I am sort of ashamed to admit that my mental image of autism runs immediately to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. I have, for many years, assumed that most or all autistic people talk and act like Raymond Babbit. I have a feeling, I’m not alone. What I’ve been able to learn in the 25 years since that film is that Raymond’s kind of autism isn’t the beginning and end of this disorder, but only one type. I have also lived under the misunderstanding that autism was something akin to Down syndrome. It is my pleasure to announce that thanks to an informative documentary named Too Sane for this World, I have been educated out of my misconceptions.
William Davenport’s Too Sane for This World examines the lives of 12 people affected by this disorder, none of which speak or act like Raymond Babbitt. In fact, if you weren’t told that the subjects featured in this film were autistic, you’d never suspect anything unusual. Many of the subjects are older, in their 40s, 50s and 60s and were the products of a time before anyone knew about autism. All of their stories are different, but they seem to share the same pattern of experience. All seemed to have difficulties related to other people and all have a history of being bullied at school.
Janis Oberman, for example, admits that she has a social anxiety with people in her immediate surroundings. She spent years trying to work out those anxieties only to discover that it wasn’t getting any better. Greg Yates, meanwhile, deals with his anxieties through Zen meditation. He has the look of a kindly pastor, but admits that he feels space away from the world.
Twenty-four year-old Robyn Steward has, possibly, the most physically dramatic personality. She seems to have the tics we might associate with the disorder – we see her playing on a playground – then she surprises us with a talent for the guitar. Yet, she has a problem with sensory experience, like particular pitches of sound.
What is similar in all of these subjects is that they all came upon this disorder almost by accident, through light research or an overheard conversation. It wasn’t something that became apparent through a medical examination. Many of the older subjects found out about autism late in their lives.
Too Sane for This World is an enlightening film, but not exactly a groundbreaking. It is a talking-head documentary based on personal experience. Briefly – too briefly – we get a glimpse of Temple Grandin, possibly the most famous face of autism right now, thanks to the 2010 bio-pic starring Claire Danes. She appears at the beginning and passes the hat to the interviewees, in effect saying that you already know her story. so here are some others. Still this is an open-minded, of oddly short (at 63 minutes), documentary that introduces us to a handful of very interesting, and very bright, people who live day to day with something that most us don’t completely understand. What we learn, to our surprise, is that they don’t seem to fully understand it either.