The movie Rain Man hit movie theatres on December 16, 1988; almost 30 years ago. Our son Jimmy was 12 at the time. Who would have guessed a movie about an autistic savant would become a box office hit, grossing over 354 million worldwide? Rain Man bought autism out into the open. For my wife and me, Rain Man was emotional and therapeutic. We no longer felt alone.
For the first time, we saw a character named Raymond, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, who was like our son Jimmy in many ways. Maintaining his routine was of paramount importance to him. He was often anxious, naive, and avoided eye contact. He wasn’t scary, nor was he unapproachable. Unlike our son, Raymond was an autistic savant, he spoke in a monotone voice, he made a habit of rocking back and forth, and he never started a conversation. But to us, the most important thing about Raymond was not his quirks or exceptional skills. Rather, here was someone you could love, and someone who could love you back, just like Jimmy.
Over time, I’ve learned to appreciate Rain Man for other another reason. Namely, it is less about understanding autism and more about relationships. Looking back, the relationship between two brothers, Raymond Babbitt and Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise), is what made the movie so special to our family. Charlie is a self-centered pain in the ass. Raymond is the brother Charlie didn’t even know existed, until he came to find out that his father left a $3 million inheritance to provide care for Raymond; while all Charlie got was a 1949 Buick.
From there on, the story line revolves around these two brothers getting to know each other as they take a 6 day cross-country road trip because Raymond refuses to fly. It’s not always easy; actually, it’s hardly ever easy. Communication is a challenge to say the least. So is Raymond’s routine. Nevertheless, Charlie and Raymond get to know and appreciate each other. Charlie changes and so does Raymond.
Barry Levinson, Rain Man’s producer, talks about the uniqueness of Raymond’s relationship with his brother. Think about it. Charlie is a wheeler dealer, but Raymond is totally disinterested. Charlie is into material things, while Raymond could care less about glitz and glamour. Charlie is a con artist, Raymond is totally honest. Charlie is a smooth talker, Raymond is anything but. According to Levinson, “many audiences like gizmos, plot things, cops, and all kinds of shit, in which I’m not interested. If I can show the autism for what it is and understand it – show the frustration and humor – if I can make the relationship work with these two guys on the road, then that’s enough for me.” For our family and many others, you did that and more.
Please note: I am currently writing a book about my entire family and how we have grown over the years, in large part because of Jimmy. My son Jimmy is a middle-aged adult on the autism spectrum. The voices and perspectives of my son, my two daughters and wife as well as friends and professionals are included throughout. It’s a real, uplifting, and remarkable story; one which I have wanted to share for a long time. The book will be published in the not too distant future.
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