OK the title gave away the subject: no point doing the slow dance into the bombshell, there it is.
Starting with a couple of caveats:
1: I don’t mean the comment as either insulting or derogatory. I also don’t really mean it as a flamegate: the opening to a series of arguments over a subject whether I believe in the truth of it or not. In the simplest reading of the words that’s what I mean…
2: I am a total fanboy when it comes to Pixar films. I’ve got the majority of the DVD’s, a couple of the toys and bubble baths and so on and so forth. Again, this is not aimed as being a hidden argument or criticism. The story of Wall-E is touching and beautifully rendered (in both senses of the word) so, again, no criticism implied.
3: My son is on the autistic spectrum, high in some areas, low in others. He requires and receives special education and… well… You can possibly guess the rest.
Wall-E was a phenomenal film. I loved it from start to finish, as I knew I would, and, as soon as the film was finished, both of my children asked for the DVD, innocently unaware that I would have bought it anyway. During a family holiday we had all taken an afternoon out to see Wall-E on the ‘big TV’ as it’s called in our world and we all came out with big smiles and, for both my wife and I, a certain thoughtfulness. My main question was whether the majority of the audience knew that an unlikely hero had made it onto the screen in more ways than one and just how remarkable the hero was.
A short while later we returned home from holiday – these things a fraught experience at times because a change of routine – while welcome for some people – is a huge burden on autists. We struggle on because it’s good to try and break some routines and my daughter needs things to feel normal, sometimes, even though our lives are often far removed from that particular mirage. Hence a holiday, despite the fact that we know three of the ten or so days will be a minefield and that it gives complete strangers the chance to look at us and judge us as bad parents.
One of the first things I did when the list of needs had been addressed was to do a search for reviews of the film. I assumed that someone would be asking the same questions that I was: how had such a unique characteristic been captured so beautifully? Had anyone realised the honesty of autism that the film portrayed in such a positive way? The lack of any answers, or more to the point any similar questions, surprised me.
Caveat 4: in my experience I find that it’s fairly normal for parents of autistic children to project the normalities and consequences of autism onto any or all seemingly normal facets of life. Autism was, at one point, referred to as ‘extreme maleness’ and there’s a truth to that still. Many people who I know and love can be mildly autistic in some of their habits and oddities, I am too, in ways. None of us like a routine broken, many of us misunderstand certain social understandings when they are first introduced to us, it’s easy to be so sure we’ve explained something adequately only to be faced with the reality of our self centered instructions, many people watch and re-watch a dvd or video to take comfort from the secure repetition and so on… The problem is that the word is such a weighted one it’s hard to use in a normal context: much like cancer the word autism has become a fashion label for fear delivering a parcel of well known misunderstandings far greater than any real information, unless you live in or around that world… It amazes me to find how many people have relatives, friends, relations who are on the spectrum yet misunderstand some of the more usual facets of it.
Which brings us to the evidence for the assertion: why do I believe Wall-E is autistic?
In brief: Wall-E – and I mean the central character rather than the film in total – is echolalic: he speaks in echoed patterns rather than understood meaning. He is socially unaware – maintaining the routines and regimes of the world he has locked himself into rather than adapting to the social norms of others. He is kind an naive, innocent and childlike, despite being a much older model than his behaviour might point to.
There’s more: he plays and replays a favourite video, understanding the world through the context of an invented and unlived fantasy rather than the world which is in front of him… He collects strange objects which have no meaning other than to himself and he loves, cares for a categorises these objects with a fondness that goes over and above a simple collection. His best friend, until the arrival of EVE, is a non-verbal insect which Wall-E finds comfort in being around despite the lack of interaction on a verbal level… In fact it is the lack of trying to understand verbal commands that would make Wall-E so comfortable with the insect in the first place. If he were an autistic child.
He meets and befriends people, whether they want to be accepted or not, not aware of when they want to maintain a distance from his actions and simply conform to type. He accepts and responds to the help of a similarly unique bunch of characters – all shunned for not being able to stick to the accepted rules of the society they live in… There’s more, lots more, although as the DVD is out in a few short days I dare say there’ll be time to add to this and edit it. There’s also, I’m told, a short film which continues the story which I’m interested in catching.
I’m not, in any way, trying to diminish the achievement of Pixar in creating such a unique character as Wall-E. In fact the opposite is more the case. I found it an affirming message when confronted by so much that focuses on the negatives of autism. I found it reminded me of the things I love about my son, especially when that is a hard thing to keep sight of, and I found it something that I’m sure he and I will watch over and over and we will both enjoy for our own reasons. To have such a sympathetic character so beautifully portrayed is an incredible achievement – something which I feel Pixar should have been more praised for yet we seem to simply expect it of them.
The film is out on monday in the UK on DVD. I’ll be using it to teach others about the intricacies of the autistic mind when and if I need to do so as it puts so much across in the most subtle and heartfelt of ways. Mostly I’ll be watching it with my son, probably quite a few times, and enjoying the closeness that it brings us because, for the first time that we sit together and watch something it truly will be closer to our world than anything we’ve watched to date…
… and the irony is that it was a sci-fi film rendered on super-computers that managed to send the message home.