Dakota Fanning plays an #autistic protagonist in Please Stand By

Please Stand By

One of the film’s significant strides is found in its focus on a strong female autistic protagonist since most movie depictions of autism feature male protagonists on the spectrum.

By Nils Skudra

On recent occasion I had the opportunity watch the newly released film “Please Stand By,” featuring Dakota Fanning as Wendy, a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome living in a San Francisco group home who harbors a deep passion for Star Trek and knows every aspect of the saga by heart. Although Wendy yearns to move back in with her sister Audrey (portrayed by Alice Eve), her sibling is unwilling to take her in due to Wendy’s behaviors which Audrey finds frightening, inexplicable, and possibly perilous to her infant daughter. Upon learning of a scriptwriting competition in which the winner will receive $100,000, our protagonist decides to submit her own Star Trek script to Paramount Pictures, with the ultimate hope that securing this prize will enable her to convince Audrey to let Wendy cohabit with her. However, since the script would arrive past the submission deadline due to the absence of mail service on Sunday or the following Monday (which is a holiday), she embarks on a remarkable and challenging journey across California in order to reach Los Angeles where she can enter her masterpiece in a timely fashion. Over the course of her trip, Wendy encounters numerous individuals who contribute to shaping her social development in both positive and negative ways, all the while being pursued by her caregiver Scottie (depicted by Toni Collette), who first encouraged Wendy’s passion for scriptwriting, and a guilt-ridden Audrey who is terrified that her sister is lost in a disability-unfriendly world.

Although many viewers may take issue with the film’s casting of a neuro-typical actress in the role of an autistic protagonist for reasons of representation, Fanning delivers a superb performance in capturing the different intellectual and behavioral aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome. Among the social behaviors that she depicts so convincingly are the difficulties with social cues that are very common among people with Asperger’s. These include challenges with making eye contact (which is manifested in Wendy’s interactions with Scottie, Audrey and other characters), an extreme sensitivity to touch and smell (Wendy displays a strong aversion to other people touching her or to touching them until the very end of the film), and a tendency toward “mindblindness” characterized by the inability to understand other people’s feelings and emotions during a conversation – this is exemplified by a scene, early in the film, in which Wendy continues to talk about entering the scriptwriting contest and moving back in with her family even as Audrey repeatedly opines that this is just not possible.

Another particularly painful and common autistic behavior that Fanning captures is a meltdown, characterized by an agitated and panicked emotional breakdown in response to external stressors (such as excessive noise ranging from loud arguments to the sound of motorbikes) and which takes special intervention by her caregiver to resolve. This tendency is illustrated in the aforementioned scene when an argument between Scottie and Audrey over Wendy’s plans prompts Wendy to cover her ears and begin shaking and crying while screaming “Shut up!,” only to be soothed after much struggle by Scottie who repeatedly utters the words “Please stand by” from the Star Trek saga. This disturbing moment resonated with me on a personal level since I had a friend in the Bay Area who exhibited meltdowns on several occasions when we would hang out, and at one point it took the intervention of another friend in order to bring her out of the hysteria which she entirely inhabited for a period of at least ten or fifteen minutes.

The film also does a superlative job of capturing the intellectual and organizational abilities of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. One of the defining characteristics of Asperger’s is a diligent attention toward detail and organization, as well as a strict routine ethic. This is illustrated by a monologue in which Wendy outlines her daily routine that she follows to the letter, which includes wearing a different colored sweater each day; going to work at Cinnabon and remembering to use a different tone each time she greets passerby; study sessions in the afternoon; watching Star Trek on television in the evening; doing her chores and then writing her script during free time before going to bed. In addition, Wendy displays an eidetic memory in her knowledge of Star Trek, answering every question correctly about its different characters and episodes during a trivia game, dumbfounding other participants to the point that they accuse her of using a cheat sheet before a coworker shows them this is not the case. I’ve been told by my counselor at the Greensboro TEACCH center that people with autism tend to have “intense interests,” citing mine in the American Civil War, and this narrow focus leads them to specialize and excel in their particular area of interest – in the case of this film, Wendy’s “intense interest” in Star Trek accounts significantly for her superlative command of the topic and drives her relentless determination to have her script entered, and the influence of her diagnosis itself can be seen in her writing of the character Spock, who is described by Scottie’s son as unsure about how to deal with all of his different emotions, which indeed holds true for many people with Asperger’s.

