The ability of an individual on the autism spectrum to have a successful romantic relationship with a neurotypical individual is a profound theme that the film delves into.
The 2009 film Adam is streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
By Nils Skudra
Over the years a wide variety of films have been produced which address the theme of autism and the ability of autistic individuals to successfully interrelate with other people. Among these have been depictions of romantic relationships between individuals who share the commonality of being on the autism spectrum, such as Mozart and the Whale or Keep the Change. One film, however, that makes a significant leap in this regard is the 2009 film Adam, which explores the idea of a romantic relationship between an autistic individual and a neurotypical partner.
Directed by Max Mayer, the film revolves around the title character Adam Raki (portrayed by Hugh Dancy), a 29-year-old electronic engineer employed at Replay Inc. in New York. Adam has Asperger’s Syndrome and consequently engages in a distinctive set of behaviors common among individuals with his diagnosis. He follows a rigid food routine in that he always eats All Bran cereal for breakfast every morning and macaroni and cheese for dinner every night, keeping the respective boxes perfectly aligned in his refrigerator. In addition, he keeps designated closets for his wardrobe and regularly watches a theater program on his laptop, reciting the narrator’s lines back in rhythm with the show. Furthermore, Adam has a narrow set of specialized interests which he excels in, namely astronomy and knowledge of theater history, topics that he will elaborate extensively upon in his interactions with other people.
While Adam demonstrates a creative and intellectual brilliance in his work and in his subjects of interest, he also struggles with serious challenges at empathy and social interaction. As previously mentioned, when he engages in conversation with other people, he will delve into a prolonged discussion of astronomy or theater history, giving away too much information and oblivious to whether the listener is actually interested in the subject. For example, when he is having lunch on a bench with his friend Harlan (depicted by Frankie Faison), Adam repeatedly talks about astronomy, prompting Harlan to interrupt him and assertively state, “Let’s have lunch talk.” In the company of his friend, therefore, Adam has someone on hand to keep his behaviors in check.
Adam’s social difficulties with empathy are further manifested in his first interaction with his new neighbor Beth Buchwald (played by Rose Bryne), whom he first meets when she is having problems with the apartment building’s laundromat. When she asks if she may borrow his laundry card, he is initially hesitant before consenting to loan it to her. Later on, when Beth is lugging a heavy roller backpack laden with grocery bags up the stairwell, Adam is sitting in front of her with his laptop and proceeds to relate information about astronomy, completely oblivious to her need for assistance. Beth awkwardly remarks, “I’ll just take this enormously heavy backpack with grocery bags upstairs,” hinting that she requires help with carrying the items, but Adam makes no comment on this subject. Clearly at this point, Adam’s autistic mindset inhibits his ability to empathize with others even in situations when their need for physical or emotional support is very obvious, but over the course of the film he undergoes a significant evolution in this regard as the relationship with his new neighbor develops.
Beth, a children’s book author and elementary school teacher, takes it upon herself to reach out to Adam by inviting him to a dinner party with her friends. He grudgingly accepts the invitation but then stays locked in his apartment since he suffers from “social anxiety,” something which the director admits to having himself in the audio commentary. However, Mayer maintains that this is much more extreme in Adam’s case, as he curls up against the wall and puts his hands to his face upon hearing Beth knock at the door, nervous about the prospect of departing from his normal routine of eating dinner at home every night and engaging in a group activity. Later on, when Beth returns home, Adam apologizes for not joining her party, explaining that he often gets “overloaded.” Although Beth does not understand his meaning at this point, Adam is referring to the sensory overload that people with Asperger’s Syndrome frequently experience in situations that involve high volumes such as extensive talking from multiple individuals or loud music, which can often prompt meltdowns, a panicked reaction that Adam exhibits on several occasions later in the film.
Adam subsequently endeavors to engage Beth’s interest by inviting her into his room to see his planetarium, a beautifully crafted series of images depicting the different solar systems, and launches into an extended astronomical lecture. While Beth is genuinely intrigued by Adam’s artistic creativity and his knowledge of the subject, his well-intentioned outreach is nonetheless accompanied by his failure to consider whether she was actually interested in hearing this lecture, as it was not something that she was expecting. Following Harlan’s encouragement to ask Beth out, Adam later asks her to come to Central Park with him in the middle of the night, although she is clearly not in the mood since she has had a bad day. Although she persistently attempts to tell him they need to go home, Adam interrupts her each time and is insistent that she sit with him to watch two raccoons mating. Following their night in the park, Adam’s lack of social tact is further demonstrated when he asks Beth if she was sexually excited by observing the raccoons, a direct question which deeply unsettles her and nearly prompts an end to their discussion since she finds this line of interaction invasive and out of bounds.
