Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Those who have the disorder find it difficult to read social cues; they find communicating and interacting with others more challenging than their neurotypical counterparts. For unknown reasons, prevalence has been increasing since the 1970s and is now estimated to be between 1 in 50 to 1 in 500. Today, many people hear ‘autism’ and think of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man (1988). In his documentary The Special Need, Carlo Zoratti offers a different perspective on what it means to live with autism. In particular, he emphasises that people with autism are not so different from their neurotypical counterparts – although they may struggle to express it, they too have a desire and the right to form meaningful romantic relationships.
The Special Need is a take on the coming-of-age road trip film. Enea is 29 years old and has autism. The film opens with a medium shot of Enea filling up a water gun with his bottle. The shot is composed such that the bottle and gun are interposed between Enea and us. His face is out of focus. The water and the gun are in focus. It is a metaphor for the disconnect from society that Enea experiences. The soundtrack is purely diagetic – we hear water sloshing over the edges because his hand is unsteady. (People with ASD also have less efficient hand-eye coordination.)1
Enea’s friends Carlo and Alex start calling his name and we see him hiding behind a bush, smiling. He emerges and starts chasing Carlo around. They are having a water fight. They spray each other. Then Carlo pretends to die. To us, it is obvious that Carlo is pretending, but to Enea it is not. He cries, “Carlo! No!” and starts trying to resuscitate him. He has no idea how to administer CPR but presumably he has seen it in films, and so he gives some mouth to mouth and then presses on Carlo’s chest. The entire time Carlo is smiling, but Enea, who finds it difficult to read facial expressions, does not understand. He yells, “Oh my God! That’s deep shit.” He sprays Carlo with his water gun and Carlo relents. He tells Enea he was only teasing and hugs him.
It is a perfect opening scene. It conveys the precise nature of Enea’s disorder in a natural, almost conversational way. We feel like we are getting to know Enea as a person first, and as someone with autism second. Enea is no Rain Man. He is playful, happy, fun, and he has no trouble hugging Carlo and expressing his affection and love for his close friends. We also start to understand how it would be difficult for someone like Enea to have a romantic relationship – if he cannot even tell when Carlo is pretending to be dead from a water fight, how will he respond to the complex emotional demands of a relationship? This is the core dilemma that the film explores.
Later, in the car, Enea reveals that he has never been with a woman. The rest of the documentary revolves around Alex and Carlo trying to find someone with whom Enea can have his first sexual experience. They ask some prostitutes on the street, but the prostitutes decline. They say that they are okay with sleeping with someone who is physically disabled, but that sleeping with someone mentally disabled would make them feel uncomfortable. The stigmas surrounding autism and neurodevelopmental disorders in general, are thus revealed. The revelations – and there are many in this film – unfurl quietly, tenderly. There are no crude didactic lessons on how an autistic person should love. Rather, Enea’s personhood is always prioritised, his autism an incidental part of his personality.
The Special Need is a wonderful film that sustains a compassionate and unassuming tone through its entirety. It is both an uplifting portrayal of male friendship and a nuanced investigation into the complex nature of autism and the stigmas that surround it. Carlo and Alex do not drive across Europe to find a prostitute willing to have sex with an autistic person. They drive across Europe because they themselves love Enea. They want him to being able to experience that very particular joy of being in love with someone who is also in love with you.