THE BLOG
01/10/2015 05:56 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2015

Hollywood and Asperger's

Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger disorder (AD) or simply Asperger's, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. The syndrome is named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who, in 1944, studied and described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy. The modern conception of Asperger syndrome came into existence in 1981 and went through a period of popularization, becoming standardized as a diagnosis in the early 1990s. As the popularization grew, so did the depiction of Asperger's in movies and television, with varying degrees of accuracy and taste. Quite often these depictions are demeaning and offensive to people with Asperger Syndrome.

According to Asperger's expert psychologist Dr. Tali Shenfield "It is important to acknowledge the role of individuals with Asperger's Syndrome in the history of humankind. Remember that many famous scientists, writers, artists and innovators we admire today (such as Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Alfred Hitchcock, Bobby Fischer and others) had traits of Asperger's. The world would not be the same without them. I think we should focus on understanding and supporting these people rather than ostracizing and mocking them." That said, here are some of the best films dealing with Asperger's:

Adam (2009)
Arguably the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of Asperger's put on film to date, Adam (Hugh Dancy) is a shy and isolated young man living with Asperger's Syndrome in New York City. When he develops a friendship with his pretty neighbor Beth (Rose Byrne), a kind-hearted kindergarten teacher. Adam's struggle to have a conventional human relationship is explored with poignancy and sensitivity, and Dancy's portrait of Asperger's is spot-on, choosing to recite facts about various subjects on which he's an expert, particularly space exploration, as opposed to connecting emotionally in the conventional sense. Although it contains a great deal of humor from its many awkward situations, Adam is a well-rounded portrait of a complex and all-too-human character.

My Name Is Khan (2010)
A powerful film that combines social and political commentary with a sympathetic and realistic portrait of Asperger's, My Name is Khan tells the story of Rizvan Khan, an Indian Muslim immigrant (Shah Rukh Khan) who seems to be living the American dream until 9/11 hits and he and his adopted family suddenly finds themselves the targets of anti-Muslim violence in their neighborhood, culminating in the murder of his stepson. In spite of his difficulty in social situations due to Asperger's, Khan is determined to prove to the American people that not all Muslim's are terrorists, and takes a Candide-like journey cross-country, hoping to gain an audience with President George W. Bush to plead his case. A film that pulls no punches, My Name is Khan also treats its subject with tremendous sensitivity and heart.

Mozart and the Whale (2005)
Based on the true story of Jerry and Mary Newport, two Asperger's adults who fell in love and the challenges their relationship faced due to their condition, the filmmakers changed the characters' names to Donald (Josh Hartnett) and Isabella (Radha Mitchell). The two meet through a group Donald starts for autistic adults to meet, discuss their problems and help prevent the loneliness and isolation people with Asperger's and other forms of autism often experience. As their relationship develops, Donald and Isabella find that although their difficulty in social situations makes aspects of being together challenging, the difficulties of their pasts helps create a powerful bond between them.

Temple Grandin (2010)
Originally made for HBO, Claire Danes gives one of her best performances as the titular character, a woman from a prominent Arizona family who is born with severe autism, which made growing up in the 1950s and '60s especially difficult. In spite of her handicap, Temple displays a remarkable affinity with animals, and goes on to invent a "squeeze machine," which becomes a game-changing device in the humane livestock handling business. After going on to earn a PhD in animal science and becoming an internationally renowned speaker on the subjects of autism and the humane treatment of animals, Dr. Temple Grandin is one of the most prominent autistic adults in history and her story one of the most inspirational.

Little Man Tate (1991)
Actress Jodie Foster made her directing debut with this heart-felt story of Dede Tate, a blue collar single mother (Foster) raising her son Fred (Adam Hann-Byrd), a pathologically shy and awkward child who also happens to be a math and piano prodigy. When Dr. Jane Grierson, a dedicated, and ambitious, child psychologist (Dianne Wiest) meets Fred, she immediately wants to enroll him in her private school for exceptional children, most of whom have traits of Asperger's and other disorders. What follows is a battle of wills between two strong women over control of Fred's future: Dede wants Fred to have as normal a life as possible, while Dr. Grierson wants Fred's talents and abilities to be nurtured so he can have as full a life as possible (and also wants to exploit Fred's genius for her own benefit). Foster wisely tells the tale from Fred's point-of-view, giving the audience an intimate look into the mind and heart of an Asperger's child.