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Adam Written and directed by Mayer Max, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2009

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2018

Rory Conn*
FY2 in Old Age Psychiatry, 6 Woodland Crescent, London SE16 6YN, UK, email:
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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Copyright © The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010

Hollywood has chosen autism, more than virtually any other psychiatric disorder, as its cinematic subject. The quintessential Rainman (1988) engaged public awareness of autism, winning plaudits from disability awareness advocates.

Regrettably, the majority of Rainman's successors have been misguided, inaccurate and detrimental to those for whom autism is more than just a cinematic spectacle. Autism-spectrum disorders are variously depicted as self-induced, evil, dangerously volatile, worthless, supernatural, instilled with genius or miraculously curable. A disproportionate 45% of Hollywood's characters with autism are ‘composite savants’. Most are hopelessly dependent and the majority are children.

Its rejection of such misrepresentations makes Adam a bold, refreshing film.

The film concerns the blossoming relationship between an attractive, independent, intelligent thirty-something with Asperger syndrome, and the neurologically typical gregarious Beth. Beth is intrigued by Adam's behaviour and sets about educating herself about the syndrome.

A well-researched, sincere script combined with a polished, convincing performance from Hugh Dancy, commendably portrays the autistic triad without inaccuracy or hyperbole. Adam's interests are restricted to astrophysics and historical facts. He finds social interaction difficult, being unable to keep eye contact, or read body language: ‘I can see you are upset, but I don't know what to do about it’. He depends on rigorous routines. In addition, his literalness makes the nuances of everyday speech challenging: ‘That was a joke, Adam’. The film accessibly introduces current medical theory. Adam elegantly describes the experiences of ‘mind blindness’ and sensory ‘overload’.

Crucially, Adam challenges popular thinking about autism. Beth is attracted to Adam despite his complex social difficulties. Where one character suggests Adam is not ‘prime relationship material’, another asserts that, among many other things, ‘people with Asperger's get married’. Unlike other Hollywood portrayals in which autistic traits present an absolute barrier to independence, Adam's idiosyncrasies provide an employment advantage (as an electronic engineer).

Although Adam's eccentricities are occasionally manipulated to suit the ‘Rom-Com’ formula, this is not at the expense of Asperger syndrome itself. The film is forthright about the challenges Adam faces. It is romantic, not romanticised; informative, but not didactic. In its accurate portrayal of autism, Adam is every bit as unique as its eponymous character.

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