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”  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…)