By Darold Treffert, MD
Raymond Babbitt, the main character in the movie Rain Man, has become the world’s best known savant due to Dustin Hoffman’s remarkably accurate and sensitive portrayal of Savant Syndrome in that film. That 1988 movie, in its first 101 days, accomplished more toward bringing Savant Syndrome to public awareness than all the efforts combined of all those interested in this condition the past 101 years following Dr. Down’s 1887 description of this disorder. It is a memorable movie about a memorable savant. It won four Academy awards, including Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman and Best Picture for 1988. I was pleased to have been a consultant to that film. Because that film has served as the introduction for so many persons to savants, it is worth looking at some of the effort and activity that led to its creation, its authenticity and its success.
The movie is the story of two brothers, Charlie Babbitt and his brother, Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant. Their father has died leaving $3 million in a trust fund for Raymond’s care in the institution where Raymond has spent almost all of his adult life. Charlie wants the money. Charlie traces Raymond to the institution where he lives, discovering once again a brother he did not even remember since he was so young (age 2) when Raymond, then age 18, was placed into long-term care. So young was Charlie at that time that he, in typical childlike manner, called his brother “Rain Man” because that’s the way the name Raymond sounded to him. After this for-the-wrong-reasons reunion at the hospital, a six-day cross-country tour ensues from Cincinnati to Los Angeles in a ’49 Buick with a variety of adventures wherein some of Raymond’s autistic rituals and savant skills are an asset, and some an impediment.
By the end of the movie Charlie has changed from referring to his brother as “weird” or a “retard” to viewing him as only different and in many ways very special. There is no six-day cure of autism (and realistically there ought not to be). Raymond returns to the institution at the end of the movie. But it is clear both Raymond and Charlie have changed. Raymond is a bit more self-sufficient and tolerates some affection; Charlie is trying less to stamp out his brother’s odd behavior learning more to accommodate to it. Charlie, like Raymond, also has learned something more about feelings and affection. Just as Raymond’s wall of autism has yielded a bit, so has Charlie’s wall of callousness yielded as well. They were just different kinds of walls.
The first version of Rain Man was written by Barry Morrow, who had earlier written the original story for the award-winning TV movie Bill, in which Mickey Rooney played a mentally retarded person. The Rain Man script was inspired by another mentally handicapped young man —Kim Peek — whom Morrow had come to know in Salt Lake City, and who had striking savant skills as described elsewhere on this website. Morrow sent the story on to Hollywood. When the script ultimately reached Dustin Hoffmann’s agent, he sent it to Hoffman with the idea that Hoffman play the part of the younger brother, Charlie Babbitt. But Dustin Hoffman had seen the 60 Minutes piece on Leslie Lemke done in October 1983 and was very moved by it — “moved to tears,” he stated, in fact. He wanted to play the part of the savant, not the brother. Tom Cruise was cast as the savant’s younger brother. It turned out to be a splendid bit of casting.
It was this October 25, 1986, draft of Rain Man, which was the initial one sent to me for my reaction and comment because of my interest and involvement with Savant Syndrome. The producer was interested then, and remained so throughout the movie’s production, that the story remain accurate, authentic and credible. In that the studio succeeded.
That October 1986 version of the script was very different from the finished product. First of all, that early version had Raymond Babbitt’s mental handicap as mental deficiency rather than autism. A variety of persons, especially Dustin Hoffman, felt that the portrayal of an autistic person, with all the typical associated rituals, obsessiveness, resistance to change and relatively affectionless behaviors might make a more interesting character for Raymond Babbitt, one the public had never really been exposed to on screen. Also, autism would create an opportunity for a more complex interaction between the two brothers. That, of course, was a crucial and significant change and as it turned out, a very successful one. However it required a major rewrite of the script changing from the real-life savant model, Kim, whom Morrow had written about to a new, composite character. The savant skills remained but the basic disability was an entirely different one, now autism, with all of its distinctive, difficult and demanding characteristics and features.
A second crucial change was in restoring and maintaining an authenticity and believability of the story line. That 1986 script was, to me, much more of what I had feared Hollywood might do in attempting to portray savant syndrome — embellish and exaggerate to a point of unbelievability. Savant Syndrome is spectacular in its own right; it does not need to be embellished. But that first script had in it more typical Hollywood scenes — Mafia mobsters, narrow escapes and a chase scene in which Charlie and Raymond roar out of a burning barn on a motorcycle and sidecar fashioned by using some of Raymond’s savant mechanical skills. Scenes such as that fortunately gave way to more credible episodes in the final script.
