The Autistic Spectrum and Film

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When you think of the smell of popcorn on a Saturday afternoon, what immediately comes to your mind? For many it is the thought of sinking into a comfortable chair and escaping into the sights and sounds of the big screen of a movie theatre. We enter there willingly, even eagerly, don’t we? It is as if we allow ourselves to be carried along into the interior spaces of the screen, as if the constraints of time and space are, for an afternoon or evening, suspended. We allow our disbelief to be temporarily set-aside, allowing ourselves to be transported into other places and other times, gaining entry into the minds, places and predicaments of previous strangers.

autism-cineplexWe take such an experience for granted. It has been a fundamental experience of the Canadian way of life for many decades. But holding that image of the cool and dark movie theater in your mind for a moment, when you further think of an autistic person on that same Saturday afternoon at that same theatre, what then comes to your mind? And why, you might ask, should we think about the experience of an autistic person at the theatre in the first place? What do the movies have to do with autism? Indeed, why pay attention to the stranger who has autism at all?

But there is something similar, isn’t there, between exploring the world of the unknown stranger encountered in a film and our asking questions concerning the unknown world of an autistic individual? It is the difference between us and the stranger which is the same in both the case of the film and the case of the world of autism. When we enter the world of film we must in a sense open ourselves to the stranger, we must make an effort to try to understand the unknown world of another individual, who often moves in a different mental and physical place than our own. In a similar way, when we allow ourselves to pay attention to someone who has autism, when we open ourselves up to them and their way of seeing and living in there world, it is as if we allow ourselves to cross into another, an unknown, land. And once there, once in this foreign land of difference called autism, we must finally confront the question of whether the autistic mind is really a disability, or does it instead represent an exquisite gift, not only to its bearer, but also to the whole world? In the process we explore the nature, the boundaries, and even the legitimacy, of the notion of difference.

The answer to these questions lies of course, at least in part, in the heart of each one of us. But we do well to take notice of the growing interest in not only the challenges, but also the opportunities, which are presented by autism. One example of such interest is evident in the initiative of Cineplex Entertainment. Cineplex Entertainment has extended a warm welcome to individuals with autism. They have reached out to such individuals, and developed a program, in conjunction with the advocacy group Autism Speaks Canada, to make the movie going experience an easier and more enjoyable one for them. The program allows individuals and their families living with autism to enjoy new movie releases in a relaxed environment. Indeed, Pat Marshall, Vice President, Communications and Investor Relations, Cineplex Entertainment, tells us that the goal of Cineplex is “to make movie-going accessible to as many Canadians as possible”. It is exciting to see how a corporation can embrace an initiative like this, one arising from a decidedly sensitive corporate social conscience.

This initiative is especially important in that the physical aspects of the theatre are adapted by Cineplex Entertainment so that the autistic individual can relax and enjoy the movie without the typical social discomforts and fears which plague them. We all like the movies. But the physical journey into this land of dreams and escape for individuals with autism is often not an easy one. The physical entrance into the theatre itself is often filled for them with barriers that simply don’t exist for others. Perhaps the question in one respect posed here is whether we can imagine an inclusive world, or at least an inclusive Canada, in which access to events and information is facilitated by special initiatives such as that by which Cineplex is taking the lead? The Cineplex initiative represents an accommodation not just for those with physical challenges, but also for those whose challenges extend beyond the physical, those whose challenges extend to the world of the mind, as do those of autism.

You have likely heard about the disability, or perhaps better put, ‘different ability’, of autism. Perhaps you know an autistic child. But did you know that individuals with autism come in all ages and are of both sexes? We need also remember that there are many discrete manifestations of the autistic mind. Indeed, the nature of autism is better expressed by the term Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The autistic spectrum embraces many different presentations, from highly functioning individuals to those more profoundly affected. Moreover, the autistic spectrum also includes a considerable number of others, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Individuals on the spectrum share a number of challenges. One, for example, is anxiety. Too, autism is not something you grow out of. ADHD persists as well for most individuals. It is one thing to know someone with autism or ADHD on the one hand, and quite another thing to understand their challenges and reality, on the other. The autistic person, having a very different way of seeing and experiencing the world, faces the challenge of integrating into the world. He or she presents a different way of being in the world. That way of being is an important and fundamental expression of the very essence of our collective humanity. While there is much that our current scientific understanding does not explain, we are finding out a little more about the autistic experience everyday.

For instance, when it comes to going to the movies one of the most common fears of an autistic person is that of being touched. It is not the only problem he or she faces in going to a movie, but because of this one fear, the crowd at the theatre becomes a major obstacle. The autistic individual hates to be bumped up against; he or she hates to be constrained into a small space. Yet there are other individuals along the spectrum whose manifestations are much more severe, whose difficulties upon entering a public space are even more pronounced. Cineplex Entertainment has reached out to all the individuals who lie upon the spectrum

What is important to note here is that the autistic individual has perhaps an even greater reason for desiring the escape of film than does anyone else. We all have our own reasons for escape. Perhaps most often, we seek escape simply to be entertained. At times, however, we come looking for an escape from a harsher reality. We seek forgetfulness of the present, a present sometimes filled with disappointment and loss. There are also moments when we seek to understand and remember the past, and the pages of history seem to be re-enacted before us on film. At still other times we journey into the future. But film is not only about the past and future. The artwork of film also portrays the paradoxes, complexities and difficult choices of modern life. Through identification, we see ourselves in the film, just as we are. We sense that the complexities of our own lives are not peculiar to us. We are not alone in our challenges. We are not alone in the world.

What is fascinating to consider is that individuals with ASD have special reasons that draw them to the movies. Among other aspects of the autistic mind and predicament, we hope to explore this special relationship between the autistic person and the movie experience in this blog. The question in part is what happens when an autistic person enters a theatre? Yet, in another respect, we are perhaps more fundamentally embarking on an exploration of the relationship between the autistic individual and film itself. Individuals with autism, for example, have as a central challenge the difficulty of recognizing and responding to social cues. Social interaction is a fundamental challenge for them. One fundamental question we ask here is how does film impact that social difficulty?

Moreover, we also want to discover how film has influenced the lives of autistic individuals. What happens in an autistic mind when it experiences film? How is the experience of film understood in the autistic mind? What stories can we discover about the impact of film on individual lives of those living with ASD? And from those stories, what are the possibilities that arise when the autistic mind is brought a little more into the realm of the social world by means of film? What happens when an extraordinary mind is confronted by a world previously unknown to it? Might the world of film hold promise for those with autism, not only for the comfort of escape, as it does to the general film audience, but also as an aid for the realization of a fuller degree of their potential beyond the walls of the theatre?

Through this exploration we must keep in mind, however, that, above all, what a person with Autistic Spectrum Disorder really is seeking from others is to be understood and accepted on the basis of their shared humanity. It is our wish that this blog is one step towards such enhanced understanding and acceptance. This blog is, in one sense then, an extension of Cineplex’s outreach to individuals with autism and its desire to foster understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorder within the wider public. We hope you journey with us into the autistic mind and experience. It is a journey well worth taking as endeavours are made, both within the autistic community itself, and within the broader public, to understand, embrace and celebrate all the differences which make us human.

About the Author
Doug Allen

Doug Allen

Douglas Allen is a writer and a current PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto in the Department of History. He is interested in historical notions of identity and selfhood as particularly expressed in the Renaissance and Early Modern Periods. He is not an expert on Autism. He is, however, intensely interested in the autistic experience and is on his own journey to understand it.

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