Rain Man (1988) is a story about a young man, named Charlie Babbitt, who discovers he has an older brother with autism. They travel on the road together for six days from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, during which time Charlie gains an understanding of his brother Raymond. In this journey, Rain Man portrays an autistic savant realistically and invites its viewers to see the world through the eyes of someone with autism. It explores the significance of labeling people with exceptionalities, the effects of biases and attitudes on one’s understanding, and the value of changing our ways instead of the ways of those with exceptionalities.
Rain Man approaches the issue of autism in society through Charlie’s journey from a lack of knowledge to understanding and acceptance. His discovery of an older brother is less than ideal as he grapples with his father’s death, who left him an old car and some rosebushes while “[someone who] doesn’t understand the concept of money” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 00:22:00) receives $3,000,000 in a trust fund. So, Charlie “kidnaps” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 00:27:01) Raymond in an attempt to get his half of his father’s estate that he is “entitled to” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 00:41:26). Throughout the movie, a couple of doctors in the movie explained Raymond’s situation. In particular, Dr. Bruner of Wallbrook, an institution for the developmentally disabled, says:
“He’s an autistic savant. . . . Some people like him used to be called idiot savants. They have certain deficiencies, certain abilities. . . . [He is] actually high functioning. . . . There’s a disability that impairs the sensory input and how it’s processed. . . . Raymond has a problem communicating and learning. He can’t even express himself or probably even understand his emotions in a traditional way. There are dangers everywhere for Raymond. Routines, rituals, that’s all he has to protect himself. . . . Any break from that [sic] routines and it’s terrifying.” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 00:20:33).
However, Charlie does not fully understand what this description entails until he spends several days with Raymond out of his comfort zone. This explanation from the beginning of the movie sets up Rain Man’s disability-related themes such as the portrayal of autism and the discrimination against people with this biological disorder.
Charlie continuously loses patience with Raymond’s peculiarities. He calls Raymond “stupid” and “retarded” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 00:20:26). Charlie’s use of language “reflect[s] and reinforce[s] [his] attitudes and perceptions” (Snow, 2002-06, p. 1) towards his brother. To Charlie, “[Raymond] was only [his] brother in name” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 02:01:22) and that he is essentially a means to an end. He takes for granted Dr. Bruner’s explanation of Raymond’s condition. Instead, Charlie focuses on the negative and takes Raymond’s only way “to protect himself” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 00:21:14) as an inconvenience. Thus, his attitude towards his new-found brother is one of apathy and indifference.
Although Charlie’s language and attitude towards Raymond “defines [his] perspective . . . [and] reveals [his] values” (Bruyns, 2016a), Rain Man also shows that this comes from his lack of knowledge on the subject matter due largely to living a life separate from Raymond. As the Babbitt brothers continue their journey across the country, so does Charlie move closer to an understanding of his brother. He argues during the psychological interview that he has “made a connection” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 02:01:47) with Raymond, which is mirrored in Raymond’s mention of Charlie as “[his] main man” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 02:06:19). In spite of this noticeable change in Raymond’s strict routine (with Vern being his original main man), there is no significant change in his attitudes and behaviour in the six days he has been away from Wallbrook. In contrast, viewers see the biggest change in Charlie: he learns to accept Raymond as his “family” (Johnson & Levinson, 1988, 02:00:07) regardless of his autism.
Charlie changes his ways and accommodates Raymond’s peculiarities as they travel and take several stops at various inns and hotels. For instance, he drives the Buick from Cincinnati to Los Angeles when Raymond becomes anxious about boarding any plane; he drives slowly on the shoulder of a highway behind his brother when Raymond refuses to get back in the car; and he rearranges the furniture in hotel rooms to replicate Raymond’s bedroom at Wallbrook (Johnson & Levinson, 1988). Throughout the journey, Charlie eventually views Raymond “as [a] full and equal [member] in society” (Bruyns, 2016b) and cultivates a sense of belonging for Raymond at every place they go. Charlie includes Raymond into the ‘outside world’.