A third crucial change was the ending. In the original script there was a “happy ending.” Raymond has changed so much that he does not return to the institution. He moves in with his brother, they go to ball games together and live happily ever after. While that makes a nice story, it also is an unrealistic one. The final script ending is as it should be. Raymond has changed slightly, some tentative closeness has emerged and one senses the beginnings of a transition, perhaps someday, to a life outside the hospital. It is a hopeful ending, but a realistic one, for all that one could expect in that six-day encounter is some new hope, not an accomplished cure.
The movie had a rather tumultuous course to its final production. That scenario is outlined in detail in a Newsweek article about the movie in the January 16, 1989, issue. There were three other writers involved, including Ronald Bass who contributed the final script rewrites and is listed, along with Barry Morrow, in the credits of the movie as cowriter of the screenplay. Likewise, the movie went through a number of very well-known and successful directors including Marty Brest, Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack. Finally Barry Levinson, having just finished Good Morning, Vietnam, signed on as director and carried the movie to its completion. In the middle of all that turmoil came the writer’s strike.
During all of those months of delay, Dustin Hoffman was carefully doing his homework for the part he very much wanted to do. He watched hours of tapes and movies of savants, both autistic and retarded. He studied scientific papers and manuscripts, talked to various professionals, visited psychiatric facilities and spent time with savants and their families to experience those relationships firsthand. There were three individuals Dustin Hoffman met and studied in-depth. One was Kim Peek (described elsewhere on this website). Another was an autistic savant and his brother (just as in the movie) who prefer to remain anonymous. He spent a great deal of time with them in their typical family activities.
The other autistic savant Dustin Hoffman got to know well was Joseph Sullivan, who lives in Huntington, West Virginia along with his parents, Drs. Ruth and William Sullivan. There had been two excellent documentaries filmed about Joseph, a 1967 film called The Invisible Wall and a 1986 film entitled Portrait of an Autistic Young Man. Both were projects of the UCLA Behavioral Sciences Media Laboratory. Dustin Hoffman carefully studied not only the films themselves, but also some 16 hours of outtakes from the 1986 production. Therein he was able to get a very in-depth look at a most impressive young man and his family.
Joseph is fascinated by, and extremely facile with, numbers. Like other mathematical savants, numbers are his friends. He can do mathematical equations in his head quickly and accurately. When appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show in January 1989, for example, it took him only seconds to multiply, in his head, and give the correct answer to the problem 41 x 385 = 15,785. A second test was even more striking as he gave correctly in 15 seconds, without paper and pencil, the answer to this problem: 341 x 927 = 316,107. He is fascinated with license plate numbers and remembers myriads of them only glimpsed at years earlier. He has perfect pitch and, like all savants, a phenomenal memory. The strength of that memory was demonstrated recently when Joseph was given a 36-number grid to study for two minutes; he was able to then recall all 36 numbers correctly exactly as they appeared in that grid in 43 seconds.
You might like to try this yourself to see how you do. Study the grid for as long as you like, then remove it and write the figures on another sheet of paper from memory:
6 2 4 8 4 9
7 3 2 5 0 3
4 8 9 3 4 3
1 3 5 8 9 4
5 7 2 8 4 2
2 4 7 9 0 3
Joseph has many of the obsessive, ritualistic behaviors seen in autistic persons, and indeed, seen in Raymond Babbitt. Hoffman borrowed one of Joseph’s rituals, in fact, for Rain Man, that of eating cheese balls with a toothpick. Another scene, a tantrum when the smoke alarm goes off, was patterned after Joseph’s real-life action once to a fire in a wastebasket. The phone number memorization scene is similar to Joseph’s reading and memorization of encyclopedias. Joseph will often incorporate into his stream of language his favorite license plate number – DT 52 52 – or become preoccupied with the sound of certain letters and repeat words with those letters over and over like the sound of “s” in the word “association.” These verbalizations often are linked to some kind of characteristic head movements or other repetitive bits of language or sounds. He loves numbers and he loves sounds.
Joseph was the fifth of seven children born to Drs. Ruth and William Sullivan. Mrs. Sullivan describes Joseph as a very bright infant; at age 18 months he was able to put together a picture puzzle of the United States. At age 4 he would draw maps of entire continents with all the countries and all their capitals correctly spelled including complicated words such as Czechoslovakia. At age 2 the diagnosis of autism was made. The picture that has emerged since has been consistent with the diagnosis of a high-functioning autistic person with the classic obsessive-compulsive rituals, normal language interspersed with idiosyncratic speech, unusual preoccupations and some very prominent disabilities juxtaposed with some also very prominent and unusual special abilities. Joseph can startle one with his mathematical prowess, for example, but it took him two years to learn to ride a bus in his city of 63,000. He works presently at the county public library reshelving books and spends his free time listening to records, watching movies and painting detailed pictures of dead-end streets. He is preoccupied with dead-end streets.
