Stories about autistic people are often written by those who are part of our community, those who are not and many who are endlessly perplexed with our behaviour.
What is Autism
We must first define the concept of Autism before we see how it relates to our story. The Oxford Dictionary defines Autism as “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterised by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.” (AsIam website 2020).
I think it’s very important for autistic people to tell their stories. A man once asked me if being autistic meant I had a lower IQ, which is one of many misconceptions about Autism. This occurred after he berated me while trying to have a conversation. Autism isn’t an intellectual disability so I think it’s important to open up conversation about Autism.
Learning about Autism
There are lots of ways people can learn more about Autism. One is by talking to Autistic people, another is by visiting AsIAm which has lots of information and resources. A way I find interesting is to look at Tim Burton’s 1991 classic Edward Scissorhands. Here we learn the story of a reclusive man born very different from everyone else (apart from the Scissorhands). Looking at this film is an enjoyable way to learn about Autism.
- Movement and speech
Edward moves in a very robotic way, never moving his arms and hardly ever smiling. He’s psychically clumsy. He speaks in a monotone and there is very little inflection in his voice. These are things a lot of autistic people can relate to. I didn’t speak until I was 4, I pointed when I wanted something. I did speech therapy and eventually spoke. It’s important to note that not all autistic people will speak and it isn’t the only form of legitimate communication. I used to be a lot more psychically clumsy, falling over my own feet and that is something that has improved with time.
- Context Blindness
In one scene, Edward is blind to his behaviour in some social contexts, with a psychologist stating “The years spent in isolation have not equipped him with the tools necessary to judge right from wrong. He’s had no context, he’s been completely without guidance.”
The difficulty for autistic people in situations is that we have had no previous experience or guidance dealing with them. This can present itself in hundreds of thousands of ways, in daily occurrences and interactions that can take place, making it especially difficult to know how to act. When I started college I initially had a hard time making friends because I was context blind to the experience - where do I begin, who do I ask to hang out with? What is appropriate to say given a situation? I was fortunate that I found my way after trial and error.
In the movie when Kim asks Edward why he broke into Jim’s house he said, “because you asked me to.” Edward is in love with Kim but very few people would put themselves in danger like that without any thought of the consequences. This example shows autistic people’s naivety in certain situations. In my teenage years I went into certain situations with a level of naivety that caused me humiliation. I would say something and not know how strange it was to other people.
- Lack of understanding relating to people
People always look at Edward when they’re speaking expecting a specific reaction based on their previous experience. Edward is quite non-expressive and doesn’t understand how to relate to people well. In his first interaction with the family he barely speaks and only replies in singular words. At the barbeque, Edward is quiet, which is contrasted when Jack comes in and is very confident in his dealing with the other neighbours. Jack makes a joke and everyone around him laughs at the joke, whereas Edward doesn’t understand it at all and has a blank face. This is a very relatable experience for many autistic people because we often don’t get the subtleties involved in a lot of jokes.
- Literal understanding of things
At the barbeque we see a misunderstood interaction, which is a more frequent experience for those on the spectrum.
“Okay everybody, grab your plates. Soup’s on!
Ed: I thought this was a shish kebab?
Ed: I thought this was a shish kebab?
Yeah, it is a shish kebab. It was a figure of speech, Ed. You gotta learn not to take things so literally”
- Special Interests
Throughout the movie we see examples of Edwards' love of Topiary, the art of cutting hedges. Topiary feeds into his skills as a hairdresser and paper cutting. The first thing we see him create is a dinosaur, which is curious, as it is a common special interest among Autistic people. This makes Edward the most skilled gardener and hairdresser in the neighbourhood. An intense love and passion for something is what many autistic people can relate to, something they could talk about for hours on end. Despite this passion and immense talent, Edward cannot get a bank loan necessary to start a salon, echoing the real life struggles autistic people face in acquiring gainful employment. I struggled to gain employment after I finished college in 2016. I have had difficulties with interviews, due to the amount of vague questions and the body language involved.
After Kim asks Edward to help a break-in attempt at Jimmy’s house, resulting in Edward’s arrest, we see him become very visibly upset at the sight of Jimmy. He walks through the neighbourhood, destroying his topiary masterpieces. A meltdown for an autistic person is a state of extreme emotional distress that causes them to react in unexpected ways. They’re often experienced as a surge of emotion that can manifest in the form of lashing out.
- Honesty is the best policy
We see Edward exhibit the quality of brutal honesty. This is an all too common quality among autistic people. At a family breakfast after telling of his visit to Mrs Monroe’s anticipated salon he exclaims “and then she showed me the back room where she took all of her clothes off.” The family look perplexed as to what they just heard. This kind of unflinching honesty and the response is something I and many on the spectrum are very familiar with experiencing.
In the beginning of the movie Edward is alone in a corner but in the end, we see him return to his home. Unable to deal with the complexities of living around other people, he retreats back to the familiar, as many autistic people have done. The noticeable difference is that he goes outside in his garden more, so while he was unable to deal with the outside world, being in it changed him. When I watched this movie, I related to many of the experiences of this character as an autistic person, and those experiences and characteristics are something that can be learned from.