Rain Man and Autism

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The movie, Rain Man, released in 1988, was one of the mainstream Hollywood films to have depicted autism which starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in lead roles. Rain Man begins with Charlie (Tom Cruise), a young man, casually dressed trying to make a money deal with his girlfriend, Susanna by his side. After hearing the distraught news of his fathers passing, Charlie does not get emotionally affected. As several years earlier, Charlie and his father had an argument leading to the separation of their relationship. As the audience, one can discover that Charlie has a money-making personality. Later on, Charlie discovers that his father, Sanford Babbit has left his valuable assets for an unknown person. The unknown person is introduced as Raymond Babbit (Dustin Hoffman), Charlie’s biologically brother. Raymond has autism, a biological disorder which affects mental processing. Although Raymond is diagnosed with autism and has a low IQ, he has some unique abilities. For instance, he can recall situations from the past and solve mathematical calculations which are difficult for the average human being.

Even today, researchers are as yet uncertain of what causes autism spectrum disorder. As clinicians, we must perform certain tests before informing the patient that they are diagnosed with autism. In one of the scenes, a nurse breaks open a toothpick box and all the toothpicks fall on the ground. Raymond counts 246 toothpicks in a few seconds, which is the exact number of toothpicks that fell. Raymond, a mid-forty-year-old male is admitted to Wallbrook Mental Institution ever since Charlie scalded his brother in the bathtub when none of their parents were around to look after them. Their mother, Elanor died early in their childhood. Their father has left numerous benefits for Raymond. The benefits comprise of a 1947 Buick convertible and 3 million dollars. Charlie, being the person with a money greed personality, he goes after Raymond, who is currently residing in a mental health institution and rarely has any social interactions.

Raymond’s character is based on Kim Peek, he is also diagnosed with autism and has extraordinary skills as well. For example, Kim can read two pages at once, each page with one eye in less than ten seconds. Also, Kim has memorized the bible and other scriptures. The average person cannot be capable of memorizing such articles of reading. Later, as the movie progresses, Charlie starts to change his viewpoint on Raymond as Charlies acknowledges how autism has molded his brother in every way from his personality to his behavior. Towards the end, Charlie agrees with Dr. Bruner and allows Raymond to be taken back to the mental institution.

Cognition is a type of development theory described by Jean Piaget in which a child learns to adapt to their peers at an early age which advances throughout the years of growth. Based on this theory, our thoughts shape our overall personality from the way one thinks to their behaviors as they become aware of their surroundings. Piaget believed there were four stages of the cognitive theory, sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. Each stage occurred during a certain time of the infant's growth. Piaget noticed major changes as the child gained more knowledge for their environment. Relating to Piaget’s theory, Raymond's parents were just living like the average American family, not rich, but a hardworking middle class.

The family ran a business, thus not having time for family duties to take care of. Without their business, Sanford and Elanor may have had enough time to have the capacity to watch their child at home and not have him sent to an institution, but rather the business is excessive of an issue for them. Raymond sent to Wallbrook mental institution where he was cared by experts of the field. Although Raymond has autism, he is able to do higher level math problems, he can be classified as a savant. In one of the scenes, a nurse drops a pack of toothpicks on the floor, Raymond quickly counts and says, “82,82,82,” which adds up to exactly 246 toothpicks. In the next scene, the nurse seems surprised that Raymond counted the toothpicks as fast as she was going to pick them up and place them in its original box. In another scene, Charlie visits a doctor with Raymond. During this visit, Charlie informs the doctor of Raymond’s excellent math skills. The doctor also challenges Raymond by asking him, 312 times 123. Raymond calculates the solution faster than the doctor still placing the numbers in his calculator. The doctor keeps on challenging him and Raymond demonstrates his ability to find solutions of mathematical problems in a couple of seconds.

Due to his ability to do logical thinking shows that Raymond has acquired skills that are shown in the formal operational stage. This stage is Piaget’s 4th stage of cognitive development, begins around the age of 12 and lasts through adulthood. In another scene from Rain Man is when Charlie and Raymond check into their hotel room and Charlie gives him a telephone book to read. The following day, Charlie discovers that in addition to the fact that Raymond read it, he retained each name and number up till the letter, G. He even has the ability to calculate hard mathematical equations in his head at a fast rate. Due to his disability, he lacks simple reasoning, for instance, he thinks the price of a car and a candy bar is the same rate at $100 each. With proper medical treatment and careful monitoring, Raymond's autism could be controlled and treated.

Behaviorism is a grand theory of development which observes a person’s behavioral characteristics over a period of time. John Watson is mainly credited for introducing behaviorism to the field of psychology. There are three stages of behaviorism; classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and social learning. In relation to Rain Man, Charlie has learned to act differently, when he is around Raymond so that he can avoid any negative interactions with Raymond. Initially, Charlie expressed anger towards his brother. For instance, Charlie said, “I think this autism is a bunch of shit!” Later on, he understands and starts to adapt to Raymond’s behavior. Also, when Raymond was a child around two years old, Charlie accidentally burned his brother by scolding hot water in the bathtub. In one of the scenes, Raymond starts yelling, “Hot water hurt the baby', he is referring to his past experience with hot water. Raymond emotions are processing with past events that have already occurred, not the one that's happening presently. By giving such reactions, the viewers can notice that Raymond is different from others. Raymond remembers experiences from childhood. Raymond’s reaction can be described as classical conditioning in Ivan Pavlov’s theory.

Raymond was conditioned to the fear of hot water because of early associations with a terrifying experience that ended up scolding him. A person without autism most likely forgets experiences from the past as they age. At this given circumstance, Charlie needed to adjust to his sibling and comprehend what Raymond was trying to interpret. Due to Raymond’s autism, the disease affects him behaviorally which sets him apart from most people, including his biological brother, Charlie. Also, in the movie, we see Raymond struggling to talk with his brother's girlfriend, Sussana. From the look on Raymond's face, it seemed that he felt awkward and self-centered as he is not comfortable talking with others. Due to his past, Raymond’s reaction to Sussana might be that Raymond was sent to a mental institution at a very young age, as his parents had a business to run as well as take care of Raymond’s well being. During the scene in the airport, Raymond kept on referring to the airline's name to which date a plane crash occurred of that airline. By doing so, Raymond tries to avoid danger, thus, refusing to board the plane.

Afterward, Charlie was trying to force Raymond to board the plane, but Raymond had a temper tantrum like a young child. Due to Raymond’s abnormal brain development, he referred to all planes as death when in reality, that is not the case. Eventually, Charlie and Raymond go on a road trip to Las Vegas. Another example from the movie is when Charlie and Raymond were on their way to Los Angeles, Raymond forgot to wear his undergarments and kept on repeating the address of the Kmart nearby their home in Cincinnati. By repeating himself, Raymond was referring to his routine, where his undergarments must come from the retail store, Kmart. Another scene showed Raymond walking across a zebra crossing when suddenly the sign changed to “Don’t Walk,” he misunderstood the sign and stopped the middle of oncoming traffic.

Raymond does not have a similar perception of reality from a normal working grown-up adult as his age. His mind capacities in an unexpected way, which prompts him living in a controlled environment. Being sent away to a mental institution at a young age affected his development as he was away from his family. His parents cared mostly about their business rather than caring for their autistic child, Raymond. The passing of his mother, Elanor, and father, Sanford, may have affected his emotions and lead to deficient developmental growth. Autism acted as an immense barrier to Raymond’s life, he had the intelligence but Raymond could not interpret simple life tasks. 

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Rain Man and Autism. (2021, Jun 06). Retrieved June 18, 2024 , from

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