Originally published September 29, 2017

When car dealer Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learns that his estranged father has died, he returns home to Cincinnati, where he discovers that he has an autistic older brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) and that his father's three million dollar fortune is being left to the mental institution in which Raymond lives. Motivated by his father's money, Charlie checks Raymond out of the facility in order to return with him to Los Angeles. The brothers' cross-country trip changes both their lives.

Someone trying to understand exactly what autism looks like (using one face) has mentioned Rain Man at some point in your lifetime as a caregiver or an educator.

RECENT: Year One with Men’s Aspirations — Developing Social Skills with Substance

I slightly remember watching the movie as a child but associated the 133-minute production with one 1-minute scene: When Raymond is banging his head against a kitchen wall as a fire alarm beeps loudly. I was younger than 10 years old at the time, and it wasn’t a movie I found to be the least bit entertaining, and I had no intentions of ever watching it again.

Fifteen years later, growing into the profession of solely working with children and adults with autism, Rain Man happens to be brought up in conversation at least monthly. My most memorable account was at last year’s Ocalicon National Autism Conference, where a prestigious researcher motioned that we, as educators, have to expand the public’s perception of autism beyond Rain Man.

Rewatching Rain Man, I’m astounded — a particular word I don’t use lightly.

A given after watching, and what the researcher was alluding to last November, is that no one movie or character with one set of traits can define or depict a spectrum as vast as autism. Although we know that wasn’t the intention of the screenplay, it’s what society has lazily perceived autism to be. Raymond displays many of the classical traits of autism, yet we can concur that the road comedy-drama represents one individual with autism. Use this as part of your dialogue to fill in the blanks of autism using Rain Man as your springboard.

It doesn’t end here.

Along with the fact that Charlie, without permission, took Raymond out of his home for a chance of securing a greater inheritance than rose bushes and a used car, the movie illustrates the relationship between one man caring for another, beautifully.

Here are four things Charlie Babbit did right with Raymond under his wing. As a parent or educator caring for children and adults with autism, once someone inevitably mentions Rain Man in the future, they pair what-is-autism with how-to-care for someone with autism and begin the motion to expand upon the public’s perception of autism with an educational application.

1. Schedule Real World Experiences

Watching Raymond live within the mental institution, it’s easy to assume that he wouldn’t benefit from any real-world experiences outside of the home. He liked his activity, food, and Judge Wapner schedule, and he showed no yearnings for anything else beyond this bubble. On the surface, it’s even easy to question his capability of acknowledging and experiencing anything else.

With the help of Charlie and Susanna, we watched him dance overlooking the skyline, drive a car, wear a suit, and kiss a woman in an elevator.

As you can see, when making assumptions, standards for another can be dropped with a low-level type of thinking. Imagine where those assumptions go when a child or adult is nonverbal.

Bottom line: Take the initiative of scheduling real-world experiences. If you can’t, find someone who will.

Application: Find someone who is an advocate for your child or client. What can be expanded in their daily standard of life? For example, if a child or adult plays The Legend of Zelda every day, who is making time to listen and take part in a conversation involving their frustrations, joys, and concerns of the game? Who’s taking them to renaissance festivals to grip a sword like the one Link carries? Realize none of this can happen by chance — make an effort. If you think these things are ridiculous, find someone who doesn’t. Start here and see how real-world experiences at a basic level transcend to personal engagement and development (socially, academically, and professionally).

2. Provide an Unwavering Duty to Meet Needs

Charlie didn’t quite understand the complexities of how autism manifested in his brother’s brain. All he knew was that Raymond was different and lived in a world of his own. Searching for answers, the advice he took from the doctor was to just deal with him and take breaks as needed.

Although there was a steep learning curve to Charlie accepting the importance of maple syrup on the table before pancakes and watching People’s Court per schedule — before and after the doctor’s visit and with many questions unanswered — Charlie continued to do what he could. He simply provided an unwavering duty to meet Raymond’s needs to maintain satiety and safety. As you see over time, this allows Raymond to move beyond survival mode, endure fewer meltdowns, and experience the finer things in life (jokes, love, and connection).

Reiterating the importance of meeting needs at the core level, if a bottle of maple syrup preceded a plate of freshly cooked pancakes, what were the chances Raymond would listen, behave, create, joke, love, or connect? If not?

Bottom line: Always meet the needs of the child or adult at the most basic level before other demands distress them. Make this habitual.

Application: Have you tried scheduling an entire day for your child or client? As this task is daunting, let's break it down and begin with a three-hour chunk of time upon waking. In this three-hour chunk of time, what are the things the child or adult needs for satiety and safety through the morning routine? You may be transitioning from one activity to another, the child may be experiencing something new, and as luck serves us, something unexpected within the schedule is bound to take place. In these circumstances, what does the child need? Are these things readily available? Are they physical or emotional? Can they be purchased from the store? What kind of planning on your end is needed for this stuff to be secured in-hand immediately? Do the needs change as you move from one three-hour of a chunk of time to the next three-hour chunk of time? Can you provide these requirements or do you have to outsource?

A lot of this falls into planning by the caregiver. Similar to scheduling real-world experiences, we’re not coasting through the day to see what happens.

Instead, the needs of the child dictate our direction; therefore our day (all eight 3-hour chunks) has a purpose and is strategic.

