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Why I Relate to 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' as a Person With Asperger's

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Movies. No matter if the running time is an hour and half or three hours, they are one of the few things that have the power to do so many things. They can teach us about the world we live in, or the one we want to explore. They can inspire us to change who we are, encourage us to lead a better life, and sometimes they can fill us with images that are hard to forget.

Growing up with Asperger’s syndrome on Long Island, I struggled socially and I found my refuge at two places: the National Hockey League arenas and the Broadway Multiplex in Hicksville. I spent my nights with people who needed no first name, yet they were internationally known: Willis. Hanks. Foster. Williams. On a night when my high school held the senior prom, I was there to see the 9:40 p.m. showing of “The Rock” with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. I can still recall the feelings of being jammed into a packed auditorium, with the oohs and ahhs of the audience as the Dolby Digital surround logo came on screen.

It’s been a while since a film has captured my attention, until this past Thanksgiving, when I was reading an article online about a new movie, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Right away, I was hooked and knew I wanted to learn more. To top it off, Denzel Washington would be playing him. My decision was made — this is a must-see.

In my experience very few movies actually take the time to show a realistic experience of a person’s struggles: you can count them on one hand. “The King’s Speech” is my favorite movie because it shares the raw pain and angst of being a person who stutters. “I Am Sam” provides a glimpse into the life of a man with an intellectual disability. While right now it’s true that Asperger’s is now more visible than it ever was before in the entertainment community, as showcased by the characters of Sheldon Cooper (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Gregory House (“House, M.D.”) among others, we also don’t see the full extent of how challenging it can be to live with it. When I bought my ticket, I was hoping my $12 wouldn’t be wasted. I saw a tour de force performance, and a view of Asperger’s that I hope more people will see.

The film takes great pains to show Aspies as regular people, and simultaneously works hard to confirm and dispel a few myths. As an Aspie myself, I was very focused on seeing if accuracy was present. Here are a couple of observations:

Some people think Aspies are “slow” and “don’t get with the program as quickly as others.” The reality is that Aspies can have special insights in the work world that can make them a real asset to employers. I have a great respect for those who can work with details and break down things in an easy to understand way. Many Aspies can be found in the fields of information technology, engineering, and as professionals such as attorneys, of which Roman is one. While there may be no such thing as an “Aspie-friendly” city, there are many regions where there are substantial populations of us, especially the heart of Silicon Valley (i.e. San Francisco/San Jose), and Seattle (think Microsoft).

Then there’s a view that Aspies can be “rigid” and hesitant to change. Some Aspies like myself enjoy a routine and like having things in regular order. The slightest change can seem like all hell breaks loose. I’ll never forget the time when I rode the commuter rail to Washington, D.C., and when the train came in three minutes late, I began to pace up and down wondering what was going on. Attorneys have to be experts in multi-tasking, and many of them use modern software (Westlaw) and tickler systems to keep track of all the developments. Roman never does that. When we first meet him in the beginning, all his case notes (and I do mean all of them) are kept track of by index cards! It is so fascinating to watch this case study.

I paid a great deal of attention to Roman’s interactions. Four scenes in the movie are true to heart about my life as an Aspie. I will be the first to admit I can be stubborn and persistent, sometimes not reading the signals and knowing when to let things go. In one scene, Roman is very frustrated that there a noise violation outside his apartment, so he calls up the proper division for the city of Los Angeles and actually recites the exact ordinance. This is repeated several times, and while most people would get angry and find him annoying, you have to admire his diligence.

Later on in the movie, we see Roman trying to find his way in a world which he does not recognize. He comes into a large sum of money (which actually plays a major role in the film’s flow) and he is seen buying a new wardrobe, even buying a new property and yet you can’t help but feel like the staff helping him think he shouldn’t be there. Yet because of his finances, he is given fake respect. I have been there too many times, and could instantly see that.

One of the biggest challenges for Aspies is often their social deficits, which is the hallmark of being diagnosed with Asperger’s. When Roman begins to work for a new firm, one of the partners, George Pierce (played by Colin Ferrell) does not approve of him making a comment about a client, to which Roman says something highly inappropriate. While he may have felt it was the truth, Pierce has to chase after Roman and lecture him about what he said, ending it with “Do you want to work here or not?” When Roman says he does, Pierce chastises him again, saying “Next time you have an opinion, run it past me first.”

Yet his other colleagues seem to see his gifts, as one new associate actually asks him to help him out with other cases. Then there’s a budding relationship with Maya, a young woman he interviews with early on. She begins to admire him for his commitment to social justice, yet when they are out on date, Roman seems disinterested, and makes comment about the duck he ordered. Sometimes in the span of one minute, we can go from one end of the spectrum to the other.

I realize Asperger’s is something I will always have to face, but after leaving the AMC Rio 18 in Gaithersburg after seeing the movie, I had a new outlook, a new appreciation, and most of all, a new hope — that just maybe I can not only accept this as part of my life, but embrace it, take ownership and know that it is just one small part of the uniquely gifted individual I am.

Photo via Facebook.

Originally published: March 11, 2018
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