Ben X, and other films about autism

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 6, 2012

Following up on the last post on Autism, one important way to get some glimpses, or some partial sense, of what it can be to living with autism, are movies. If you ask the vast majority of people whether they have every seen a movie on autism, I suspect they will say they’ve seen Rain Man. I haven’t seen this movie for many years, so shouldn’t talk about it in detail, but what I can say is that it so much skewed my understanding of autism that I wonder whether it may have been better if I had not seen this movie at all. I have, by now, met many people with autism, but not a single one that resembles Rain Man. Yet it does point to a much more general issue, which is that given how radically different people with autism can be, one single portrait of a person with autism will inevitably lead to a very limited understanding of what autism is. But except if one were to make a movie on an organization (a school, or a company) that has many members who have autism, I don’t see a way around this problem.

So, here are two other movies I’ve seen recently, that I’d like to mention for different reasons.

First, there is Ben X, which is a movie about a teenage boy, called Ben, who has Asperger’s, and who is heavily bullied at school (he goes to a regular school, not to a school specialized for pupils with autism). What I really liked about it, is that the framing often switches between his standpoint (and hence how he experiences the world, that is: fragmented, overwhelming, to some extent incomprehensible), and the world of those around him (his mother, his friends, his teachers, the boys who bully him). I used this movie last December in my class on ‘Film and Philosophy’. I first watched it twice at home and then, at university, on a bigger screen. This is a movie to be seen on a bigger screen, if one possible can, precisely for the parts where the perspective of Ben is taken. On the critical side, some would say that Ben X is cinematographically a B-movie; still I found this well worth watching.

The other movie I recently discovered is a classical movie from 1963, A Child is Waiting. According to the official plot this movie is about a teacher in an institution for mentally disabled children, who becomes very focused on and involved with one child. I can’t recall whether he was labeled as having autism, but many of his behaviors are very much in line with it. Personally, what I found much more interesting than the issues the teacher has, are the tensions which arose between the parents when they figured out their child had problems, and their inability to accept him as he is; and, a powerful portraying of the feelings of the boy, who needs his parents, yet they never visit him. It was interesting to get a 1963-perspective on autism, when the ideas and practices on the treatment and education of mentally disabled kids were so different, and when there was clearly still much stigma attached to having a child with autism.

One movie I’m curious about is Loving Lampposts, but I only discovered it this week, and it will take a while before it crosses the Atlantic and I can watch it. Which movies on autism do you recommend?

ps: I’ll be back with some more posts on autism after next week – I am facing some deadlines that need to be tackled first.



Z 04.06.12 at 8:15 am

Dear Ingrid, I just wanted to thank you for this great series of posts. Striving to see through someone else’s eyes is always a valuable task, and your posts have helped me doing so.


SusanC 04.06.12 at 10:16 am

Thanks you very much for this series of posts, they’ve been very thought-provoking.

The main problem I see with the way autism is portrayed in films is that–for reasons of dramatic plot–the increased abilities that some people with autism/Asperger’s syndrome have (e.g. in memory, drawing, mental arithemetic, 3D visualization) are exagerated and made to seem almost magical.

These increased abilities aren’t completely mythical — see Stephen Wiltshire for example, and I’ve known personally a number of people with autistic-spectrum diagnoses and enhanced mathematical/mental arithmetic/memory/drawing skills. But not everyone with autism has them, and they’re not quite as magical as the movies make out.

These movies are OK as fiction as long as the viewer knows that it isn’t really like that. I thought Darren Aronofsky’s Pi was a good movie. If I recall correctly, that film never gives an explicit diagnosis for the central character; he has some characteristics that resemble autism, and some that are very different. (And of course, the exagerration for purposes of plot is so over the top you’re not going to take it seriously…)


Eric H 04.06.12 at 12:54 pm

Temple Grandin. She participated in the production herself and seems happy with the result. OMG, she hugged Claire Danes at an award show!

Little Man Tate. Not the only Jodie Foster movie to mention autism, but the only one that showcases it. I suspect Foster is on the spectrum.

Mercury Rising. The eye contact aversion is comical-to-stupid, but other aspects are treated well.

Avoid Mozart and the Whale. These potrayals are of neurotic people, not autistic. My wife has met both Grandin and the person (Jerry?) upon whom this movie is based. Claire Danes got it right, these people did not.


Adam 04.06.12 at 1:03 pm

The recent film “Adam” is the first that came to mind for me, in part because it’s my name and my wife always makes fun of me for being autistic. I’m not, but I do struggle with understanding why people have particular emotional reactions to things I say and do that don’t have the intention behind them that they read or that are considered socially unacceptable and I just can’t understand why.

Seeing a guy with actual Asperger’s, and not just mild cluelessness, was probably good for both of us, assuming the portrayal was accurate. It was also fairly heartbreaking, since the film made it clear that the Adam character honestly loved the Beth character he startled at first, and she came to love him too just by getting over the initial discomfort and making some effort to decode his honest intentions and feelings rather than the simple visceral reaction to inappropriate behavior, yet there was still no chance for them when they had to face any larger world together involving relationships outside of the one they had with each other.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.06.12 at 1:05 pm

SusanC, one of the reasons why I like BenX (despite it not being a AAA+ movie), is that it gives a rather ‘realistic’ picture of a person with autism. Ben surely has talents, but nothing exceptional. He is very sensitive to sounds and visual stimuli, though, but to a degree that seems ‘widely occurring’ among people with autism.