3. Listen to Fear and Adjust Plans Accordingly

Charlie was forced to hone in on his listening skills. We saw many instances (in a hotel, at the restaurant, at the airport, in a phone booth, etc.) where Raymond’s needs were pushed off and not seen as keen indicators until they resulted in direct threatening situations: self-injurious behavior, repetitive self-talk, screaming, and panic.

It was once he adopted the skill of listening and understanding how one situation can lead to something unimaginably out of control that Charlie relied on his ears and planned accordingly. It wasn’t that he became submissive to Raymond; instead, through listening, he changed the course of his day to meet the needs of his brother. In most cases, the result was the same — the day just took the scenic route instead of the preferred expressway.

Bottom line: Listen. What you’ll hear is not always what you want to hear. It'll serve you just like GPS — a roadmap to get you where you’re going to meeting the needs of the child or adult under your care.

Application: So what are we listening for? I tend to search for the littlest signs of stress. Do realize, it’s easy to associate early signs of stress with laziness or opposition. Perhaps it’s easier for us, as caregivers and educators, to ignore early signs of stressors than it is to analyze the situation a little deeper and execute some change to guide the child or adult through it.

Relating this to training, since training is a definite stressor we can all identify with once intensity heightens: I confused the signs of a child needing to stop with laziness and merely trying to get out of something that got tough. I saw her on the verge of tears, sulking, and her gaze softened; yet I interpreted the situation as she’s safe, I’m here, she’s sweating, she’s moving, and breathing hard — exactly the reason I’m here! One second more of motivating her to keep going and push past the fatigue, she lost it. She dropped to the floor, cried, kicked her feet, slapped her head, and screamed.

It was after this moment and the hour that it took for her to return to a calm state of mind, my listening skills became attuned to her every need. She was undeniably a very hard worker, and although my instinct was to push her, I now knew where I could ramp up the intensity, when to bring it down, when to shut things down, and when to change the schedule altogether. I also made sure to consult with her parents before our workout to rule out any preexisting stressors from the school day that could directly affect our gym accomplishments.

Listening to a child and trusting what they have to say has more far-reaching implications than any tough workout could ever have. Accomplish progressions in strength, grit, aerobic capacity, hypertrophy, size, motor patterning through listening, and then doing.

4. Make a Connection

Fifteen minutes before the credits travel up the screen, accompanied by an '80s beat — perhaps the most pivotal scene in the entire movie— Dr. Bruner states that Raymond is not capable of forming a relationship with Charlie. Heart-wrenchingly, we have accumulated two and a half hours of visual and audible proof that Raymond indeed, is capable of forming a relationship.

Think of the human connection between two as the centerpiece of this entire puzzle. Without it, a gaping hole remains; there’s a disconnect, and value cannot be contrived elsewhere. Furthermore, without connection, the odds of scheduling real-world experiences, providing an unwavering duty to meet needs, and listening, are obsolete.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to make a substantial impact on a child or client's life to spur progress in all areas of development, get to know the individual. Care immensely. Share interests. Ask questions. Spend quality time together (more than the allotted paid window, if applicable). Listen. Enter their world (even if it’s absolutely ridiculous in your mind).

Application: It took me three years working with the same client every week to finally fully engage with his interests. In that timeframe, we made significant progress in the gym, but looking back, I realize I wasn’t fully engaged and didn’t know what to do. My primary aim was to keep him safe and create a healthy training environment to get him mentally, socially, and physically stronger. We did just that, but something was still missing. Don’t get me wrong, when he talked, I listened, I took part in conversation the best I could (watch a few episodes of Happy Tree Friends and see what you have to say, let alone think), adjusted my programming to include his interests (inclusion of play, free time for video games and YouTube videos) yet I still was not even close to entering his world.

And then I decided to go all in.

A new interest took shape, and it included robots — a teenage robot named Jenny, the show she starred in, and how he wanted to build a robot replica. So more than just listening, I urged him to start drawing a blueprint to get the process started. That’s the first time I struck a nerve. I kept asking about the design each week, and since he had nothing to show for, I then suggested we start the process as part of our training. Each week, we took 15 minutes of our training day to begin the blueprint process. The blueprint led to building a robot arm together. To accompany the building process, he mandated that I watch two episodes of My Life As A Teenage Robot weekly — I take notes, he reviews the notes and grades them, and a test is administered every 26 episodes (I earned an A+++ on the first test!).

So what does this have to do with training? Everything.

Now, before he walks through the door for a new training day, he already has two things he can count on: robot assembly and episode review. He feels safe and is willing to give 100 percent effort (the connection serves as more of a reward for him than earning McDonald’s through earned tallies). Additionally, he has someone to scream his frustrations to and debate on a particular character’s motive. This connection also bounces us to school and situations with kids he’s having problems with, where we find possible solutions to curve any adverse behavior. Three years shy of high school graduation, we talk about the future and the prospect of studying robotics in college.

So what is it that interests the child you’re caring for? Have you tried all possible avenues to understand more about these interests? What steps are you taking to play an active role in developing these interests? How will this connection allow you and the child to reach and move beyond the primary aim?

Someone trying to understand what autism looks like (using one face) will mention Rain Man at some point in your career. Use this as the opportunity to pair what-is-autism with how-to-care for someone with autism. It’s your chance to begin the motion to expand upon the public’s perception of autism with an educational application.

Header image courtesy of  Dmitriy Shpilko © 123RF.com

WATCH: Defining Autism — Beyond the Label [Documentary]