Don't Know from Adam

Were it not for its titular character's Asperger's Syndrome, Adam would be an unremarkable, color-by-numbers romantic comedy, with a couple who meet serendipitously, fall in love, encounter some obstacle, and try to miraculously overcome it. But whether it is a good movie is somewhat beside the point. By placing Adam (Hugh Dancy) on the autism spectrum, writer-director Max Mayer ensured that the film would be not a 90-minute dose of light escapism but a heavily didactic exercise. Adam is less interested in entertaining than in showing neurotypicals that Aspies are people, too.

In certain respects, Adam fulfills that mission. Mayer captures the lived experience of Asperger's in great detail and with great care. A previously ignorant viewer will leave the theater with a working knowledge of the syndrome's symptoms and at least some empathy for the experiences of those of us who have it. Yet that same viewer would also conclude that, like Adam, Asperger's people have their charms but cannot function in normal adult relationships. In one scene, Beth (Rose Byrne), Adam's love interest, asks the headmaster of the elementary school where she teaches if people with Asperger's are "dating material." The film's answer appears to be "no."

To be sure, Mayer's portrayal of Asperger's is meticulous bordering on uncanny. In back-to-back scenes, Beth receives the same introduction to the syndrome from Adam and her boss -- complete with symptoms, notable people on the autism spectrum, and appreciable benefits -- that for years psychiatrists have delivered, almost verbatim, to parents of recently diagnosed children. Indeed, Beth's headmaster even loans her a copy of Liane Holliday Willey's Pretending to Be Normal, which along with Tony Attwood's authoritative Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals is one of two books on every Aspie parent's bookshelf.

Beyond this exposition, the film takes pains to show the day-to-day effects of Asperger's. The opening scenes pan through Adam's room, highlighting the identical macaroni and cheese containers packed in his refrigerator, the copies of the same outfit hanging in his closet, and his habit of checking astronomy news on his laptop while eating dinner. As someone with a freezer stocked with five identical boxes of Eggo waffles and a nasty habit of using my RSS reader at meals, I found the almost offhandedly detailed depiction astounding, and uncomfortably familiar.

That said, the practical effect of this detail was to make Adam less a real character than a conglomeration of symptoms. The main criteria used by psychiatrists in diagnosing Asperger's require subjects to exhibit "at least two" of certain qualities, "at least one" of others, and so on. Adam, however, exhibits all of them. Indeed, it is hard to think of an aspect of his personality that belongs to Adam exclusively, rather than to the syndrome. His bluntness toward Beth's parents? Asperger's. His occasional emotional outbursts? Asperger's. His overly formal language? Asperger's, too.

Adam, then, is not really a person. He is Asperger's incarnate. To the film's viewers, his blessings are Asperger's blessings, and his flaws are Asperger's flaws. Even without this exaggerated character reliance on the syndrome, a previously unfamiliar viewer could be forgiven for extrapolating their perception of Asperger's from Adam's behavior. When that personality is wholly dependent on the syndrome, the danger of making such a generalization is greater still.

This would not be a problem if the character's behavior did not diverge from that of most Aspies when examined above the level of details. However, despite the script's obvious deference to clinical descriptions of the syndrome, on a larger level Adam is a different, and less sympathetic, character than most real-life adults with Asperger's. Adam is portrayed as immature and childlike in ways that do not resemble any adult Aspie I know. His love for astronomy comes across as more similar to a 6-year-old's enthusiasm for dinosaurs than to the curiosity of an adult scientist. Like a kindergartner rattling off facts about stegosauruses, he has immediate recall of data points but no ability to connect them and make real insights. As he explains the universe's expansion to Beth, or features to look for in a telescope to one of her friends, he simply dumps information but reaches no conclusions.

This would be insulting enough if people on the autism spectrum were not already known for our ability to synthesize and organize information into practical solutions or abstract theories. Take Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist who uses her immense knowledge of agriculture to design more humane slaughterhouses, or Vernon Smith, the Nobel laureate economist with Asperger's, whose invention of the entire field of experimental economics is not the work of someone with just a penchant for factoids. Indeed, economist Tyler Cowen, a former colleague of Smith's who identifies as someone with "autistic cognitive features" has singled this out as a key aspect of autism. "Autistic people usually have a superior desire and talent for assembling and ordering information," he writes. Watching Adam, one would guess the precise opposite.

The film's treatment of Adam's relationship skills is yet more patronizing. His relationship with Beth is more similar to that of a young boy with his mother than to a grown man with his girlfriend. Her interactions with her elementary school students and with Adam have a disturbingly similar tone. She performs study drills to prepare Adam for job interviews, drags him to social events, and orders him around at whim. When he discovers that Beth has lied to him and, quite understandably, becomes upset, Beth uses the motherly role she has carved out as a bludgeon. "You're a child," she yells. "Fuck Asperger's -- you're a fucking child." Everyone, from the two of them, to Beth's cartoonishly villainous father, appears to agree on this much: Adam is a child unprepared for relationships, not an adult worthy of a girlfriend.

For all his attention to detail, Mayer completely missed this larger, and more dangerous misrepresentation of Asperger's. Even a performance as nuanced as Dancy's and a script as careful as Mayer's cannot prevent the film from delivering a blunt message: Asperger's may not be all bad, but those with it are certainly not worth dating. Our social awkwardness, it suggests, is not a legitimate difference but an insurmountable obstacle to intimacy. Our occasional inability to express affection is equated with an inability to have affection. A woman in Beth's position, beginning a relationship with a man with Asperger's but uncertain where it will lead, will leave the theater determined to break things off. Adam, then, is a funny little beast, a romantic comedy about Asperger's that leaves no room for romance in the lives of Aspies. Even as it gets our symptoms right, it does not appear to think we deserve love.