viewers as we submit ourselves to ninety minutes of relentless estrangement. Lynch is commenting, perhaps, on the fragility of masculinity in a post-industrial age, where pressures to be a breadwinner and a caring father are jostled by temptations of fantastical escape into irresponsible realms. But Henry can never escape; one dream suggests he is destined to become just another arbitrary and disposable fragment of a baffling society as his severed head is reconstituted by a machine into the eraser on the end of a pencil.
We covered Eraserhead on the Autism Through Cinema podcast, in which John-James Laidlow suggests that the film is attempting to “expose the absurdity of everything going on with society,” while Georgia Bradburn points to Lynch’s continual “disruption of normalcy” as an approach to art that feels in tune with her autistic way-of-being (ATC, episode 8). In contrast, John-James goes on to joke about how the film made him feel even more autistic because he frequently “had no idea what was going on” (ATC, episode 8). Ultimately, everything remains subjective, and a film that connects with one autistic person may not necessarily do the same for another. Instead, we should seek autistic sensibilities in film wherever an autistic viewer indicates they are located. ‘Neurodivergent estrangement, I suggest, can be a fruitful pathway towards those locations.
I have presented here two examples of autism films; Please Stand By and Life, Animated, and two autistic films; Punch-Drunk Love and Eraserhead, drawing the distinction that the former take autism as their subject matter while the latter evoke autism through aesthetic and narrative choices. Estrangement is present in all four films as a disruptive factor that interrupts and threatens conventions in order to negotiate with the presence of cognitive divergence. It is also a dynamic force, as suggested by Sara Ahmed’s definition, creating realms that viewers shift in and out of, in many cases mimicking the “negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds” of autism (Yergeau 205).
However, there is a key difference between the two types of film. In the autism films, it is often autism itself that is positioned as the estranging element. Autism is the unusual thing that we are meant to be fascinated and entranced by and, therefore, when other estrangements break in, such as Wendy’s imagined planet and Owen’s animated stories, we remain one step removed from the full estrangement these moments could provide. We attribute the aesthetic break to the autism we are already bearing witness to, so we do not necessarily move into further estrangement. In autistic films, something different happens. Here, where autism is not foregrounded as the subject or the focus, the estranging strain of aesthetic rupture moves along with the characters into estranging space, where unnerving and spectacular things can subsequently happen. These moments also move non-autistic viewers into the autistic space of estrangement and therefore have the potential to generate more meaningful bridges into insight.
This insight, I suggest, relies upon autistic audiences making connections and articulating them as meaningful, which is a key part of the work we continue to do on the Autism Through Cinema Podcast. This is not to say that an ‘autism film’ cannot or has not used aesthetic techniques to evoke the condition through audio-visual estrangements, more that there remains a tendency to avoid or compartmentalise estranging space in favour of a straightforward framing that captures autism like a specimen in a jar. For a richer future of autistic presence in film, a framework of ‘neurodivergent estrangement’ might help us make better autistic cinematic creations and discoveries.
The Accountant. Directed by Gavin O’Conner, Warner Bros, 2016.
Adam. Directed by Max Mayer, Olympus Pictures, 2009.
Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality. Routledge, 2000.
“Autism Through Cinema Podcast.” Autism Through Cinema, co-hosts Georgia Bradburn, Lillian Crawford, Janet Harbord, David Hartley, John-James Laidlow, Ethan Lyon, Alex Widdowson, episodes 1-29, Queen Mary, University of London, 2021-present. https://cinemautism.podbean.com/.
Bascom, Julia. “Foreword.” Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, edited by Julia Bascom, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2012, pp. 6-11.
Cars. Directed by John Lasseter, Pixar, 2006.
Cube. Directed by Vincenzo Natali, Cube Libre, 1997.
Dale, Laura Kate. Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman. Jessica Kingsley, 2019.
Ford, Star. A Field Guide to Earthlings: An Autistic/Asperger View of Neurotypical Behavior. Ian Ford Software Corporation. 2010.
The Gleaners and I. Directed by Agnès Varda, Ciné-tamaris, 2000.
Keep the Change. Directed by Rachel Israel, Tangerine Entertainment, 2017.
Life, Animated. Directed by Roger Ross Williams, A&E IndieFilms, 2016.
Mercury Rising. Directed by Harold Becker, Universal Pictures, 1998.
Miéville, China. “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville, Pluto Press, 2009, pp. 231-48.
Moonrise Kingdom. Directed by Wes Anderson, Focus Features, 2012.
Mozart and the Whale. Directed by Peter Næss, Millennium Media, 2005.
Murray, Stuart. Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination, Liverpool UP, 2008.
Music. Directed by Sia, Vertical Entertainment, 2021.
My Name is Khan. Directed by Karan Johar, Dharma Productions, 2010.
Please Stand By. Directed by Ben Lewin, Allegiance Theater, 2017.
Power Rangers. Directed by Dean Israelite, Lionsgate, 2017.
The Predator. Directed by Shane Black, Twentieth Century Fox, 2018.
Punch-Drunk Love. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Columbia Pictures, 2002.
Rain Man. Directed by Barry Levinson, United Artists, 1988.
The Reason I Jump. Directed by Jerry Rothwell, BFI, 2020.
Snow Cake. Directed by Marc Evans, Revolution Films, 2006.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, Yale UP, 1979.
Temple Grandin. Directed by Mick Jackson, HBO, 2010.
Thornton, Cheyenne. “Sia’s Film and the Deficit Model of Disability” Neuroclastic.com https://neuroclastic.com/sias-film-and-the-deficit-model-of-disability/.
Winter, Penni. “Loud Hands & Loud Voices.” Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, edited by Julia Bascom, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2012, pp. 115-128.
Yergeau, M Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness, Duke UP, 2018.
Dr David Hartley is an independent scholar and writer based in Manchester, UK. He is the co-host of the Autism Through Cinema Podcast and co-founder of the Narratives of Neurodiversity Network. His creative fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines including Ambit, Black Static, and The Shadow Booth. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester, and his latest collection of short stories is Fauna from Fly on the Wall Press. He tweets at @DHartleyWriter.