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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Familiar

Autism advocates embrace the movie, slam critics who disparage the hero 

Beth Arky

Writer
Child Mind Institute

The critics came down so hard on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a boy's struggle to make sense of his father's death on 9/11, that when the Oscar nominations were announced, the Huffington Post heralded it as the "Worst Reviewed Movie of the Past 10 Years" to receive a Best Picture nod. Much of the vitriol was aimed at director Stephen Daldry—Rotten Tomatoes said that while Loud is a story worth telling, "it deserves better than the treacly and pretentious treatment...Daldry gives it." But some of the harshest, not to mention most surprising, salvos were fired at the character of Oskar, the 9-year-old at the center of the story. 

Oskar's constant commentary, social difficulties, severe anxiety and overwhelming sensory issues all point toward an autism spectrum disorder, although he reports at one point that he was screened for Asperger's, but the result was "inconclusive." So autism advocates were quick to find offense when reviewers like The New York Times' Manohla Dargis proclaimed that in real life Oskar "would be one of those children who inspire some adults to coo and cluck while reminding others of how grateful they are to be child-free."  Worse, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle called him "creepy," "weird," "snappish" and "superior." Autism Key's Michelle Gonzalez found the trend disturbing. "It appears that many moviegoers and critics take issue with the way children with autism behave and speak," she wrote.

It wasn't just critics who took potshots at Oskar. In an IMDB review of the film starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, one user in New Zealand posted, "Top notch talents put themselves at the service of this jarring tale led by Thomas Horn a young actor, talented I'm sure, but here, he is utterly unpleasant. A precious child with a jarring voice that should be stopped, now!"

But Gonzalez saved her toughest condemnation for AP movie writer David Germain, who called Oskar "shrill." "You make allowances in life for people you encounter with autism," Germain wrote, "but spending two hours with a fictional character possessing autistic qualities can be grating." The furious Gonzalez retorted, "Mr. Germain and others have exposed what we as parents contend with on a regular basis, which is the overt discrimination and contempt towards our children by the general public at large.

"Had Germain made such statements about a movie character's race or sexual orientation," the blogger continued, "I'm sure we'd be hearing a lot more outcry. But unfortunately, other than a few Web sites and autism message boards, there has been little fanfare made about the AP writer's sentiments."

One mom commenting on Gonzalez's post wrote, "It's really interesting (but not surprising) to hear of people's contempt for the mannerisms of this character portrayal. There really is a low threshold for tolerance for people with this disability. I have experienced the disdain of strangers firsthand, while trying to maneuver through everyday life with my Autistic daughter."

Over at the Times, Dargis' review emboldened at least one filmgoer to write, "'The Brat' would be a better title for this stupid and silly adventure." But there was also this insightful comment regarding Oskar's character: "The lack of social grace appears to be a choice, or worse a judgment as lazy, too rude or arrogant to relate to the world. This is simply not the case. Enter the cold-calculating Ms. Dargis and her review in the venerable newspaper of record. SHOCKING. This reviewer so missed the significance of Asperger's in this film, she should spend some significant time educating herself."

The reaction spread to Facebook, where Steve Summers—who received his Asperger's diagnosis after his 11-year old son's—responded to LaSalle's SF Chronicle review. "As an Aspie myself, I find his disparaging comments about [Oskar's] Asperger's characteristics insulting and hurtful.... We already deal with enough negative attitudes from ignorant people. This review just fuels those negative stereotypes. We need more acceptance and understanding, not more negativity and insults." And someone went so far as to create a Facebook page titled "Like if you wish David Germain was more understanding of the ASD community."

So what does Oskar do to elicit such rancor? To put it simply, spectrum-y things: He covers his ears to block out the noise of screeching subways and loud planes. He is always talking about what matters to him, whether we're hearing his racing thoughts as narrative or out loud. He has trouble with social interactions. He perseverates, opening and closing a door over and over again. Upon learning his father (Hanks) has died in one of the Towers, he retreats under a bed, refusing to be comforted by his mother (Bullock) or grandmother. When he believes a key found in an envelope with the name Black written on it will lead him to some concrete answers as to his father's incomprehensible death, he sets off on an elaborate quest to find all the Blacks in New York City patterned on the "expeditions" his father created for him. He fixates on numbers, including the number of times someone has hugged him and the number of times he has lied in pursuit of his quest. He becomes so single-minded, no one and nothing—not even his disabling phobias—will deter him. And when he's unable to express his torment in any other way, he rages at both people and things around him and, in some of the most heartbreaking scenes, himself.

And then there is the tambourine. Oskar carries the instrument everywhere, a behavior that must seem incredibly odd and annoying to those outside the autism universe. But he shakes it to soothe his anxiety: The more jangled he becomes, the more violently he jangles. Shelley Bereman-Benevides, a rehabilitation counselor who has been working with children on the spectrum for more than 20 years, explains that the tambourine is "a familiar comforting sound/movement. It can block out other sounds that may be causing distress." This comforting movement might qualify as stimming, something that has only recently begun to be embraced by the autism community.

