To be an autistic movie fan is to resign yourself to the fact most films aren’t concerned with treating you like a person — if they even recognize you exist at all. Autistic characters are noticeably absent from mainstream cinema. The few that do exist tend to fall into strictly defined stereotypes. In the Spectrum News piece ‘Portrayals of autism on television don’t showcase full spectrum’, Alison Singer notes that pop culture portrayals of Autism have “come to mean the verbal, higher-skilled, savant end of the spectrum because individuals at that end make for interesting characters.”
Better representation can be found in the likes of Mary & Max and Keep the Change, but they are few and far between. If you’re going to be an autistic movie fan, you’ll have to find personally fulfilling coding in cinematic narratives. A movie may not have an autistic character, but its story could still relate to your experience of being on the spectrum. A movie, like, say, Midnight Special, a 2016 science-fiction yarn from writer/director Joe Nichols. The protagonists of Midnight Special are Alton (Jaeden Martell) and his father Roy (Michael Shannon). The movie begins in media res with the duo escaping a religious compound called The Ranch. As Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) drives them to safety, Roy and Alton have got law enforcement and two henchmen of The Ranch’s leader hot on their trail.
Why is everyone after Alton? He has otherworldly abilities. Alton can read minds, pick up radio signals, and emanate bright blue flashes from his eyes that give other people visions. The Ranch wants to exploit him, and the U.S. government wants to subdue him by any means necessary. Roy’s only desire is to get his son to safety.
Midnight Special sounds like it has more to do with Stranger Things than The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. However, Midnight Special’s grounded depiction of Alton grappling with his abilities, intentionally or not, evokes numerous experiences specific to autism. This is particularly evident in how Alton’s powers and overwhelmed reactions to those powers are frequently triggered by sensory overloads.
“Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information,” reads the National Autistic Society — something I can attest to with it being a critical part of my autism. If you remove the bright blue lights emanating from Alton’s body, you could easily be watching an autistic child responding to overstimulation.
There is a rawness to Martell’s performance and Nichols’ direction in capturing these instances of fear. Such a quality ended up summoning my own memories of becoming overwhelmed as a child due to noisy and crowded environments. By grounding Alton’s sci-fi struggles with real-world experiences, Midnight Special lends an emotional tactility to its story that grips autistic and neurotypical viewers alike.
For many autistic children, part of coping with overstimulation is making sure you wear things that provide comfort. For example, shirts made of soothing fabrics or wearing noise-canceling headphones. I was reminded of this the first time we see Alton: this initial appearance features him crawling out from underneath a bed sheet, wearing blue goggles and gigantic orange headphones. That outfit is meant to keep Alton’s superpowers subdued, but it’s similar to the kind of attire I would have worn as a youngster.
Nearly every aspect of Alton reflects experiences tied to autism; the supporting characters, meanwhile, extract the various ways society perceives it. Most of these perceptions are negative, reflecting how society has normalized various stigmas. After all, there’s an entire anti-vaccine movement built upon the idea that a child getting a life-threatening disease is a better alternative than that child being autistic.
This mentality is best embodied by Alton’s encounter with a stranger at a gas station: while wandering off from, Alton encounters an adult woman who reacts to his get-up with befuddlement. “Why are you wearing those goggles?” are the first words out of her mouth. In this scene, I could feel a chill of recognition traveling up my spine. How many times as a child did an adult question with such a condemnation why I was stimming or clutching an heirloom for comfort?
Alton doesn’t need to be shooting bursts of light from his eyes or telepathically destroying satellites to be seen as ‘other’. It’s an experience all too common for people on the spectrum and it’s even worse for people who simultaneously belong to other marginalized groups.
Sometimes, society’s way of othering people manifests in ways that minimize a person. Other times, it can go in the opposite direction, such as how The Ranch perceives Alton. Led by Pastor Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the congregation is built upon the sort of conformity both Alton as a gifted person and autistic people must deal with. This is indicated in how the only sermon we hear Meyer deliver is hinged on the idea everybody has a predetermined place they must adhere to. But even with their emphasis on conformism, The Ranch embraces the traits that make Alton unique for their own purposes: they see him as a messiah-like figure who’ll help the congregation avoid an impending apocalypse. Considering The Ranch is a cult run in Texas with guns to spare, it’s clearly meant to be a stand-in for David Koresh’s church that served as the centerpiece of the Waco siege. However, it also functions as a manifestation of those who place autistic people on a pedestal that no member of this community can reach.
This judgment of people on the autism spectrum is especially prominent in other pieces of pop culture. The likes of The Good Doctor or The Big Bang Theory presume all autistic people or people exhibiting traits associated with autism are math savants who are basically superhuman. Rather than considering each autistic individual as their own unique person, there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. While intentions may be good, it ends up painting a picture that’s missing a sense of humanity.
Midnight Special recognizes the various ways people deemed as outsiders in society — including autistic people — can be dehumanized. Sometimes this comes through in people wanting you to follow, other times it’s people painting you as a larger-than-life figure you can never live up to. Both approaches are equally harmful.
All of the protagonists in Midnight Special are coded as people who see Alton as not a savior or a nuclear bomb but as just a kid. This is best exemplified by NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). He spends the majority of Midnight Special knowing Alton only through stories relayed to him by members of The Ranch and government agents. In the film’s final half-hour, Sevier finally meets Alton. At first, their interactions are defined by distance, with Sevier in a control room speaking to Alton — who is held in an interrogation room — through a microphone. The two of them only bond once Sevier comes into the room and talks to Alton like he’s a person. There’s a sense of mutual respect in their exchange, but Midnight Special reaffirms that it isn’t enough to just be nice to autistic people.
Characters who are helpful to Alton, like Roy or Sevier, take action in helping him get to safety. It isn’t enough to say a kind word, you also have to put in hard work by fighting back against oppressive forces — the kind of work most mainstream movies about autism fail to do. Reducing autistic people to the role of quirky sidekicks helping neurotypical people learn life lessons only furthers toxic stereotypes.
Midnight Special, on the other hand, hinges on treating Alton as a person. Heck, I can’t imagine anything like, say, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close having a richly human scene like Alton and Roy’s final conversation. Someday, I hope we have a film featuring an autistic character as a kind and dedicated paternal figure similar to Roy. Given both the sparse and dismal track record of representation of autism in film, I’m not holding my breath.
Being an autistic movie fan means being excluded from the art form you love. Sometimes, though, you get a movie like Midnight Special, which reminds you there is a place in cinema for stories that capture autistic experiences, even if it’s just because of applicability.
Doug, thank you for your insights, for educating me and for setting an example of inclusivity we should all aspire to.