Posts Tagged ‘ASD’

Philip K DickThis is the second part of of my essay on Blade Runner (1982) and Asperger’s Syndrome.

In Part 1: Autistic Noir I looked at the parallels between Ridley Scott‘s film and the experience of people on the autistic spectrum, particularly those like myself who have Asperger’s. I gave a summary of some of the common AS traits and looked at how most of these traits, particularly social isolation and flattened affect, are exhibited by almost all of the characters; I also looked at how the common Aspie experience of prejudice is reflected in the experiences of the replicants (androids) and how their supposed lack of empathy is used to legitimate their status as less than human.

Although there are many difference between Blade Runner and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) on which is based, the test is taken directly from the book. In this section I want to look at how Philip K. Dick’s novel addresses the themes of social isolation and flattened affect also present in the film, and look how Dick anticipates some of the current theorising of Asperger’s as an ”empathy disorder” (with particular reference to the work of Simon Baron-Cohen) – despite being written decades before the condition was recognised.

I also want to place the novel in the context of Dick’s other work of this period – particularly The Man in the High Castle (1962), Clans of the Aphane Moon (1964) and Martian Time-Slip (1964), which showed an increasingly sophisticated interest in different neurotypes. I will examine how Dick himself, as indicated in non-fiction essays like The Android and the Human (1972), shared many of Baron-Cohen’s assumptions about empathy as constitutive of human nature, and I will look at the concept of empathy in some depth; I will also argue that the ambiguities of Dick’s fiction undermines these essentialist assumptions and exposes empathy and it’s associated ”emotional ground tone” as a socially constructed and historically contingent.



This is the first in a series of essays on popular culture and neuroscience. I’m starting with my favourite movie, Blade Runner (1982), and the novel  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) on which it is based, partly because I have been obsessed with both since I was a teenager, but mostly because I can write about both from inside the condition these texts illustrate: autism, and in particular the autistic spectrum disorder still referred to as Asperger’s syndrome” or “Asperger’s disorder.”

It may sound a surprising claim Blade Runner as an autistic film to anyone used to more literal representations of autistism in films like Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988) or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011) but in many ways Blade Runner is the Aspie” [1] film par excellence.

Most films about autism are targeted at non-autistics, reflect the non-autistic values and assumptions, and are ultimately and ultimately designed to meet their emotional needs. Many revolve around finding a cure: in Change of Habit (1969), for instance, Elvis Presley, in his last film role, cures an abandoned autistic girl by hugging het close and telling her she has to learn how to love people.  Sometimes the direction of cure is reversed:  caring for his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) redeems the selfishness of yuppie Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise). Either way the autistic experience is framed within the point of view of the non-autistic. But Blade Runner is different; Blade Runner largely dispenses with the non-autistic point of view.

Blade Runner features no characters explicitly identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome; in fact few of them are even human. When Blade Runner was made Asperger’s was barely recognised in the English speaking world (Lorna Wing translated Hans Asperger‘s work in 1981 when the film was already in production). Yet every character, human or otherwise, displays recognizably autistic spectrum (AS) traits – as I will hopefully demonstrate!

The film also reflects the experience of alienation, social exclusion and prejudice common to aspies; what’s more, the film’s intense auditory and visual style and obsessive attention to surface detail mimics the local precedence bias of autistic perceptual processing and induces an effect of sensory overload aspies are familiar with. It features a diagnostic test that bears an uncanny resemblance to tests used in the assessment of autistic spectrum disorders. But most importantly of all, the major theme is one which is of particularly salience to Aspies; the notion that empathy is constitutive of being human, and that a deficit in this often vaguely defined quality is used the marginalise and discriminate against certain groups by denying them humanity (hence the title of this first part).

And to top it all the film features an actress who was herself diagnosed with Asperger’s. (more…)