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What the Movie 'Silent Fall' Gets Right (and Wrong) About Autism


I recently had the opportunity to watch “Silent Fall,” a 1994 murder mystery thriller directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Richard Dreyfuss in the role of a child psychologist who becomes reluctantly involved in the investigation of a murder. The only eyewitness is an autistic boy who is seemingly nonverbal but whose testimony is critical to solving the case.

I had previously never heard of this film, and the idea of featuring an autistic main character as an important crime witness sounded appealing, so I took it upon myself to purchase “Silent Fall” from a nearby thrift store and view it that very night. The film unveiled a variety of intriguing insights and observations about autism, although the protagonist’s assessment of the child’s functioning level would probably be questioned today.

Dr. Jake Rainer (portrayed by Dreyfuss) is a therapist who has retired from child psychology following the tragic death of a boy in a program he formerly ran for children with disabilities. He regularly holds therapy sessions with adult clients but does not seem to enjoy his work. Things take a turn for Jake when he is called upon to help disarm Tim Warden (portrayed by Ben Faulkner), a young autistic boy who is wielding a bloody knife and making panicked vocalizations at the scene of his parents’ double murder. Rather than allow the police to take Tim by force and put him in a straight jacket, Jake employs his own methods of calming the boy down by utilizing a stack of cards and using card-playing language to communicate with Tim, an approach which proves successful.

The only other eyewitness to the crime is Tim’s older sister Sylvie (portrayed by Liv Tyler of “Lord of the Rings” fame in her film debut) who claims she did not recognize the assailant, as she was supposedly thrown against a wall and hit her head after trying to intervene. Although Dr. Rainer attempts to communicate with Tim in order to unlock his memories of what took place, the boy is apparently nonverbal. He forms no articulate responses to questions, but makes agitated groans in moments of anxiety or panic and has a tendency towards aggressive meltdowns.

During one scene in which Tim is having lunch with two girls, Sylvie tells their mother to remove the green peas from his plate since he will not eat round-shaped food items. One of the girls then cruelly puts some of her peas onto Tim’s plate when the mother’s back is turned, provoking a frightening meltdown in which he throws the plates in every direction, shattering them against the wall, and hurls the food wildly, narrowly missing Sylvie’s head.

In one of the subsequent scenes, Dr. Rainer states that Tim’s autism is “very high functioning.” While autism functioning labels are being phased out as they are increasingly viewed as inaccurate and harmful, it also seems highly unlikely that most psychiatrists today would consider Tim to have level 1 autism, the new term for autistic individuals often described as “high functioning.”

Although Tim initially appears to be nonverbal, it is revealed that he actually possesses a talent for mimicking voices and lines from television shows, a characteristic known as echolalia. When he and his sister go with Dr. Rainer to a seaside restaurant, Sylvie tells Tim to sneak inside the speaker’s stand and gives him directions for what announcements to make. Tim then speaks into the microphone with the voice of the restaurant host, making a series of announcements that first throw guests into confusion (telling some that they’re sitting at the wrong table for instance) and then delight (upon announcing free seafood and beers). When one of the cashiers leaves the snack stand, Sylvie takes advantage of the situation and they both steal snacks. While this scene provides some comedic relief, it also presents an unsavory example of a neurotypical individual exploiting a younger person’s autistic traits for nefarious purposes.

The nature of autism is discussed in the film over the course of Dr. Rainer’s efforts to connect with Tim, and it furnishes some provocative insights. After Jake pointedly tells Sylvie, “Nobody knows what autism is,” he delves into an intriguing reflection on how autistic individuals have been perceived throughout history and how they are treated in contemporary times: “Two thousand years ago we worshiped them as gods. Three hundred years ago we burned them at the stake as witches. Now we treat them with drugs… and therapy.”

This observation is very compelling since it sheds light on how mainstream society’s perceptions of people with autism have changed over successive historic periods. The concept of autism, even the very word itself, would have been totally alien to people living in early modern or ancient times, and yet there have been a variety of famous individuals from those eras who are now commonly thought to have had Asperger’s syndrome or some form of autism, such as Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Michelangelo and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In contemporary times, there has been a widespread perception of autism as a disability that can be managed or at least somewhat ameliorated through regular psychotherapy and prescription drugs. And in more recent years,  many people have begun to challenge the notion of autism as negative by pointing out the numerous ways autistic individuals can be productive members of society.

Although Tim exhibits some autistic strengths (i.e. eidetic memory), the film falls short of imagining what type of life he could possibly have if he had access to all the psychological and educational interventions available today. This film is not about what it means to be autistic; it focuses on how an autistic individual’s testimony can potentially indict someone in the commission of a deadly crime. Still, the movie does play lip service to what an autistic individual might look like.

Among the other autistic traits featured in “Silent Fall” is a tendency to think in terms of sequences. When Jake attempts to use his card-playing technique to probe Tim’s memories from the night of the murder, he explains to Sylvie, “You have a thousand ways of searching through your memories to figure out what happened that night. For Tim, it has to be in sequences.”

He demonstrates this by pointing out the arrangement of the cards, stating that Tim needs to recall the events through the chronological order in which they happened. This insight reveals much about the mindset of autistic individuals, as they are often detail-oriented and tend to think literally, logically and sequentially. These are among the strengths that make autistic individuals valuable job candidates in the workplace since employers often require those skills.

However, it is Tim’s echolalia which proves to be the critical skill for reconstructing the night of the murder. Prompted by Dr. Rainer’s triggering, Tim repeats a series of expletives which were the first words he heard on the night of the crime, followed by agitated and frightened statements in the voices of the different family members involved. This makes his sister extremely uncomfortable, as it brings her back to the events firsthand (about which she has not previously displayed any grief or trauma), but Dr. Rainer continues to goad Tim in order to unlock what Sylvie might be hiding.

Together with subsequent new evidence from the investigation which sheds light on the incestuous abuse Tim suffered from their father, this drives Sylvie to dangerous extremes to prevent Dr. Rainer from learning the truth, which might jeopardize her custody of Tim. The climax is extremely intense and carries the elements of a horror film, but it gives Tim the courage to finally speak in his own voice.

The film’s lead actors deliver superb performances, and the elements of a murder mystery thriller keep its viewers on the edge of their seats. However, while “Silent Fall” articulates a variety of compelling insights about autism, it is rather dated since the film reflects the perceptions of autism that were prevalent back in the 1990’s.

Since then, there have been sweeping changes in much of mainstream society’s attitudes toward autism due to the ever-increasing public awareness of the benefits autistic individuals can bring to society as members of the workforce. Society is also recognizing that many of those once labeled “low functioning” can in fact contribute significant skills to the job market — which gives greater force to the argument for eliminating functioning labels.

The notion of a “neurotypical savior” who brings a severely challenged and mistreated autistic individual out of their shell would be considered offensive by many viewers today, because autistic people are now self-advocates and often come together to support each other. I strongly recommend that viewers take these facts into account when watching “Silent Fall.”

Image via Youtube.