Another aspect of the challenges associated with autism is found in the ways that neuro-typical individuals respond to autistic individuals’ social difficulties. These responses can range from cold indifference and hostility to exploitation. This is captured in the film from the outset of Wendy’s journey, as she is coldly told by a sullen bus driver that she needs a bus ticket for the Transbay bus route (something that Wendy is naively unaware of) and then says “Let me have it!” when Wendy returns with one. She is subsequently kicked off in the middle of nowhere when her dog Pete (whom she has snuck aboard) urinates on the bus. Upon arriving at an abandoned food station, she meets a couple who promise to take her to Los Angeles with them but then steal most of her money when she leaves for a moment to refill her water and grab her iPod from her necklace as she returns to get in their car, taking off without her. In addition, when she walks into a gas station to buy candies, the clerk attempts to take advantage of her by claiming that the items cost $1 each. Since Wendy, as a person on the autism spectrum, has the tendency to take things literally and at face value, she therefore assumes that the total cost is $18 given the fact that the individual wrappings contain several candy bars inside.

At the same time, however, the film also portrays how some neuro-typical individuals display kindness and understanding toward people on the autism spectrum. This is exemplified by the character of Rose, an elderly woman who intercedes on Wendy’s behalf in the gas station by pointing out the actual price of the candy bars and demanding that the store clerk apologize for his attempted exploitation of her vulnerability, telling Wendy, “You shouldn’t let people take advantage of you.” When she sits down with Wendy afterward, she alludes to her own experiences with having an autistic family member by stating, “I have a grandson just like you,” and offers to take Wendy with her on the bus to a senior home for the night since Wendy has no transportation. During their bus ride, when Wendy asks why Rose’s grandson is not with her, Rose elaborates upon how loved ones become wrapped up in their own lives once they are grown, which proves to be an important lesson for Wendy’s social development since it helps her to attain an understanding of the reasons for her sister’s unwillingness to take care of her and let her move back in.

While the film provides a strong depiction of certain episodes of extreme anxiety that are common among people on the autism spectrum (including Wendy’s meltdown and her attempts to calm herself down after losing most of her script pages), one shortcoming is its failure to portray high anxiety as a consistent autistic behavior. There are a number of moments in which this behavior would normally be expected to manifest itself but does not occur. For example, when Wendy is kicked off the Transbay bus in the middle of nowhere, she calmly sits down with her dog and eats a peanut butter sandwich, admonishes him for urinating on the bus, and waits for a period of time before continuing her journey on foot. In real-life circumstances, this situation would undoubtedly prompt an anxiety attack not only for a person on the spectrum who is prone to high anxiety but for a neuro-typical individual as well in light of the absence of any facilities, telephones or residents in the vicinity who could provide immediate aid. I myself have had such an experience when I was mistakenly left behind by my ride one day when looking at an art store, and I reacted by running up the block after the car, screaming in panic and anger until it came back or me. Despite its portrayal of certain examples of high anxiety as a symptom of autism, the failure to depict its consistency can potentially mislead viewers by giving them the impression that all people on the autism spectrum share Wendy’s ability to quickly and calmly respond to high stress-inducing circumstances.

In summation, “Please Stand By” is an astutely done and thought-provoking portrayal of autism with a standout performance by its lead actress. One of the film’s significant strides is found in its focus on a strong female autistic protagonist since most movie depictions of autism feature male protagonists on the spectrum. Recent statistics have pointed to the increase in the number of people born with autism, with men outnumbering women, so the portrayal of a young woman on the spectrum can be beneficial in drawing attention to the increasing number of women born with autism who are overshadowed by their male counterparts. While the film is effective in conveying different aspects of autistic behavior (including certain examples of high anxiety), it would have done well to delve further into this particular symptom as a consistent characteristic that individuals on the spectrum exhibit in various stress-inducing situations rather than a select few in which they can be calmed through their own actions or the intervention of caregivers. Overall, however, “Please Stand By” presents a highly engaging, informative and entertaining look at the journey of an autistic protagonist seeking self-expression and family acceptance, demonstrating her capacity not only for intellectual brilliance in her particular of area of interest but ultimately for reciprocating and providing love and affection toward her neuro-typical family members.

***

Nils Skudra

“I am an artist on the autism spectrum, specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history as a second-year graduate student 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.

I have also been pursuing a side career as a freelance journalist, and I have had at least 8 articles published in local magazines and newspapers from various cities and towns in North Carolina and in Pittverse Magazine (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), which is staffed entirely by people on the autism spectrum. I am very keen on contributing articles as a regular blogger for the Art of Autism. Among my ideas for article topics are my experiences with disclosing my diagnosis in the workplace; and local businesses which are staffed by people on the spectrum and which donate their proceeds to autism causes. Through these blogs I hope to highlight the issues of autism’s portrayal in film, the challenges of discrimination that autistic individuals encounter in the workplace, and to promote support for local organizations that are dedicated to autism causes.”

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