“…the notion of a “neurotypical savior” who brings a severely challenged and mistreated autistic individual out of their shell would be considered offensive by many viewers today due to recognition of the success in self-advocacy and professional achievement that so many individuals on the autism spectrum display.”
By Nils Skudra
On a recent occasion I had the opportunity to watch Silent Fall, a 1994 murder mystery thriller directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Richard Dreyfuss in the role of a child psychologist who becomes reluctantly involved in the investigation of a murder. The only eyewitness is an autistic boy who is seemingly nonspeaking but whose testimony is critical to solving the case. I had previously never heard of this film, and the idea of featuring an autistic main character as an important crime witness sounded appealing so I took it upon myself to purchase Silent Fall from a nearby thrift store and view it that very night. The film unveiled a variety of intriguing insights and observations about autism although the protagonist’s assessment of the child’s functioning level would probably be questioned today.
Dr. Jake Rainer (portrayed by Dreyfuss) is a therapist who has retired from child psychology following the tragic death of a boy in a program that Jake formerly ran for special needs children. He regularly holds therapy sessions with adult clients but does not seem to enjoy his work. Things take a turn for Jake when he is called upon to help disarm Tim Warden (portrayed by Ben Faulkner), a young autistic boy who is wielding a bloody knife and making panicked vocalizations at the scene of his parents’ double murder. Rather than allow the police to take Tim by force and put him in a straight jacket, Jake employs his own methods of calming the boy down by utilizing a stack of cards and using card-playing language to communicate with Tim, an approach which proves successful.
The only other eyewitness to the crime is Tim’s older sister Sylvie (portrayed by Liv Tyler of Lord of the Rings fame in her film debut) who claims that she did not recognize the assailant, as she was supposedly thrown against a wall and hit her head after trying to intervene. Although Dr. Rainer attempts to communicate with Tim in order to unlock his memories of what took place, the boy displays signs of what would today be considered “low-functioning” autism including non-speaking – he forms no articulate responses to questions but makes agitated groans in moments of anxiety or panic – and a tendency towards aggressive meltdowns.
During one scene in which Tim is having lunch with two girls, Sylvie tells their mother to remove the green peas from his plate since he will not eat roundly shaped food items. One of the girls then cruelly puts some of her peas onto Tim’s plate when the mother’s back is turned, provoking a frightening meltdown in which he throws the plates in every direction, shattering them against the wall, and hurls the food wildly, narrowly missing Sylvie’s head. In one of the subsequent scenes, Dr. Rainer states that Tim’s autism is “very high-functioning,” which I consider to be one of the errors in the film’s depiction since the aforementioned traits would be regarded by most psychiatrists today as falling on the lower range of the autism spectrum.
Although Tim initially appears to be non-speaking, it is revealed that he actually possesses a talent for mimicking voices and lines from television shows, a characteristic which is known in the psychological literature as echolalia. When he and his sister go with Dr. Rainer to a seaside restaurant, for example, Sylvie tells Tim to sneak inside the speaker’s stand and gives him directions on what announcements to make. Tim then speaks into the microphone with the voice of the restaurant host, making a series of announcements that first throw guests into confusion (telling some that they’re sitting at the wrong table for instance) and then delight (upon announcing free seafood and beers). When one of the cashiers leaves the snack stand, Sylvie takes advantage of the situation wherein they both steal snacks that are available for sale to the public. While this scene provides some comedic relief, it also presents an unsavory example of a neurotypical individual utilizing a younger autistic person’s unique and socially challenged traits for nefarious purposes.
The nature of autism is discussed in the film over the course of Dr. Rainer’s efforts to connect with Tim and it furnishes some provocative insights. After Jake pointedly tells Sylvie, “Nobody knows what autism is,” he delves into an intriguing reflection on how autistic individuals have been perceived throughout history and how they are treated in contemporary times: “Two thousand years ago we worshiped them as gods. Three hundred years ago we burned them at the stake, as witches. Now we treat them with drugs… and therapy.”
