Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D., written with Max Sederer, M.A.T.
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Adam's mother died when he was eight. He had the great fortune of having a loving and supportive father until he too died leaving this 20-something with Asperger's Syndrome alone in life. So begins the 2009 film, Adam, with Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, and directed by Max Mayer.
The neurological differences in people with Asperger's Syndrome (defined as being on the more functional side of the Autism 'spectrum') called for Adam receiving educational services and social supports different from his peers -- which his father had worked to provide him. Without his dad, he had no one, except for an avuncular friend of his dad's who tries to coach Adam in how to succeed in everyday life.
That is no small task. Despite his high intelligence and remarkable memory, Adam, like many people with Asperger's Syndrome, has serious impairments in his ability to read social cues. He is limited because research suggests that when this type of information is sent along the nerve connections (synapses) in the brain it is compromised, resulting in difficulty with appreciating facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Adam, additionally, has trouble seeing the full picture of what is going on around him: he not only misses seeing the woods through the trees, but the trees through the leaves. Thus, people with this condition develop interests that are often narrow and compulsively driven. For Adam it was astronomy and animals. Adam also suffers extreme anxiety associated with new and different experiences, a common symptom of Asperger's Syndrome which can lead to seeking haven in a life of repetition or isolation.
Adam could only be accepted, not to mention find work and friends, in mainstream society when he learned to channel his special capabilities and train himself socially to exist successfully within a community of "neurotypicals" (that's what we normals are called by people on the 'spectrum'). But he was far from having done that when he is fired from his job as an engineer in an electronic toy company (a job his father found for him) because he could not make a 1000 toys for a dollar each, rather than produce one perfect toy that his boss told him would cost a thousand dollars and that no one could afford to buy.
Perfectionism is all too common within the AS community and often leads to difficulty with supervisors and peers in workplace settings. Bereft of family and out of work Adam's world is crashing around him and his intrinsically limited adaptive skills are stretched agonizingly thin.
That is where the love story of this movie begins. Beth, a writer of children's books working as a school teacher, whose heart has been wounded but not broken, moves into his building. She is drawn to Adam's innocence and honesty: He declares we (referring to people with Asperger's) don't lack imagination, we are just really honest. She is smitten by the wonder he can feel which brings simple joy and awe into her life. But she also has to contend with what has been called "mind blindness": when people with this disorder think that others think the same thing they do. That might be fine when shopping for clothing but it can wreck havoc with friendship, intimacy and sex.
The struggles of a person with Asperger's Syndrome are painful and poignant. Like being a stranger in your own land. There is little margin in everyday life to allow for the peculiarities that characterize Asperger's and the understanding and patience it demands of others, despite the talent and loyalty that these special individuals bring to the party. When the soil, the community, that surrounds them is right -- with understanding, appreciation, opportunity and patience -- they bloom. That soil -- that community -- is us, the neurotypicals, as well as those with Asperger's Syndrome. In fact, it's everyone on the "human spectrum."
The narrative of the story has Beth torn between her dysfunctional family and dysfunctional Adam. Her father tells her that "he is more like your child," which indeed she only discovers when exigencies burst all their bubbles. The denouement is painful yet hopeful. Let's grow up, the film resolves. "We go on, not back" lyrics in the score tell us. We see how love takes many forms, including when it transforms someone -- when it fuels Adam, Beth or any of us -- to take our life to its next maturation level. With love, we don't just go on, we go to the light.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. -- Lloyd I. Sederer, MD.
Max Sederer is Adult Services Program Manager of the Asperger's Association of New England (AANE) and holds a Masters of Arts in Teaching. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not represent the views of the AANE.