It is when Adam reveals his Asperger’s diagnosis, provoked by Beth’s abrupt haste to leave his apartment, that she begins to understand the basis for his eccentric behaviors. He explains that one of his symptoms is a difficulty with knowing what other people are thinking (hence his inquiry into whether her departure was prompted by the aforementioned question), such as when they say something different from what they actually mean. In addition, he elaborates upon mind blindness, the term used to describe autistic individuals’ obliviousness to other peoples’ thoughts, as the reason for his assumption that she was sexually aroused by the raccoons’ mating since he experienced that feeling. Beth then asks Adam what it feels like to have Asperger’s, to which he replies, “It doesn’t feel like anything, it just *is*.” This response illustrates a profound point about how Asperger’s Syndrome is viewed among people who have it since many neurotypical individuals regard the diagnosis as a disability or a condition that needs to be cured, but those with Asperger’s recognize it as part of their identity and something which cannot be changed, even if some may feel insecure about its accompanying social challenges.
This revelation prompts Beth to take an interest in learning more about Adam’s condition since she is intrigued by his unique openness, something which, Hugh Dancy relates in the special features, “sets [Adam] apart from the average guy.” In discussing Asperger’s Syndrome with the elementary school principal, she learns that it is a form of high-functioning autism which can include severe social interaction problems. Upon being loaned a copy of the book Pretending to Be Normal, Beth explains that she is referring to Adam, describing him as “really cool and sweet” but struggling with the aforementioned issues. She then asks whether the key message is that Adam is not “prime relationship material,” a question which the principal is unable to articulate an answer for. It is clear from this exchange that Beth has begun to take a serious interest in the prospect of dating Adam, but at this point his proclivities prevent her from seeing the real likelihood of taking that route.
A significant development in Adam’s ability to interrelate with others takes place when Beth arrives home and is shocked to discover him hanging outside her window in an astronaut suit. He reveals that he is cleaning her windows since she had previously told him, during their first meeting, that they were covered with soot. On this occasion he did not really take interest in her problems, but he has now taken it upon himself to do her a favor, albeit at the risk of his physical well-being and possibly his life. He learns that Beth is in a sad mood since her father (portrayed by Peter Gallagher) is due in court for trial over allegations of an illicit business scheme, prompting Adam to state, “I can see that you’re upset, but I don’t know what to do.” Beth replies, “I’d really like you to give me a hug, Adam,” which he proceeds to do after she repeats her request. This scene represents a substantial change in Adam’s social interaction skills since he makes an effort to empathize with another individual, something which has not previously occurred to him and which serves to draw him and Beth closer together.
As a romantic relationship between Adam and Beth develops over the course of the film, it is often complicated by his autistic proclivities since they prompt Adam to engage in behaviors that discomfort other people. For example, when Beth takes Adam to meet her parents (a meeting which she arranges in advance with her father without consulting Adam) at the Cherry Lane Theatre, he immediately delves into a prolonged lecture about the history of the establishment, giving away too much information about its reputation as the oldest continuously running theatre off-Broadway. This is clearly something which Beth’s parents had neither expected nor expressed an interest in hearing, prompting her to finally intercede and tell Adam to come with her to find their seats. Later on, Adam demonstrates his tendency to speak his mind directly by asking Beth’s father, “What are you accused of, Mr. Buchwald? Do you have to go to jail?” While this is a well-intentioned attempt to engage with Beth’s father, she is greatly upset by Adam’s direct questions, as she belligerently complains after the show, “You put him on the spot!”
Adam’s skill sets in detail and organization and his superb knowledge of astronomy lead to an offer for a job interview for a position in his field of specialization, which Beth encourages him to accept after apologizing for her anger the previous night. However, Adam replies, “They’ll think I’m a freak,” demonstrating the insecurity that many people on the spectrum often have about how their diagnosis may be viewed by prospective employers. But Beth convinces Adam to let her help him prepare for learning about the job, going over the standard interview process with him. Among the important interview skills that she reminds him of are the ability to make eye contact, listing strengths, and how much work he has done independently. These are especially pertinent to prospective job candidates with autism since eye contact is often difficult for them, and the ability to successfully present their intellectual and professional strengths is highly desirable since today’s employment market is actively targeting autistic individuals because of their specialized skills.
Beth’s endeavors pay off since Adam goes to the job interview and follows the proper social protocol when he is called in. However, things take a turn for the worse when he discovers, while looking through Beth’s calendar, that she had actually arranged the meeting with her parents at the theatre, which he had been led to believe was merely accidental. When Beth arrives and learns of Adam’s discovery, he breaks into a furious meltdown, screaming “I hate you! You’re a liar, and I hope your father goes to jail forever!” and repeatedly putting his hands to his head. Adam’s reaction to what he perceives as Beth’s deception is reflective of the tendency among individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome to be scrupulously honest, which can at times be a social disadvantage since it leads them to take other peoples’ statements at face value. Although Beth’s actions were well-intentioned (she did not consult Adam about arranging the meeting since he would have been concerned about how her parents would perceive him), she is frightened by his outburst and angrily remarks, “Fuck Asperger’s, you’re a child, Adam” (as she considers his meltdown to be immature), and storms out.
