Many of my compatriots on the spectrum have lambasted the movie for many reasons. It seemed to be an attempt at adapting the horrendous 1970s-set 2003 movie “Radio” to low-functioning autism and using digital music instead of handheld radios. The movie posits that autistic people are childish, awe-filled, people with preschool imaginations filled with lollipops and rainbows but who are occasionally prone to tantrums where they need to be tackled and restrained. It does not need to be reiterated that none of this is accurate or fair but some other criticisms need to be made.
The biggest problem is that it dreams of a world where people who are low-functioning of any condition are living joyous and wonderful lives owing to their blissful ignorance. The idea that any intellectual disability or like condition imparts an eternal childhood that lets them reside in the Eden that the rest of humanity loses too much innocence to remain in. Having spent much time with people with intellectual disabilities and people who are lower-functioning than myself, this is mostly inaccurate. Insofar as they lack the daily stresses of adult life and may be excused for their mistakes more owing to their condition, they are usually less anxious but it’s hardly a state of innocent wonder.
This is wrong not just for how autistic people are regarded but especially every low-functioning condition. The fact that people have this notion that IQ, phenotypical or actual, and happiness have an inverse correlation obscures the genuine oppressions and sufferings that are endured by those people. It should be obvious that people who are segregated from society, are never invited to parties or even platonically out to coffee, and who are constantly having their behavior judged as wrong despite their transgressions being minor and the neurotypicals who lead dirtier lives getting none of the same sanctimonious paternalism have lots of reasons to find life very miserable and many of them do.
It’s not a movie about autism, it’s too inaccurate to be that, it is a movie about an unspecified intellectual disability and in that capacity it still fails. The creaminess of the vision has no bullying, no one finding some social mistake offensive, no degrading interactions with administrators or law enforcement, no unmet desire for social acceptance. The protagonist is content to be alone and friendless and society doesn’t mostly mistreat her. When society does mistreat her, it is portrayed positively. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not into BDSM and most people aren’t so tackling them is usually a bad idea since most people aren’t into it. Yet, it posits that if someone is having an anxiety attack that the best way to calm them down is to engage in that behavior with them.
It comes from something called in literary criticism and culture studies the “noble savage” archetype. Originally, this referred to the characterizing of native cultures as not merely the victims of colonial oppression but a wiser and more spiritually enlightened people owing to their lack of development and therefore innocence. Which is a wrong portrayal of native peoples because it makes them into a romanticized aspect of folklore rather than the real people with their beauty and their flaws that make them our fellow humans rather than something ethereal and superhuman as an entire class. For example, while the conquest of the Incas by the Spanish certainly had its atrocities, the Incas had just finished a civil war and had themselves conquered and subjugated other tribes and to portray the Incas as flawless would be a disservice to all of the victims of their oppression.
With intellectual disabilities, there is a similar trope I term the “noble simpleton”, a term I also use for stereotypical honest folksy laypeople. It doesn’t have the same problems as the “noble savage” but it still has problems. The greatest problem is that it tells a story of a class of beings so innocent they lack any worry or pain. This means that the suffering they do endure will go unaddressed and the perpetrators of those oppressions will never be brought to justice and the systemic sources of them will go unchanged. If people get the message that the intellectually disabled are ecstatically euphoric in their usually friendless and rejected lives then nothing will be done to make them less friendless and less rejected.