‘Rain Man’: 30 Years of Misrepresenting Autism

by Patricia Henderson
Rain Man

Rain Man was first released in December of 1988. To say people were more ignorant about autism back then would be a vast understatement. In fact, I doubt this film would be made today — and if it were, it would be subject to ridicule or even a boycott. Honestly, though, that would be a shame, as it is generally a good movie. As a family drama (with some funny moments), it works. As the only reference point many people have for what autism is? Not so much.

Plot Synopsis

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a wheeler-dealer in both legitimate, and kind of shady, car sales. He is facing a crisis at work, and setting out on a trip with his girlfriend (Valeria Golino), when he learns of his estranged father’s death. Charlie soon learns he’s been left an old car (and rose bushes). Meanwhile, his father’s millions have been left to a group home, for reasons that are initially unclear. As it turns out, Charlie’s older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) lives in said group home, and has for most of Charlie’s life. Raymond Babbitt is autistic, and also has savant-like abilities when it comes to mathematics. Charlie sets out to essentially hold Raymond hostage until he is given his “share” of the family fortune. However, he ends up with much more than he bargained for.

A Little Background

If you’ve read some of my other articles, such as the one on Finding Nemo, you’ll know my daughter has autism. I also tick many of the “boxes” myself, though many children of my generation (especially girls) went un-diagnosed (or mis-diagnosed). We learned how to “pass” by masking ourselves in front of the neurotypicals. I still fake my way through life, and yes, it is exhausting. I was declared “gifted,” or “weird” as a child, depending on the situation. I brought social anxiety, depression, sensory processing difficulties, etc. along for the ride, too. I’d likely be diagnosed autistic if I were a child today. At age 40, I’ve faked it so long, I probably wouldn’t be.

My History (and Issues) With Rain Man

I was about 12 when I first saw Rain Man, though it came out right after I turned 10. I remember feeling very empathetic toward Raymond, and getting anxious when he did. This is a testament to Hoffman’s amazing performance. Even though he was perhaps given some stereotyped (even offensive) things to portray, he still did so in his method style, and you feel his emotions. It is a flawed script, not a flawed performance.

Unfortunately, I also remember thinking how sad I would be to ever parent a child who couldn’t stand to be touched, someone who was “in their own world.” Many people gleaned the same type of ignorant misinformation from the movie Rain Man. For many people, the only frame of reference they have for autism is this movie even to the point where people remain un-diagnosed if they aren’t like Raymond Babbitt.

Case in point: my daughter wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until age 4 1/2, even though I brought up the subject when she was 1 1/2. The excuses to dismiss me were plentiful: “She’s too affectionate to have autism,” or, “you just want something to be wrong with her, because you can’t parent” (seriously!), and the classic, “she’s a girl, only boys get that” (a doctor said that one). More frequently than all of those, however, was, “Like Rain Man? No, that’s not her.”

Rain Man

My face while watching Rain Man these days. — Image via MGM.

Where It Works

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hate Rain Man with a burning passion, because I don’t. In fact, there are many things it gets right. The character of Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) is actually very well-written, and well-acted. He is someone used to, frankly, lying and charming his way through life. His brother Raymond cannot be so easily conned, much to Charlie’s chagrin. Therefore, Charlie finds himself having to get real. With Raymond, with Susanna (Golino), and, cheesy as it may sound, with himself. He learns there are some things more important than money.

As the story goes on, Charlie is more hurt by the fact that he didn’t know he had a brother, than by the fact that he was mostly ignored in dad’s will. He comes to realize the imaginary friend he remembers singing to him as a child was actually Raymond. He called him, “the rain man,” because he was too young to say Raymond. The scene where Charlie and Raymond discuss this is my favorite of the entire film. Both men act it out flawlessly. In fact, I teared up just typing this paragraph. It is a powerful scene that changes the course of the Babbitt brothers’ relationship. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the more accurate portrayals of autism in the film. It’s the most realistic scene in general.

As you can see below, someone on YouTube labeled it the “best scene” in the film. Agreed.

Where It Works, Continued

Rain Man sheds light on the fact that, for a great many autistic people of Ray’s generation, institutionalization was almost a given. Especially for parents with neurotypical children at home (like the Babbitts). Even the Kennedys, America’s Royal Family, had a child they sent away, because she was “different.” She was subjected to many torturous procedures. It’s not that the Kennedys were horrible people (well, I suppose the jury is still out), it’s just what was done then. Sadly, many things aren’t seen as horrible in their own time. Years from now, the things we subject autistic people to today (ABA “dog training,” horrific attempts to “cure,” etc.) will finally be seen as barbaric, as well. Hopefully sooner.

