“The Accountant” Tries To Be a Unique & Authentic Portrayal of Autism Using By the Numbers Stereotypes and No Actual Autistic People

The Accountant (which stars Ben Affleck & Anna Kendrick) is a film about an Autistic forensic accountant who is also a highly skilled hit man. The people behind the film (which opens on October 14) were featured in a recent LA Times article regarding what they did to make sure that the portrayal of an “Assassin-On-The-Spectrum” honestly.

The writer, director & stars all commented on how they tried to both turn the film narrative of autism on its head and maintain authenticity.

The problem is that based on everything that is revealed about the character in the piece actually sounds pretty much exactly like the same old tired Autism stereotypes that have been done before.

To add insult to injury the stated methods of attempting to ascertain that the film was accurate and inoffensive are deeply problematic and certainly don’t reassure me that due diligence was done.

This film hasn’t been released yet so I can’t actually speak to the full completed product but there is a lot in how those involved in the film are presenting both the autistic character, how they approached portraying him, and who they asked for feedback that is worth unpacking.

Let’s start by looking at the character Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck). They present the character as an edgy, unique autistic character who is different from other autistic characters that people have seen on screen before. This is why he is

A white male, unlike Raymond Babbitt, that kid from Mercury Rising, or Hugh Dancy’s character in Adam… Oh wait.

The vast majority of portrayals of disability not exclusive of autism are of white men. This is problematic in that it erases a visual representation of the huge diversity within the disabled population.

An autistic savant, unlike Raymond Babbitt, that kid from Mercury Rising, or Hugh Dancy’s character in Adam… Oh wait.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only autistic person who wishes that Hollywood would put a moratorium on autistic savant characters. Savantism is rare and does not accurately represent the average lived experience with autism. In film and television the opposite is apparently true. Autistic people who are not savants are basically an endangered species.

Does not achieve a lasting romantic relationship, unlike Raymond Babbitt,  or Hugh Dancy’s character in Adam… Oh wait.

Perhaps one the the most infuriating things said about Wolff’s character in the piece is when Ben Affleck says

“He doesn’t get the girl. … I thought it was so unique and surprising. It almost seemed too good to be true.”

No Ben. This is not unique. This is an insidious overly done stereotype in films in which disabled characters are routinely denied meaningful human relationships.

It’s only unique to actors like Affleck who are used to playing nondisabled leading men who get the girl as a matter of course.

As a disabled viewer of media the thing that would be to good to be true would be a film where the disabled character (who is preferably not a white  dude) actually gets the romantic ending. Not a film where either there is no suggestion of sexuality (Rain Man) or where the romance is destroyed as a direct result of the characters disability (Adam & potentially The Accountant. That remains to be seen).

Basically, the star of the film is excited about an aspect of the film that plays directly to  a harmful stereotype. It’s also so obvious a plot point that apparently it isn’t even a spoiler that should be kept under wraps at least until after the film is released.

*sigh*

The thing that is really supposed to make Christian Wolff different is the fact that he’s an assassin. I mean disabled characters being scary & dangerous is actually a pretty standard film trope (seriously pick a Bond film at random & see what I mean). So beyond the fact  that Wolff is the main character, I’m not sure how this is new or innovative. Dangerously disabled has in fact been done to death.

Then there is the issue of authenticity. The screenwriter Bill Dubuque says

“I’ve always been interested in how the mind works,” Dubuque said on a recent afternoon. “I thought: What if you could structure a story that was a mystery within a mystery? What goes on in this individual’s mind? How does he process information? How does he communicate with the rest of the world?”

How did they test if Dubuque got it right?

They screened it for Autism charities including Autism Speaks

The fact that they screened it for organizations rather than making a point to get the film in front of actual autistic people is already problematic but the fact that they highlight that they screened the film for Autism Speaks and present Autism Speaks as a reliable source of information is doubly problematic.

Autism Speaks has a particularly controversial relationship with actual autistic people. Ignoring that controversy and presenting Autism Speaks as an accurate gauge of the authenticity of autistic portrayal is basically giving Autistic people the finger.

Seriously, it is not hard to find autistic people criticizing Autism Speaks including Autistic People led advocacy organizations. Even mainstream media outlets have covered it.

Anna Kendrick asked the parent of an Autistic child

Anna Kendrick…admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

The phrase “When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” exists to fight stereotyping of Autism. The fact that it is being used to basically say “do whatever you want, it’ll be fine” is really problematic.

The fact that Kendrick asked a parent rather than an actual autistic person is also problematic. Parents aren’t mind melded with their children and shouldn’t be assumed to be accurate surrogates for the opinions of the disabled community simply because they live in close proximity to disabled people.

Again, it really isn’t difficult to find disabled people criticizing the trend of prioritizing the views of nondisabled parents over the voices of actual disabled people. Heck, it’s not uncommon for disabled people to actively push back against parent rhetoric.

So what they apparently didn’t do,

Ask Autistic People

The Accountant is supposed to be a film about an Autistic character who not only holds down a job which requires him to interact with people but who also plans and carries out assassinations. So it posits that Autistic people can in fact exist in society. It is therefor frustrating that it didn’t seem to occur to the people involved in making of that film to actually talk to Autistic people. Instead preferring third person accounts of Autism from people who are not Autistic.