Joseph has a job because of his mother’s efforts to set up a system of services not only for her son, but for many others like him, through the Autism Services Center she has established in Huntington, West Virginia. After the diagnosis of autism was made, Mrs. Sullivan set about learning all she could about the disorder. But her efforts went well beyond her own quest for reliable information and enlightenment; she devoted her life and career to providing such information to other families in her state and throughout the country via her agency and now the national autism associations.
Dustin Hoffman actually met Joseph in Cincinnati while filming Rain Man, but he felt that he knew him well by that time having studied, and studied again, the films of this remarkable young man. Dustin Hoffman also attended a special pre-premiere of Rain Man in Huntington on December 10, 1988, just before its official premiere in New York City on December 12. At that event Dustin Hoffman stated, “We just made a film that will play for a month or two, or whatever, in cities around the world, and be put out on cassette and put on shelves and seen once. But you people have Joe in your community for the rest of your life, and I would take that any day of the week. I think that’s important. He is a very special person who shines through. This magic he has somehow came through to me. When I first looked at that footage I said, ‘I love that man.’ And I love you for making him a part of your community.” Before the screening he stated, “I tried very hard to be myself in this film. But I hope what emerged was Joe’s spirit, because that’s what moved me.”
In his remarkable portrayal of an autistic savant, Dustin Hoffman is careful to point out that while he studied these savants in-depth and got to know them well, he did not seek to imitate them. He used his knowledge about them only to teach him how he might be if he were autistic. He did not seek to mimic Joseph Sullivan; he learned only what it would be like to be autistic and sought to portray that.
He learned his lesson magnificently.
Toothpicks, Phone Books and Square Roots: A Composite Savant
Rain Man is a movie about two conditions — autism and Savant Syndrome. Not all autistic persons are savants, in fact only one in 10 autistic persons have any savant abilities, let alone the prodigious skills of Raymond Babbitt. Dustin Hoffman had two excellent models for autism in Joseph Sullivan and the other two brothers whom he so carefully studied. From that study comes the remarkable replication of the obsession for sameness, the odd and stereotyped mannerisms, the avoidance of affection, unique use of language, and the repetition and clinging to ritual. They provide all the modeling necessary for the autism part of Raymond Babbitt.
But the movie is about Savant Syndrome as well, which exists along with the autism but not as an intrinsic part of the autism itself. It is a separate condition that exists in only some autistic persons. Joe Sullivan certainly has some remarkable savant abilities along with his autism and some of those were “borrowed” for the movie as mentioned above. But Raymond Babbitt’s particular repertoire of savant skills represents a composite savant with the abilities drawn from a number of different individuals reported in the previous chapters of this book, some autistic, some mentally retarded. But the point is, even though composite, the savant skills embodied in Raymond Babbitt do exist and are not merely a screenwriter’s fantasy. The toothpick scene (246 toothpicks seen instantly as they fall to the floor) is the same ability the savant twins, George and Charles, showed with matches. The lightning calculating Raymond Babbitt shows in multiplication or extraction of square roots is common among mathematical savants. Memorization of a phone book through the G’s is not impossible; witness the “exaltation of memory” among the mnemonist savants.
In short, mind-boggling as some of the scenes in Rain Man are, they draw from the kinds of skills that do exist in real-life Rain Men and Rain Women. The story line may be fictional but a factual basis for what may appear to be preposterous skills does exist. To the film’s credit, it did not stray far from the truth for either autism or Savant Syndrome. It did not have to. Autism is that intriguing and Savant Syndrome is that remarkable. There is no need to embellish or alter either one, for together they provide a fascinating story.
Some Major Messages, Some Minor Caveats
When the movie opened in December 1988 it was a smashing success at the box office. Filmed on a budget of $25 million, it grossed $42.4 million in its first 18 days and soon reached the $100 million mark, which only few “blockbuster” films achieve. It is far beyond that mark now and still counting with the videocassette version released on August 30, 1989. The box office success was mirrored with the four Oscars the film was awarded, including Best Picture of 1988.