In Conclusion…

A point that Rain Man makes, even if it wasn’t trying to, is that Charlie is really the one living in his own little world. It’s a stereotype of autism that they (we?) don’t acknowledge the feelings of others, but the neurotypical Babbitt fits that profile much more than Raymond. He is so used to getting his way, that he never learned how to be an adult. Or to care about anyone but himself. This, in my opinion, is the real reason the late Mr. Babbitt didn’t leave Charlie any money in his will. Yes, of course, there was animosity involved. However, I think Sanford Babbitt wanted Charlie to grow up. To learn “how to adult,” as they say.

Charlie learns that some things are more important than getting his way. He may have never learned that if he hadn’t found Raymond. And that’s what makes this a good movie. For the love of all that is good and pure, though, please don’t use it as research into what autism is.

rain man

image via Variety

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Rain Man, now that it is 30? Comment down below!

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Vuava January 4, 2019 - 3:25 am

I guess the film was depicting (or trying to depict) a very severe case. What I found of most concern was the addition of the ‘idiot savant’ aspect to the character, which is extremely rare (if it exists at all). Autism is a spectrum with lots of different levels, so I think that when any condition like this is depicted in film it has the risk of stereotyping and giving viewers the idea that a condition is fixed and static. I have a nephew on the spectrum – yes he has some difficulties, but he’s a smart kid and he’s going to have a great future.

Richard Southworth December 19, 2018 - 2:14 pm

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s (now not officially considered distinct from autism) at age 9 but I only saw Rain Man quite recently, after Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes dedicated a whole chapter to its production and impact. I did like it as a film, but I do agree that nobody should use it as a reference to summarise autism. Most autistic characters in film and TV seem to be on the more extreme side of the spectrum, with emphasis placed on the negative impacts.

Brandon Gregory December 18, 2018 - 12:17 am

Very insightful review. I’m not autistic, but I have a very different condition (bipolar) that has given me a lot of interest in learning about the autistic spectrum. Good to know this! Thanks for the review!

Patricia Henderson December 18, 2018 - 8:25 pm

Thank you for your comment. I assume bipolar people aren’t exactly depicted accurately, either. Screenwriters should really research more. ;)

Brandon Gregory December 19, 2018 - 12:11 am

Ha, very true. Thankfully, Silver Linings Playbook got it right, but other movies are awful about it. I recently wrote an article about mental illness in the movies on my site:

cadepb December 17, 2018 - 10:30 pm

What a great article you wrote! As a 19-year-old (male) college freshman diagnosed with Autism, it’s been frustrating that this movie is really most people’s only reference point for the condition. The most accurate depictions I’ve seen are from “The Accountant,” “Please Stand By,” and the Netflix show “Atypical.” It’s both sad and frustrating when people I know or am close to ask me act more “normal,” as if I’m a setting on some dryer. It’s comforting to know that people are starting to see how inaccurate a lot of this movie is. Great job!

Patricia Henderson December 18, 2018 - 8:26 pm

Thank you so much. I appreciate it. I agree that “The Accountant” is a lot more accurate. I haven’t seen “Please Stand By,” yet, but I will.

michaeldigsmusic December 17, 2018 - 9:50 pm

Thank you so much for this review, Patricia. I was diagnosed with autism myself at age 4 and find this movie and others of its ilk totally repellent – especially since, as you said, so many people have such a warped perception of what ASD is because this is their sole frame of reference. I grew up believing that my autism made me a burden to others – that it was a flaw, something to hide, to be ashamed of. I’ve gotten past that, of course – but no one should have to suffer from the kind of stigma this kind of movie perpetuates. Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful words.

cadepb December 17, 2018 - 10:31 pm

YES! That’s exactly how I feel!

Patricia Henderson December 18, 2018 - 8:28 pm

Thank you. I wanted to touch on what autism actually is. However, it’s so different for everyone, I’d probably come across as wrong. :)

Patricia Henderson December 18, 2018 - 8:36 pm

I’m so sorry you had that experience growing up.

Nick Kush December 17, 2018 - 9:41 pm

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