Representations of neurodivergence in fiction rarely invite the viewer into the perspective of characters who experience the world differently. Instead, they portray the world through the lens of the oft-neurotypical creator watching from the outside. I want to look at a few examples of narratives where the aesthetic choices made by the writer or director puts audiences in the head of the neurodivergent protagonist, thus allowing viewers to experience their unique mindset and empathise with them
Content warning: discussions of domestic sexual abuse
Spoilers for Punch-Drunk Love, The Rosie Project and Twin Peaks
Representations of neurodivergence in fiction rarely invite the viewer into the perspective of characters who experience the world differently. Instead, they portray the world through the lens of the oft-neurotypical creator watching from the outside. I want to look at a few examples of narratives where the aesthetic choices made by the writer or director puts audiences in the head of the neurodivergent protagonist, thus allowing viewers to experience their unique mindset and empathise more powerfully with them.
Let’s first examine the 2002 romantic comedy film Punch-Drunk Love, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sandler, in a rare dramatic turn, plays Barry Egan, a man who I read as being autistic. He is certainly divergent in some ways—he is a lonely and depressed person who has outbursts that could be viewed as meltdowns in an autistic context. His life is turned upside down when he meets Lena Leonard (Watson) and the two fall in love. Complications ensue when Barry gets mixed up with a group of extortionists led by Hoffman.
Working with cinematographer Robert Elswit and composer Jon Brion, Anderson creates a whimsical, childlike space for the narrative to unfold. Lens flares crack the margins of the frame and Brion’s score overwhelms the dialogue at times. There is a scene about a third of the way into the film where all these elements come together, culminating in one of the greatest representations of overstimulation I’ve ever seen. Barry is at his workplace—it is unclear what he does, but he seems to be a salesman and works in a warehouse—when his sister comes by with Lena in tow. The audience has been shown the fractious relationship that Barry has with his sisters and the connection he has with Lena, so we understand the mixed feelings this must cause. On top of this, Barry’s co-workers crash a forklift in the warehouse and the phone sex line he called in a moment of intense loneliness is attempting to extort money from him for being a “pervert”. The camera follows Barry around anxiously, and the score continues to build, burying the dialogue. Like Barry himself, the film feels stretched between multiple events happening at once, and so it allows the audience to not only understand Barry’s headspace but experience it along with him, creating a far more powerful experience than if Anderson had merely observed the story from a distance. Instead, the film uses a cinematic equivalent of the literary technique free indirect discourse, whereby the narrative takes on elements of a character’s point of view and is coloured by it.
Another example—this time from the literary world—of aesthetic choices placing readers in a neurodivergent headspace, is Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, as well as its sequels The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result. These stories are told in the first person, from the perspective of an autistic genetics professor, Don Tillman, as he finds love and starts a family with the titular Rosie. Many have called this, “Sheldon in Love”, a reference to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. However, as I have mentioned previously in this column, there is a significant difference in the framing of these two characters, and that begins with the choice to tell Don’s story from his own perspective. In this way, readers learn how he thinks, and they see the reasons behind his actions—actions that might otherwise come across as selfish, mean-spirited or irrational. The jokes within the narrative are the result of Don’s misapprehensions, and the audience’s ability to understand this fact means that we are not laughing at Don but with him. This is in contrast to Sheldon, where his quirks are, generally speaking, the butt of the joke. Simsion also writes in a very blunt, straightforward manner, emulating Don’s thought patterns, and so the book teaches the reader how some (not all) autistic people think and communicate. It also allows for a healthy amount of dramatic irony, as Don misunderstands the implications of someone’s words or actions while the reader comprehends them perfectly.
Simsion also educates the reader about other misconceptions, namely that autistic people are unable to feel emotion or empathise with others. It is simply a difference in the way emotions are processed; in Don’s case, he processes his feelings by trying to make logical sense of them. Like Punch-Drunk Love, the story is a romantic comedy, and rather than forcing one or the other partner to change something about themselves, Don is instead rejected by Rosie when he attempts to change and accepted when he acts like himself. This is especially meaningful in the context of autism, as those on the spectrum are frequently asked to change who they are to suit the standards of neurotypical people. Even the distinction between neurotypical and neurodivergent is problematic for this reason, as the non-autistic population can, in effect, claim hegemony over what constitutes appropriate social behaviour. That an autistic person can find love while being utterly authentic is an idea I have not seen represented enough in fiction, but The Rosie Project and Punch-Drunk Love are both excellent examples of it.
Finally, I want to discuss the David Lynch film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. This film does not deal with autism but with the effects of intense trauma throughout childhood. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the murder victim of the Twin Peaks TV series, is here given an entire film to become something other than a symbol of the town’s corruption. In this prequel to the series, Laura deals with the self-destructive tendencies she developed as a result of a lifetime of abuse from her father, Leland (Ray Wise).
Lynch uses a lot of close-ups on Laura’s face, often having it fill the frame completely, with parts of it cut off. The effect is a claustrophobic one, showing how Laura is trapped by the darkness of her life. At one point, Lynch also utilises the same iconic shot that was used quite often in the series with the camera looking in on events in the Palmer house: in this case, Laura and her friend Donna in the lounge room. This is shot with a handheld camera, which gives the impression that the two girls are being watched. Given the fact that Laura’s abuser is her own father and therefore lives in the house with her—as is known by all who watched the show—this allows viewers to feel the same sense of entrapment even more strongly. She feels powerless, unable to escape, and we feel similarly suffocated by that feeling.
The scene I most want to focus on, however, is the scene at the Roadhouse or Bang Bang Bar, where Laura and Donna go, and where they hook up with men—Laura because she seeks to numb herself, Donna because she senses something is up with Laura and wants to support her friend (the character is generally portrayed as strait-laced). Similar to the aforementioned scenes in Punch-Drunk Love, the music overpowers the dialogue, this time to such a degree that subtitles are implemented. There is a pink light cast over everything and smoke hangs in the air, which, along with the music, evokes a hazy, drug-laden atmosphere. The final addition is the use of a POV camera, and with this, the viewer is fully inside the character’s head. It is an overwhelming experience, as is the whole film—a dark, emotionally raw and painfully empathic view of the mental and physical scars caused by trauma.
There are a number of ways in which writers and filmmakers have used formal techniques to evoke neurodivergence or mental illness and allow the audience to empathise with the characters who may have these problems. I believe more creators should experiment with similar techniques because empathy is sorely needed, and art is a powerful means of evoking it.