I learned about autism from Boston Legal. The character Jerry Espenson, made distinct by his weird quirks, such as purring and walking with his hands clasped to his thighs, is revealed to have Asperger syndrome. While the show treated him sympathetically, it wasn’t above using his social dysfunction for laughs, and it also wildly misrepresented how those on the spectrum actually act. So until I did the research on my own, a television show was the basis for my understanding of the disorder.
That’s not flattering to young me’s intellectual rigor, but it speaks to the unfortunate truth that a lot of people learn about the world from pop culture. How much of the popular perception of autism comes from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man? More recently, the Temple Grandin biopic took pains to accurately portray the interior life of an individual with autism. And there are, of course multiple documentaries about the subject. No one should learn everything from the movies, but in recent years filmmakers have generally become more conscious of how their work can affect their audience.
All this is to say that while Too Sane for this World did not do much for me emotionally or intellectually, I’m glad that it’s been made. I’m glad that this film exists. It seeks to inform a layperson about what autism is, how someone on the spectrum perceives the world and acts, and how this shapes their place in society. It fulfills that goal in an artistically flat, unambitious way. The film is nothing more than a vehicle for the delivery of facts. It is perfect for classroom viewing, and I hope that plenty of future students learn about autism with materials such as this instead of Rain Man or Boston Legal.
The doc weaves together interviews with twelve different people on the spectrum. They come from a variety of class, ethnic and national backgrounds. Despite these diverse origins, their shared condition has put them in a similar place of estrangement from neurotypical people. Autism, one woman explains, is a culture all its own, not just a disorder. And the difficulty that “normal” people have in understanding and accepting them seems to be a greater cause of distress for autistic people than anything that comes from autism itself.
Thus, Too Sane for This World is built as a bridge between autistic and neurotypical people. The questions asked in the interviews were all devised by autistic individuals, ensuring their maximum effectiveness in getting good answers. There are no outside experts to explain anything to the audience. Everyone who speaks in this documentary, beginning with the introduction by Temple Grandin, is autistic. That alone makes a solid case that autistic integration into society is perfectly doable.
The best parts of the film come when it challenges the common perception of what autistic people can do. Late in the doc Robyn, a young woman who in many ways seems to exemplify all the stereotypical traits, launches into a vivacious and funny motivational speech at an awareness function. If Too Sane for This World had more moments like that, it’d make its point even better and would be more memorable for it. As it is, the documentary is fine. It’s not special, but it doesn’t try to be.
Too Sane for This World is available on DVD starting tomorrow and will be on VOD starting May 8th. Check out the trailer below.