Adam’s breakup with Beth takes a toll on both of them, as she is already smarting from her father’s conviction and the revelation of an extramarital affair that he had once had with the daughter of his business partner. Adam, in turn, confides to Harlan that he cannot trust Beth anymore since she had misled him about the meeting with her parents. Harlan then speaks of his experience with a former love interest who had been unfaithful to him during his military service and relates how their breakup has tormented him ever since. He encourages Adam to reconcile with Beth, stating: “It’s not rocket science. I’m saying you need to talk to the girl. Liars is all you’re going to come across in this world. A man needs to learn the difference between just plain liars and liars worth loving.” This poignant observation teaches Adam an important lesson about the nature of relationships – that one white lie is not worth giving up the love of his life – and prompts him to finally go out on his own to seek out Beth, whereas she had previously always come to him.
The ability of an individual on the autism spectrum to have a successful romantic relationship with a neurotypical individual is a profound theme that the film delves into. Up until this point, the romance between Adam and Beth is very close and affectionate in spite of the complications that his autistic behaviors bring to their social life. Despite being distraught by his aggressive tone during his meltdown, Beth takes reassurance from her mother (played by Amy Irving) who states that she is unashamed of marrying her husband in spite of his flaws, and consequently she seriously contemplates renewing her relationship with Adam. Beth’s father, however, states that Adam is not for her, remarking that “he’s more like your child” – when Beth replies that people with Asperger’s do get married, he is totally dismissive of this prospect: “He lives in another world. You don’t need to make that compromise.” This statement reveals an utter narrow-mindedness on the part of Beth’s father, who is clearly in no position to make such a judgment due to the revelations of his own unscrupulous activities, but its implications (together with Adam’s plea for Beth to come to California with him for a job that he has been offered) leave Beth with serious doubts about the prospect of a successful relationship with an autistic individual, as she confides to her mother that she and Adam will never be able to look into each other’s eyes and know what the other is feeling. When she asks Adam why he is so insistent that she come to California with him, he replies that she is like a part of him and that he needs Beth to help him find a place to live and “understand what it means when people say crazy stuff.” Beth responds that she cannot go with him, but a significant point that may have altered the outcome of this discussion would have been for Beth to say: “If you want me to come because you love me, I understand, and I will come.”
The film’s climax takes place a year later when Adam is now working in an astronomical center in Flintridge, California. Despite the heartbreak of leaving without Beth, by this point Adam has experienced a substantial development with respect to his particular proclivities. In moving to California on his own, he has overcome his former aversion to leaving familiar settings, and he has managed to establish a fully independent life in which he does not require the assistance of friends to keep his anxious behaviors in check. In addition, when he asks Carol, a fellow employee, if she would like him to help her carry some boxes she is moving, he demonstrates a remarkable improvement in his capacity for empathy, in marked contrast to his interaction with Beth during their first meeting. Finally, he receives a book written by Beth, entitled Adam and revolving around a raccoon family, together with a note remarking on how far the two of them have come. The lyrics of the closing song, “Walk on, walk on/ ’cause you can’t go back now / Go where you’re wanting to go / Be what you wanna be / In the end the only steps you take are the ones you take by yourself,” profoundly illustrate the course that Adam’s life has taken and the course that he must continue to take henceforth: Through his relationship with Beth, he has learned to take his own initiative in order to pursue his dreams, and by following this path he will lead a successful and independent future.
Both Dancy and Byrne deliver superb and deeply sensitive performances, and the film articulates a very heartfelt and moving message about the ability of individuals on the autism spectrum to fall in love with neurotypical individuals and the ways in which both partners can develop in such a relationship. In the special features, Byrne and Dancy reflect that “her character keeps working at this guy that doesn’t get that he has to keep working,” and this rings true for Adam’s development in the film since, as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is accustomed to having routine and certainty in his life, but through Beth’s urging he makes substantial improvements in both his interpersonal skills and the ability to pursue his ambitions. Beth, in turn, acquires a great deal of empathy and understanding for Adam’s challenges and learns how to navigate them, eventually coming to consider the likelihood of a long-term romance with him. In this regard, the film’s ending may be profoundly disappointing for some viewers, as they might take a pessimistic message away from it about the possibilities of successful romantic relationships between autistic and neurotypical individuals. Events in the real world have proven that these relationships can indeed succeed, a point which is left open in Beth’s discussion with her father near the ending. However, the film’s portrayal of how both an autistic partner and a neurotypical partner can grow from such a relationship should send an encouraging message to viewers, and hopefully it may inspire individuals on the spectrum to have confidence in their prospects of finding romantic partners who can accept them for who they are and benefit from having long-term relationships with them.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.