Thanks for the other titles – both the ones to watch, and the ones to avoid!


ino shinola 04.06.12 at 3:27 pm

Just want to thank you for this series.


SusanC 04.06.12 at 3:42 pm

@3. It’s a real symptom that some people with autism don’t pay attention to the eye gaze of the person they’re talking to. (While neurotypicals often use their knowlege of where the other person is looking to resolve ambiguities in what is being said verbally). One person who has this symptom said to me that they can listen to what is being said, or can follow another person’s gaze, but cannot do both at the same time. (Possibly too much cognitive load, or difficulty integrating different senses?)

It’s a while since I saw Mercury Rising. As I remember it, the movie was in general very silly, but the eye gaze bit was more-or-less realistic (e.g. the therapist trying to teach the child to look into her eyes). I may be forgetting parts where they exaggerated it.


liberal japonicus 04.06.12 at 9:08 pm

Hi Ingrid,
I’m not sure if this belongs to your list, but there is both Truffaut’s film L’Enfant sauvage about the true story of Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and the wolf child of Aveyron. This film had a big impact on the case of Genie, because the film was screened for the team that was just starting to work with Genie, according to Russ Rymer’s book about her, which I think is well worth a read. There was a NOVA special about her that I think might be worth watching as well.

Two small requests. Perhaps a similar post to this about books that you recommend, and maybe a boilerplate paragraph at the beginning of each post giving links to the other posts in the series, as there are no tags at CT. Thanks again.


ChrisTS 04.06.12 at 11:48 pm

#8’s references to Genie and the ‘wild child’ raise a familiar question: is autism something that can be caused by the kind of life one lives/endures as a child?


Eric H 04.07.12 at 3:06 am


No doubt that it is real. My wife describes it as “too intimate.” However, she does not walk around staring 45 degrees to the side and 45 degrees up. The averted gaze in Mozart and the Whale was bad, too. However, while I understand the desire to portray it, there is no easy way to do so, cinematographically (if that is a word). I think perhaps the only way is to have the camera take the place of one of the speakers so that you can see a subtle avoidance. Or maybe you just have them ask and explain. But in both Mercury Rising and M&tW, they resort to an exaggerated version that transforms something that you might be hard-pressed to put your finger on into something awkward or even grotesque.

I have no doubt that therapists try to do get auties to look into their eyes. I predict meltdowns to follow.


Meredith 04.07.12 at 4:27 am

Very much appreciating these posts and the comments. “Autism” or “autism spectrum” may or may not be terribly useful terms, I suppose, yet somehow….
Discussions of autism remind me of discussions of shyness. Who among us does not feel shy? Very few of us do not (and you have to wonder about them). But, still, there is a real and important difference between this sense of shyness most of us feel and the shyness that others experience as a condition of their being — potentially “crippling shyness.” So with autism. Who among us does not experience in ourselves, or recognize in those we love, features or qualities that fall within autism’s “spectrum”? Yet there’s some tipping point….
Is eye-contact really an important element here? I think so. Because we recognize when others are not making eye contact with us, while we cannot be sure when they are not making aural contact. But the aural may in fact be as important as the visual….


Meredith 04.07.12 at 5:02 am

Meant to recommend among books: Clara Park, The Siege.


David Littleboy 04.07.12 at 3:18 pm

FWIW, I remember reading Tempe Grandin’s New Yorker article years ago when it came out and being _riveted_ by it. OK, I’m a nerd and it resonanted. Deeply. I’d like to complain that the film didn’t get her incredible brilliance across, but that’s a rather unreasonable complaint. The quality, depth, insightfulness of her work is way beyond what could be put into a two-hour film, and given that that wasn’t what the film was about, it did about as well as possible.


Broggly 04.09.12 at 9:42 am

I have asperger’s syndrome, and I have that eye contact problem, but for me it’s less that it’s too stimulating as I forget to do it, and don’t make eye contact only because I happen to be looking at something else rather than because I’m avoiding it. I was taught to look people in the eye, or at least the face, when I talk, and it wasn’t stressful except as one more thing to remember to do.

My Name is Khan is a good movie, although being white and middle class I can’t say how accurate the portrayal of someone with an autism spectrum condition dealing with racial and religious prejudice is.
Big Bang Theory is possibly the worst portrayal of someone with autism I can think of, outside of silliness like Farenheit where an autistic “indigo child” knows the secret mcguffin information that grants unlimited cosmic power


pj 04.09.12 at 7:04 pm

The first person with autism that I got to know fairly well actually resembled the Rain Man character somewhat. Like the character in Rain Main, when he first met someone, he would ask their birthday and then quickly tell them the day of the week that they were born. When I saw that scene in the movie, I was surprised — I thought my friend was the only person who did that.


Lizzie Coke 04.11.12 at 6:51 am

Hi, my name is Lizzie and I am really interested to talk to you about what you did with the film Ben X?

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