How Edward Scissorhands tells my story of living with autism.
There are many films portraying autism in American Cinema. Adam, Snow Cake, Mozart and the Whale, Mercury Rising, but the most well know is Rainman. Each film presents the autism spectrum in a unique way, each with moments of accuracy but none with a complete picture of the autistic experience. Most films about autism are told from the neurotypical perspective – how autism looks from the outside.
But what does autism feel like?
In 1990 a film called Edward Scissorhands was released in theatres. A man named Edward, created by a lonely, old inventor, lived alone in a mansion at the end of a clean cut, rubber stamped neighbourhood. He lived alone until one of the residents, Peg, called upon his house after an unsuccessful day peddling Avon products. Feeling sorry for the isolated and handicapped man, who had scissors for hands, she brings him out of isolation and into her family.
The neighbours, at first, are curious about Edward. The gossip machine starts as they all look to see the man Peg has brought home. Curiosity turns to vain acceptance as the residents capitalize on his talents. Paying for his work with petty praise, and cookies, each of Peg’s neighbours form an elite social group as clients of the avant-garde genius with scissors for hands.
Before long the villain of the story, played by the iconic Anthony Michael Hall, is overcome by jealousy and stages a robbery to pin on Edward. Very quickly the neighbours form an alliance against Edward, fearing what he may do next. What was once praise turns to fear mongering and eventually forces Edward to retreat to his lonely existence in the mansion.
As a person with autism, this story was far closer to my experience than anything I have seen to date. Everything from the loneliness and isolation, to the public praise over creations of genius people think they understand, to the retreat into loneliness by fear and misunderstandings, were all too familiar. As a 13 year old, watching this film for the first time, I related to Edward at every turn. I did not know I had autism yet, but I felt the autism in me.
I knew what it was like to be seen and unseen at the same time.
I knew what it was like for people to take advantage of talents for their own social celebrity. I knew what it was like to feel affection from a distance.
There were two specific moments in the film that encapsulated my experience best – the emotional experience of being a person with autism. The first scene was the famous ice dance. As Edward is vigorously carving an angel from a large block of ice, he creates a light snow shower. Kim, Peg’s teenage daughter, is fascinated by the snowfall drawing her out of the house to observe Edward at work. Edward appears focused on his work and does not seem to acknowledge that Kim has come out to watch him. As he continues to carve, Kim opens up to the experience of Edward and dances in the snow.
In this moment, Kim is accepting Edward for what and who he is. The dance is not about her, but about loving him. She is able to accept his affection and dance in the beauty of his gift which is not the act of carving, but the soul within him that drives him to create for others. He is creating an angel in the yard of the family that had tried to save him from isolation. Kim understood how he loves.
Not long before Edward is forced back into isolation, Kim asks for Edward to hold her. He extends his arms and tries to hug her, but fears he might accidentally cut her. After a few awkward moments, Edward mutters out, “I can’t.” Kim, in her deep desire to show her growing affection, picks up Edward’s arms, physically showing him how to hold her. Edward is shocked at first, but then he relaxes into her embrace and closes his eyes. Kim was able to show Edward physical affection amidst the chaos and fear that was roaming the neighbourhood, as if scissors for hands were just as beautiful as human hands.
Both the ice dance and the hug overwhelm me with emotional and physical sensations. To have that one person in the world that can fall in love with you, even when others want to fix you, cure you, isolate you; to be loved even when popular society sees you as undesirable, that is the most beautiful thing in the world. When I watch the ice dance and the hug, a warm ball of tense energy pushes up from the core of my body, the desire to be loved erupts from that place deep inside me where I keep it safe. I do not struggle to feel this emotion, nor do I suppress it. I am so deeply connected to Edward’s experience it is as if I am Edward, for that moment, and I am able to live out a brief moment of feeling loved through the film.
As a 13 year old, I would play these scenes over and over again, and I would think to myself, “When can I have an ice dance?” I understand why Edward had to retreat. The world was just not ready for him. But the most poignant moment of the movie is not in his retreat. At the very end, the film shows Edward carving ice sculptures to make it snow for Kim, who is by now a grandmother. One of the ice sculptures Edward has carved is of Kim in the ice dance. Edward may have seemed too focused on his work to see Kim, but that was not the case. The end of the film reveals that he was engaged in every moment of that dance along with her. It was his way of holding her.
This is the way it can be with me too, where I look or seem disengaged, but really I am there with you, sharing a special place where our realities converge. When I share moments, my words may not reveal this, nor will my body language. The language I use to share the deepest moments in life are radiated out of me as a warm, complicated energy that only the people most open to this experience can read.
Like Edward creating the snow, I create an energy, and you can choose to dance in it.
Nothing put to film so far has ever connected with my experience of being autistic like Edward Scissorhands. Every year in December I watch Edward, and the ice dance, and the hug, and it pulls that warm energy buried deeply in me, allowing me dream of a day when someone will have an ice dance with me.
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