The movie “Adam” was billed as a romantic comedy, but to a person with Asperger Syndrome, it might be more of a suspense drama. Part of the reason for this could just be that I am not used to watching a character with my condition on the big screen since the movie is perhaps the first where the main character had Asperger Syndrome. “Adam,” though an independent film, can well be described as breaking ground that Hollywood has not yet breached.
In contrast to distortions espoused by Hollywood and Denis Leary characterizing autistics as savants, “Adam” was a strikingly accurate portrayal of an Asperger Syndrome sufferer, which was perhaps why the movie was well received. I’m no expert on acting, but if Hugh Dancy really never heard of Asperger Syndrome before getting the lead role as Adam, as he said in a recent interview with Autism Speaks, then he is a very good actor.
Perhaps the real question is not how accurately Asperger Syndrome was portrayed, but whether or not a movie that accurately portrays a guy in his twenties with Asperger Syndrome has a potential target audience in guys in their twenties with Asperger Syndrome. That was not the kind of crowd I saw shuffling into the theater to watch the movie, and I was the odd man out, though I guess it is possible there may have been others like me who I did not take into consideration. The audience was predominantly middle-aged couples. “Parents,” I thought, most likely of children with Asperger Syndrome or even Autism Spectrum Disorders in general who wanted to learn more about their kids’ conditions. There were some people my age in attendance. I suppose any of them could have had Aspergers, though I tend to doubt it.
People with Asperger Syndrome may have difficulty watching a film where the main character has the same condition. Many aspects of the movie made me feel uncomfortable. For example, the lonely, non-social aspects of Adam’s living situation would probably draw a striking parallel to my dorm situation had a friend not been living across the hall from me. Other issues of Asperger Syndrome, such as anxiety, meltdowns, employment problems, and issues with self-reliance were also highlighted in the movie. As someone who has suffered from all of these problems, I was very appreciative of finally seeing my disorder represented on the big screen. However, because I dealt with the same condition as the character in the movie, the negative scenes stood out much more than the romance or comedy scenes.
The humorous scenes of the movie included the more subtle problems of Asperger Syndrome, usually involving Adam’s awkward behavior around the other main character, Beth, and her friends. This included monologues about outer space, Adam’s repetitive interest, and other aspects like empathy problems, saying whatever’s on your mind and not getting sarcasm. Taking all this into account, Beth, having just left a previous relationship with an unfaithful boyfriend, puts up with quite a lot.
But how representative is this of women in general when dealing with a person on the autism spectrum? For most of the movie aside from the very end, the issue of people with Asperger Syndrome having relationships does not really get addressed. There is not as much conflict as one would normally expect and instead, Beth just tolerated Adam’s odd behavior and spoke of his better qualities such as, “He’s really sweet,” rather than getting turned off by his ASD like I feel most women would. At one point, Beth did say, “Oh, so he’s not good relationship material,” after talking about Asperger Syndrome with a co-worker at the school where she teaches, but it seems that statement is quite the exception.
This is not to say that I don’t think a person with Asperger Syndrome is capable of a relationship, but I think for the most part, the movie did not highlight the challenges of beginning and maintaining a relationship as realistically as it did the other aspects of having an ASD. This is why the cheerful, funny romance scenes did not stand out as much for me as the more serious ones. Often, what one remembers is what is familiar to him. I’ve never had a relationship that was equivalent to the one featured in the movie, and since having one seems unrealistic, I would have imagined more friction between Adam and Beth throughout the film. Then maybe the romance scenes might have stuck with me more, but it seemed the makers of this film believed there were enough negative scenes that adding in any more might change the genre of the movie.
It was, however, nice to watch a man with Asperger Sydrome having an intimate relationship, however unrealistically it may translate over to real life. The humorous scenes were also effective at providing some comic relief. However, I found myself walking out of the theater feeling more rattled than amused or like my heart had been touched. If watching this romantic comedy felt more like watching a suspenseful drama to me, then I can only imagine what watching a real suspenseful drama featuring a main character with Asperger Syndrome would be like.
Still, I was glad to see my condition finally gaining some feature film reputability, and I think those with Asperger Syndrome should watch this movie, if they can stomach the discomfort of watching their ailment represented on the big screen in a large room full of people. As important as it is for other people to be made aware of our condition, I feel it is equally important for us to become aware of the public perception of our condition.
Jake Crosby is a history student with Asperger Syndrome at Brandeis University, and a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.