This observation is very compelling since it sheds light on how mainstream society’s perceptions of people with autism have changed over successive historic periods. The concept of autism, even the very word itself, would have been totally alien to people living in early modern or ancient times, and yet there have been a variety of famous individuals from those eras who are now commonly thought to have had Asperger’s Syndrome or some form of autism, such as Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Michelangelo and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
However, in contemporary times, there has been a widespread perception of autism as a disability that can be managed or at least somewhat ameliorated through regular psychotherapy and prescription drugs. In more recent years many people have begun to challenge the notion of autism as a serious disability by pointing out the numerous ways in which autistic individuals can be productive members of society. There is even a movement today which calls for the elimination of the “high- and low-functioning” categories for people on the autism spectrum since many individuals who fall on the lower range (considered to be more intellectually and verbally deficient than the higher range) display significant intellectual gifts which can be utilized for professional purposes and those who are characterized as “high functioning” nevertheless are far behind their neurotypical peers in a developmental sense.
Although Tim exhibits some of these strengths (i.e. eidetic memory), the film falls short of imagining what type of life he could possibly have were all the psychological and medical interventions put in place. This film is not about what it means to be autistic but and is only parenthetically about autism. Rather, it focuses on how an autistic individual’s ultimate testimony can potentially indict someone in the commission of a deadly crime.
Still, the movie does play lip service to what an autistic individual might look like. Among the other autistic traits that are featured in Silent Fall is the tendency to think in terms of sequences. When Jake attempts to use his card-playing technique in order to probe Tim’s memories from the night of the murder, he explains to Sylvie, “You have a thousand ways of searching through your memories to figure out what happened that night. For Tim, it has to be in sequences.” He demonstrates this by pointing out the arrangement of the cards, stating that Tim needs to recall the events through the chronological order in which they happened. This insight reveals much about the mindset of autistic individuals since they are usually very detail-oriented and tend to think very literally, logically, and sequentially. These are among the strengths that make autistic individuals valuable job candidates in the workplace since employers often require those skills for the tasks of the job they are hiring for.
However, it is Tim’s echolalia which proves to be the critical skill for reconfiguring the events of the murder. Prompted by Dr. Rainer’s triggering, Tim repeats a series of expletives which were the first words he heard on the night of the crime, followed by agitated and frightened statements in the voices of the different family members involved. This makes his sister extremely uncomfortable, as it brings her back to the events firsthand (about which she has not previously displayed any grief or trauma), but Dr. Rainer continues to goad Tim in order to unlock what Sylvie might be hiding. Together with subsequent new evidence from the investigation which sheds light on the incestuous abuse that Tim suffered from their father, this drives Sylvie to dangerous extremes to prevent Dr. Rainer from learning the truth which might jeopardize her custody of Tim. The ultimate climax is extremely intense and carries the elements of a horror film, but it is one which gives Tim the courage to finally speak in his own voice.
The film’s lead actors deliver superb performances, and the elements of a murder mystery thriller keep its viewers on the edge of their seats. However, while Silent Fall articulates a variety of compelling insights about autism, it is rather dated in its portrayal of autism since the film reflects the perceptions that were prevalent back in the 1990’s. Since then, there have been sweeping changes in much of mainstream society’s attitudes toward autism due to the ever-increasing public awareness of the benefits that autistic individuals can bring to society as members of the workforce. There is also the profound recognition that many of those who are considered “low-functioning” can in fact contribute significant skills to the job market which gives greater force to the argument for eliminating the “higher and lower functioning” categories.
Furthermore, the notion of a “neurotypical savior” who brings a severely challenged and mistreated autistic individual out of their shell would be considered offensive by many viewers today due to recognition of the success in self-advocacy and professional achievement that so many individuals on the autism spectrum display. It would be strongly recommended that viewers of this film take these facts into account when watching its depiction of autism.
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.