This is such a stark contrast to what Raymond has presumably gone through in the years he lived at Wallbrook. Charlie comes to an understanding that his brother was sent there for both of their protection and for Raymond to “access activities/education” (Bruyns, 2016b) at his developmental level. Albeit helpful and responsive to Raymond’s needs, Wallbrook essentially separated Raymond from the ‘outside world’ since he was “placed only with other individuals with disabilities” (Bruyns, 2016b). This segregation has further affected Raymond’s already-different view of ‘reality’. As he journeys with his brother, Raymond faces obstacles to his routines, among others, of watching specific TV shows at particular times, and of eating specific food with particular ‘utensils’, i.e. toothpicks (Johnson & Levinson, 1988). Consequently, he cannot fully participate in society beyond Wallbrook’s boundaries.
Despite the wrong reasons that Charlie’s ‘kidnapping’ of Raymond begins with, the Babbitt brothers’ journey gives Raymond an opportunity to experience inclusion and to feel a sense of belonging. Simultaneously, Charlie goes through a journey of understanding and acceptance of his brother, his brother’s autism, and his overall family situation. Through Charlie, Rain Man portrays a society that does not know or understand disabilities and exceptionalities. I realize that separating these individuals from the majority of the population makes it difficult for both parties to understand each other. Because in an attempt to understand the unknown, society labels individuals with exceptionalities and shuns them without fully comprehending how similar they actually are with everyone else. Additionally, when such segregation is broken and someone from one group becomes immersed in the world of the other, there is a type of culture shock that brings fear and uncertainty. In turn, this leads to discrimination, resistance, and antagonism. Rain Man shows this scenario in a microcosmic scale, focusing on Charlie who feels shocked at the discovery of an older brother he has never known.
Therefore, as an educator, my first step in supporting inclusion is to educate myself about the philosophy of inclusion and everything that it entails, including critical thinking and self-reflection. This gives me a better understanding of my own attitudes and beliefs and what I would need to do to change them, if necessary. In particular, self-reflection allows me to be more aware of my behaviour and the language I use. Accordingly, I think that it is important to have all children, families, and staff to be educated about inclusion and what it means to understand and accept individual differences. Inclusion education also provides us with tools in designing an environment that is inclusive and supportive of all.
Thus, my next step is to create a universally designed learning environment by applying the seven principles of universal design to support inclusion. An “equitable [and flexible] curriculum . . . designed to engage all students” (Conn-Powers, Cross, Traub, & Hutter-Pishgahi, 2006, p. 3) allows all types of learners to explore and investigate their curiosities at their own pace or with the help of their peers. This requires authentic observation, critical reflection, and careful planning on my part as I take into account the interests and the developmental levels of the children. Additionally, open communication with the centre staff gives us an opportunity to share ideas in creating such a curriculum that can be presented in multiple ways “that will most effectively reach [the children]” (Conn-Powers, Cross, Traub, & Hutter-Pishgahi, 2006, p. 3) and allows us to design the early learning environment that welcomes a “[variety of] physical and cognitive access by students” (Conn-Powers, Cross, Traub, & Hutter-Pishgahi, 2006, p. 3). This accessibility is extended to the organization of learning materials in the classroom so that there is an “appropriate level of student effort . . . that promotes comfort, addresses motivation, and encourages student engagement” (Conn-Powers, Cross, Traub, & Hutter-Pishgahi, 2006, p. 3). Furthermore, I intend to involve the children and their families in the planning processes to ensure that their voices are heard. In doing so, we can work together in creating a “success-oriented curriculum” (Conn-Powers, Cross, Traub, & Hutter-Pishgahi, 2006, p. 3) that is delivered in “simple and intuitive instruction” (Conn-Powers, Cross, Traub, & Hutter-Pushgahi, 2006, p. 3). In creating a universally designed learning environment, I hope to go, with the children and the adults I work with, on a journey of understanding and acceptance of others we perceive to be different from us. I also hope that together we learn to make a connection with individuals with exceptionalities, just as Charlie made a connection with Raymond.
Conn-Powers, M., Cross, A. F., Traub, E. K, and Hutter-Pishgahi, L. (2006). The universal design of early education: moving forward for all children. Beyond the Journal: Young Children. Retrieved from www.journal.naeyc.org/about/permissions.asp
Bruyns, A. (2016a). People first language [Lecture]. Brampton, ON: Sheridan College.
Bruyns, A. (2016b). What is inclusion [Lecture]. Brampton, ON: Sheridan College.
Johnson, M. (Producer), & Levinson, B. (Director). (2008). Rain Man [Motion picture]. USA: United Artists.
Snow, K. (2002-06). The case against “special needs”. Retrieved from https://www.disabilityisnatural.com/special-needs.html