This article explores theories and ideas about autism, discussing their applications to Queen’s Film Theatre’s current programme of autism-friendly screenings.
This programme, supported by the Department for Communities, offers monthly screenings, from March to August 2017.
Autism is generally understood as a developmental disorder, which usually emerges or becomes noticeable in a child’s early years.
It is more common in boys than in girls. It can be difficult to diagnose in some cases, because it shares some of the characteristics of other communication and cognitive disabilities. Autism is regarded not as a unique, easily identifiable condition, but as a series of characteristics and capacities which today are said to result from neurological differences.
Because of the variations with which autism manifests, it is usually referred in terms of autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These conditions “affect a person’s social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.” (1)
With ASD, social interactions, communication and language skills may be restricted; individuals might lack organisational ability and have difficulties with abstract thought. They may be obsessed with details.(2)
An alternative perspective on autism, proposed by the Autism Rights Movement (ARM), is that “it is an alternative form of functioning, rather than as a condition requiring a cure” (3).
Public awareness of autism has to a certain extent been fostered by popular films and books, such as Rain Man and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. While these offer insights into the experiences people with ASD experience, they can also foster stereotypes, such as that of the savant or genius (4)
There are a few films made by people with autism, which reflect something closer to an authentic view of the condition. However, the purpose of the autism-friendly screenings at QFT is not to highlight ASD, but to offer an accessible environment in which young people and their families might watch might watch films in a different context to mainstream cinemas, which themselves are not designed on the basis of a sensitivity to ASD.
For these screenings to be autism-friendly, they need to take into account the challenges of social interaction and self-expression for many with ASD. These challenges may lead to assumptions about emotional dysfunction.
This is contradicted by a parent of one of these individuals: “When it comes to Autism, people often “think” those on the spectrum have a limited range of emotions. As if they are emotionally truncated, or worse they’re blissfully unaware of the world around them. Often it is quite the opposite: they are too emotionally sensitive and forthcoming. Just because our kids are socially awkward; Just because they are a patchwork of subdued and unmastered quicksilver emotions just means we have to work harder to help them figure it all out” (5).
One of the films on the QFT autism-friendly screening programme, Inside Out, is about emotions, offering insights as to how they are connected.
It is the story of a girl named Riley whose life becomes full of confusion when she moves with her parents to San Francisco. Her emotions help her to manage these changes in the form of the characters Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.
This film has been well-received by the general public, and also by parents of children with ASD, who say it has helped them to talk about emotions (6).