ASD parents have found certain scenes to be incredibly poignant. In one intimate exchange, Oskar's father and mother discuss how the adventures are meant to help him overcome his social difficulties by forcing him to initiate and sustain conversations; they are working hard to understand and assist a son whose brain thinks, feels and processes the world in a way far different from their own. Oskar makes stunningly cold remarks, but his mother understands that they come not from a place of cruelty but from a child who lacks the ability to self-edit. She doesn't connect with Oskar the way his father did, but she more than makes up for it with abundant patience, acceptance and love. Oskar struggles, knowing that he is different and may not be showing his love in a way his mother will understand—but she does.

Foer declined to be interviewed about Oskar, but he has said he based the character on himself. "As for how much I actually was like him, it's hard to say," the author said. "Like most children, I had a number of collections. And I suppose my interests tended toward the esoteric, and my style toward the precocious and annoying..... Am I still like that? Fortunately, or unfortunately, most of Oskar has been civilized out of me."

Tim Appelo of The Hollywood Reporter says that based on his interviews with Daldry (The Hours, The Reader), he believes Loud is "not a movie about Asperger's in the way that, say, A Beautiful Mind is about schizophrenia. Though Daldry screened the film for experts and kids with Asperger's before release, soliciting their input, he made a specific artistic choice to make Oskar's diagnosis inconclusive. He didn't want Asperger's to define the character. The disorder is Foer's literary device and Daldry's cinematic storytelling device. His Oskar is a kind of genius who devises his own therapy for grief, enabled by his odd, obsessive turn of mind. I don't think Daldry means to suggest he's a typical Asperger's kid."

Yet when Daldry spoke with Indiwire, he said that despite the lack of a diagnosis, he wanted to portray Asperger's realistically. According to at least one person who commented, he "nailed" it. "As a mother of an 11 year old Aspie," she wrote, "I wept through the entire film, as the family connections so mirrored my own. Oskar is my son, and his relationship with his father is that of him and my husband. However, the ending left me so connected, as Sandra Bullock so expertly captured the lives of our children through times of rejection, sacrifice and heartache. This movie will stay in my heart for all of my life. Much love for the pure, raw truths of being an Asperger's family."

It isn't hard to draw a number of parallels between Loud and Touch, the Fox show starring Kiefer Sutherland that left some autism advocates cold. Both feature less-than-typical boys whose autism diagnosis is unclear (it's almost as if the uncertainty among psychiatrists looking to update the diagnostic criteria has seeped into pop culture); both hinge on the loss of a beloved parent in 9/11; both feature a surviving parent still trying desperately to connect with an emotionally remote child 10 years after what Oskar calls "the worst day ever"; and both involve the boys' highly sophisticated scavenger hunts, which provide salvation for others, if not themselves.

But what conclusions may be drawn when the nonverbal, magical boy on Touch wins over audiences and critics, while Loud's extremely verbal, "quirky" Oskar draws fire? It's tough to ignore the thought that the public is more open to the neurodiverse when they don't make a sound.

Published: February 7, 2012

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twyla · Nov 13 2012 Report

I loved this movie. I am the mom of a son who has autism, but he does not have Asperger's and he is very different from Oskar. Yet for me Oskar's character rang very true. I think they left his diagnosis uncertain because the movie is about an individual. And everyone with or without any form of autism is an individual. So why do we need to know the diagnosis for sure? And, I think many kids these days are kind of on the borders of the ASD spectrum. After all, it is a spectrum. I found the movie to be so moving. I had resisted seeing it because the subject matter sounded so bleak. But it is a wonderful movie and I thought it handled such big issues in a good way. As I watched it I too was concerned about the mother's seeming distance, and there were certain things that didn't seem right, but then at the end there is a twist and things come together in a way that makes a lot of sense. A deep and original movie, great script, outstanding acting.

slawrunner · Oct 31 2012 Report

I was afraid to watch the movie because of its potential to be emotionally overwhelming. I saw it last night for the first time 10-30-12 and thought it was a wonderful movie. I've been reading about the reviews and cannot believe that anyone said anything negative about the child. He was the most compelling character of all. This movie was magnificently directed. I thought it was clever how the tambourine was like an audible barometer of what the child was feeling on the inside. I could tell that he showed characteristics of being on the spectrum of Autism Spectrum Disorder and just like the child stated, there is no definitive diagnosis for ASD, so tests would be "inconclusive". I loved the way the director showed the way a child with fears can learn to overcome some of those fears. Any child would have been horribly traumatized by the events of 9/11 and that pain could manifest in numerous ways. I loved watching the child and others slowly coming to grips with the tragedy and finding ways to move on. As I watched the film I was concerned about how distant the mother seemed. The end was wonderful and showed her close connection to the child all along. I was deeply moved and fascinated with the activites of the child. I'm a special ed. teacher with a certificate in Autism Intervention and just loved the movie.

toysaretools · Feb 08 2012 Report

I am so sad by this story but in a good way. It appears that parents and educators and clinicians still have so much more work to do in terms of educating the public about gifted children with special needs. Thus articles like the one Beth Arky wrote here are so important. Clinicians can treat disorders to the best of their abilities but in the end, some differences must be recognized and understood. Medicine and other therapies are not meant to make everyone the same. So much good can come from just understanding another person. On the flip side, so much bad can obviously happen from not understanding these precious children. Thank you for the wake up call, it reminds me of my favorite post from John Elder Robison about the emotional challenges you face when you are high-functioning with special needs. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/my-life-aspergers/200908/which-is-easier-being-genius-or-being-retarded

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