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A Romantic Hero with Aspergers

Max Mayer doesn't have any personal connections to Asperger's Syndrome—or at least he wasn't aware he did until he made Adam, his romantic drama about a man with the enigmatic condition. (The film, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, opened July 29.)

"In the late '70s/early '80s," recalls the New York-based Mayer, "I worked in a camp with kids who were then called 'emotionally disturbed,' and the more I learned about Asperger's, I realized that a number of kids that I had worked with would have been diagnosed with it, if that diagnosis would have been around then."

It wasn't until 1994 that Asperger's—also simply known as Asperger and defined as an autistic spectrum disorder—was added to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and it's only in the last few years that professionals and parents have come to recognize it. According to recent statistics, one in every 150 children in the United States will be diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder.

If brushing up on neurobiological disorders wasn't enough of a research task for Mayer, he also gave his protagonist (played by Hugh Dancy) an obsession with astronomy, which required the writer-director to study the intricacies of telescopes and current space research, peppering the script with references to Big Bang theories and NASA's recent Cassini mission to Saturn. Sloan Science and Film spoke with Mayer about his research methods, pornography, and how people with Asperger's could be a higher form of human being.

How exactly did you go about researching Asperger's Syndrome?

I did what everyone does and started with the Internet. And there's a great deal of information that's both objective and subjective. People with Asperger's tend to be very comfortable with computers, so there are a lot of people putting themselves on video on the web, talking about their interests. It's great information, but it's inexact, because they're interacting with a computer, not with people, which is my primary interest.

I also found two publishers: Jessica Kingsley Publications in Great Britain, and she puts out a full line of books on the autism spectrum; and in the U.S. there's Future Horizons, which had a lot of first person accounts of relationships and people talking about the challenges that they face in their lives.

But the thing that really hooked me about Asperger's is that it felt like a great metaphor for all relationships. People with Asperger's have the same desire for connection as everyone else has without some of the skills and instincts. In "neurotypicals," I see the same sense of desire for connection being paradoxically paired with not really being able to see the world through somebody else's eyes.

Did you talk to people with Asperger's?

After I wrote a first draft, I wanted some feedback from consultants, who worked with Asperger's. We got involved with a group called Adaptations, which have socialization meetings, and talk in smaller and larger groups about their lives, challenges, and romances.

Did you end up changing anything after those meetings?

It was more about adding certain details. For instance, in one of the first conversations with the consultant Jonathan Kaufman, who worked at Adaptations, he told us that young men with Asperger's often had specific collections of pornography. I didn't want to hit this point too hard in the story. But there was an actual behavioral study, looking at social and sexual interaction and studying reciprocal behavior. And in the young men he worked with it was ubiquitous. It's one of those hooks in the film that makes something specific. The pornography is like a classroom in behavior, like theater, movies or watching people in the street. People with Asperger's get very interested in watching people interact and want to create rules from what they see.

You also included a little bit about how one of the traits of Asperger's, as defined in the scientific community, is having a lack of imagination. But Adam argues against this notion. Why was it important for you to include that debate?

I actually corresponded with people in GRASP, which is an advocacy group for people with Asperger's. And they strongly feel that there are some aspects to Asperger's that is evolutionally developed, which was fascinating to me. Their sense is that if we are to survive as a species we are all going to need to be a little more Aspy.

Did you talk to any scientists?

Not when I was making the film. Honestly, it was important for me to get Asperger's "right," and to represent it well, but I was using it to tell a story that was focused primarily on relationships in general. So I was focused on the science to the extent that it would help me write the character.

The film also has a whole other dimension of science in Adam's obsession with space. How did that become part of the film?

It became about astronomy and cosmology for a few different reasons: 1) because that really interests me, and 2) when I was doing research on Asperger's, and you look at the list of special interests, astronomy is always high on the list. As far as the story goes, it has a visual component, too, and with its romance and mythology and fear and desire to know what is associated with space and the universe, it was stimulating.

Interestingly, you use the Big Bang as a metaphor for relationships, of people becoming close and drifting apart.

I liked the idea that at some point scientists came up with this Big Bang theory, which predicted that everything would continue to fly apart, slower and slower, until it stopped and reversed, but then they discovered that this is not at all what's happening as far as we can see or tell, and that all of sudden, it's flying apart faster. All of that stuff really triggered my imagination. The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene, was really helpful. It read like a novel. While explaining certain things in layman's terms, it also addressed it through poetry or metaphor, or the wonder of it all.

There's a joke in the movie about Adam being different from Forrest Gump. Obviously, the film will be compared to other movies about people who have disabilities or neurological disorders, like Gump and Rain Man. In making Adam, were you thinking at all about how previous movies have represented such people?

I knew that I was dealing with a different disability and people tend to lump different disabilities together. And I wanted to make that distinction. That's what Adam was making a joke about. Speaking through Adam, he wanted people to know that he wasn't retarded. For Forrest Gump, it was about simplicity, and understanding things on a very pared down, simple non-intellectual level. There is no cognitive impairment in people with Asperger's. In fact, some of them are quite brilliant.