The only way this makes sense is if Christian Wolff does not turn out to be a character who actually exists in proximity to other people and the events of the film (his job, being an assassin) are in fact all in his head. And I really hope that the movie doesn’t go in that direction.

The failure to actively prioritize the narratives of Autistic people is unfortunate and does not convince me that authentic and honest portrayal were an important aspect of the film.

When people claim that authenticity of disability portrayal can come from organizations and parents rather than the actual people being portrayed I am not convinced that authenticity was the goal. I am convinced that the producers of that film are only interested in creating a veneer of authenticity to fool the primarily nondisabled audience. A veneer maintained so that the film industry can continue to create inaccurate fictions of disability that do not in any way reflect the actual disabled experience.

The LA times piece only makes me wonder if I’ll be able to do the Autism stereotype drinking game with The Accountant.

Take a shot every time they mention

Theory of mind

Autistic’s lack Empathy (is this why he’s such a good assassin? if so Fuck You)

Does some unnaturally talented math thing.

I await a time when authenticity actually requires the active and widespread involvement of the people being portrayed. Preferably both behind and in front of the camera.

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12 responses to ““The Accountant” Tries To Be a Unique & Authentic Portrayal of Autism Using By the Numbers Stereotypes and No Actual Autistic People

  1. In film class, decades ago, we were discussing flaws in the big budget flop Dick Tracey…..I said
    ‘Why is anyone surprised that Warren Beatty Madonna film has high visual values but is void of meaningful content’

    They never wanted a good film, just to get us a target audience

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  2. Saw the movie last week. It reminded me of what Amy told Sheldon after watching Raiders of the Los Ark…”it was ok but Indian Jones made no difference to the outcome of the movie”. Autism made absolutely no difference in the character of Christian Wolff. He was no more autistic than I am, just a lot better at math. I left the theater offended and mad.

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  3. I have ASD and I thought it was a great movie. It’s a sensationalistic pulp fiction revenge story that people will watch not even realizing that they might learn something. I don’t know anyone who is a contract killer and an accountant and I certainly don’t know anyone who is both of those and who also has ASD. It’s a ridiculous distracting fable (like pretty much every other movie). The protaganists brother in the film (who is neurotypical) is also an assasin and thus the fact that the characters are killers has more to do with the manner in which they were raised than the fact that one brother has autism.

    The reveal at the end said a lot about how people stereotype those with disabilities and autism. I thought that the finale was far more impactful than any austim PSA that I’ve ever seen. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

    People certainly judge me all the time because I guess I don’t emote properly or I don’t act exactly like a type A personality. I thought the ending of this film represented my reality like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a great article, thank you for taking of your time to post it. I only wish that you had left out the f–king thing there toward the ending. I am going to reblog this for your because it is such a great insight but I am going to have to put a disclaimer in because of that one unnecessary word. There are many readers who do take honest offence at that word.

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  5. I’m really impressed by this blog. It has more genuine thinking and well-discussed issues than anything I’ve seen in a long time. Kudos to you for making us NTs see things from another, extremely interesting and relevant angle.

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  6. So… you basically wrote a review about a movie without having seen it, and made judgments based on what you heard and how you think it would play out, rather than waiting to see it and giving a fair, accurate assessment.

    You mention a lot of valid Hollywood stereotypes regarding people on the spectrum, but this article seems to be about your (valid) complaints against Hollywood, not about this film which, at the time you wrote it, you had not seen.

    I’m a Black person, so I TOTALLY get sensitivity to stereotypical portrayals, tired tropes and lazy storytelling. You know what else I’m sensitive to? Prejudgment. People looking at me, especially with my waist-length dreadlocks, and immediately making all sorts of assumptions before they’ve heard me speak (I’m not Jamaican, nor am I a “stoner type”) or even spent any time with me.

    I find it quite ironic that in an article which decries stereotypes, assumptions and inaccurate depictions, you have a priori condemned this film sight unseen. Just sayin’…

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    • I was commenting on how they were marketing the film which had problematic elements. They were clearly trying to preemptively stop criticism about the portrayal of Autism in the field.

      Marketing is as much fair game for criticism as the thing being marketed. I do also have a review of the film (which I did eventually see) but as I wrote this before the film was released all I could do was respond to marketing tactics and what those tactics said about how the people involved in the film felt about Autism and authentic portrayal.

      I did make some educated predictions about the film (which were actually pretty accurate) but I was talking about the marketing of the film. If you want to read my review of the actual movie it’s here https://crippledscholar.com/2016/10/14/people-are-scared-of-whats-different-other-revelations-from-the-accountant/

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  7. Hollywood is going to be Hollywood, unfortunately. I personally enjoyed the movie, but as someone on the spectrum I too felt a certain way about the portrayal of someone on the spectrum. I mean, if all we can do is crazy math problems, fail at relationships, and have weird ways of interacting, then nobody really learns about the condition and thus the real message is lost. I think the story might have had more power if the lead character was on the spectrum.

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