The film is entertainment, not a documentary. Yet its welcome adherence to credibility is such that it is very informative as well as entertaining, and some important messages come through. First, it portrays the condition of a high-level functioning autistic person accurately, but sensitively. It is clear Dustin Hoffman did his homework and did it well. Second, the institution where Raymond Babbitt lives is a center for the developmentally disabled, not a mental hospital. That is important because autism is a developmental disability and not a mental illness. Third, in explaining to Charlie Babbitt the cause of Raymond’s disorder, the doctor makes it clear, appropriately, that autism is a biologic disorder, not a psychological one, as he talks about “damage to the frontal lobes in the fetal stage” and describes some biological defects in Raymond’s ability to feel and experience. This is important because for so many years families of autistic persons were inappropriately and inexcusably blamed as if they had caused the condition. The horrendously mistaken term “refrigerator mother” arose from that callous, careless and error-laden theory.
Fourth, as mentioned earlier, seeing some tentative and cautious changes in the six-day time span of the movie is more realistic than forging a quick cure of what is a long-term condition. Finally, the story line points out that in dealing with handicapped persons, whatever the handicap, we need to accommodate to their needs and specialness rather than requiring them to make all the changes — to become exactly like us — if they expect to live side-by-side with us in our communities. Indeed Charlie, the “normal” one, by movie’s end, has changed as much as Raymond, the “disabled” one. Rather than always expecting the “sick” to change to become like we who are “well,” perhaps we all need to move a bit to accommodate one another.
Those are some of the important major messages from Rain Man. It enlightens accurately, and it entertains superbly. Still there are several minor caveats that are worth mentioning because they are important especially to the families of autistic and other developmentally disabled persons. First of all, Raymond Babbitt is a high-level functioning autistic person. Yet autism is a disorder with a whole range of disabilities within it. While some autistic persons do function at such a high level, there are many others who are severely disabled and never reach a level of independent functioning seen in Raymond Babbitt. Regrettably, some such persons, even at this point in our knowledge about this disorder and with the best treatment endeavors and tremendous family support, may still require long-term inpatient care. As more and more facilities develop however, such as those Dr. Ruth Sullivan has established to meet the special needs of this population, fewer and fewer autistic persons, savant and non-savant, will be relegated to lifelong institutional care, and increasing numbers will be able to be in the community side-by-side with the rest of us. However, severe disability is still a fact of life for some autistic persons and not all can now, or perhaps ever, function at such a high level as Raymond Babbitt.
A second caveat — not all autistic persons are savants. As pointed out earlier, approximately 10 percent of autistic individuals have savant skills; 90 percent do not. Among those who do have such skills the majority are what I call “talented” savants. The number who have the prodigious skills of Raymond Babbitt are few indeed. The distinction between talented savants and prodigious savants, and their numbers, is explained elsewhere on this website. Suffice it to say that persons with savant skills at the level of Raymond Babbitt are exceedingly rare — but they do exist.
Finally, not all savants are autistic. While the incidence of savant syndrome is much lower among the mentally retarded (.06 percent) than among autistics (10 percent), mental retardation is a much more common condition, so that in practice approximately half of the savants reported in the literature are mentally retarded and half are autistic. The point is while both are developmental disabilities, mental retardation and autism are separate conditions. There can be some crossover, and some mentally retarded persons can have some autistic features, but in general those two conditions have separate etiologies and require separate, specialized treatment and educational approaches. The spectacular savant abilities are grafted onto the basic autism or mental retardation, and savant syndrome exists as a special condition in either of those two disabilities.
On a scale of 1 to 10, for me, the movie Rain Man is a 10. The writers, the producers, the directors, and particularly Dustin Hoffman wanted the film to be real, to be accurate, to be respectful and dignified as it dealt with a delicate topic of handicapped persons, and to be moving. They wanted to capture the wonder and the essence of autism and Savant Syndrome. They succeeded. It was reassuring to see the film industry so concerned about authenticity and believability when that generally is not the way the industry is characterized. It was reassuring also to find writers, directors and actors so open to input from professionals like myself and families such as the Sullivans who deal with autism and Savant Syndrome first-hand and in real life.
Few disabilities will ever experience the kind of massive public awareness in such an empathic, uniformly well received and popular format that Rain Man has afforded autism and Savant Syndrome. Hollywood, and all those associated with this film, did their part, and did it exceedingly well. Now it is up to us — families, professionals and organizations interested in these special persons — to do as well in maintaining a momentum of interest, of inquiry and action so that efforts in understanding Savant Syndrome and treating autism can be propelled along further than ever before — further than they otherwise ever would have been without this magnificent movie.
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For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com