- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

Though autism awareness is on the rise, it’s not often understood that the disorder comes in a number of varieties; symptoms and severity range from the annoying to the debilitating.

Asperger’s syndrome falls in the higher-functioning part of the spectrum. Those occupying this portion “function well in terms of language and thinking skills but have very restricted interests, marked lack of social skills, and repetitive behaviors,” according to the book “The First Year: Autism Spectrum Disorders” by Nancy D. Wiseman.

Movies and television have done little to illuminate these disorders for the public. With the exception of Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in “Rain Man,” exposure to autism and its related disorders has been limited to smaller parts, such as the seldom-seen autistic offspring of corrupt policeman Vic Mackey in the FX cop drama “The Shield.”

Max Mayer’s new movie, “Adam,” might help change that. The romantic comedy focuses on the budding relationship between Asperger’s sufferer Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) and his new neighbor, Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne). The two must overcome the difficulties his disorder poses if they are to truly connect with each other.

Director-writer Mayer had his own difficulties to overcome: making a movie about a sensitive topic like Asperger’s without mocking those who suffer from the disorder.

“There’s a lot of humor in it,” the playwright said of his new movie while sitting on a couch in the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown’s Degrees Bar and Lounge. “Hopefully, there’s a lot of comedy in it. To me, that doesn’t come from making fun of anybody; it comes from the interaction [between Adam and Beth]. The more truthful we could make the interaction, the more interesting the comedy was and the better it worked.”

The humor in “Adam” springs from its realistic depiction of the kinds of communication difficulties that afflict those with Asperger’s. As “The First Year” explains: “Persons with Asperger’s typically have a hard time understanding other people’s nonverbal expressions and tend to interpret verbal statements literally.” Combined with a lack of empathy — the ability to feel out other people’s emotions — this trait makes navigating the real world difficult.

The realism Mr. Dancy brings to his performance is rooted in the thorough research he conducted before filming. “If you go on YouTube, you’ll find a lot of videos made by people with Asperger’s in their bedrooms, talking to the camera, talking very clearly and movingly about their condition and the troubles that they face,” he says.

Although “hugely informative,” these video statements are “not representative of how they would normally behave,” the actor qualifies. “They’re relieved of all of their normal difficulties.”

Meeting directly with the “Aspies,” as those with Asperger’s are sometimes called, Mr. Dancy had a chance to see them interact more naturally, thus gaining a deeper understanding into their world.

“It was useful to get a sense of when those symptoms are on show how powerful they can be,” he explains, because otherwise “it’s very easy to kind of tone these things down, to scale them down a bit and make them more subtle.”

Portraying those symptoms on screen can be tricky, and not just for Mr. Dancy. Opposite him on the big screen is Miss Byrne, who plays a free-spirited character whose personality often causes clashes with Adam.

“Beth’s eccentricities are even more on display,” says Miss Byrne, which highlights the contrast between the two and risks turning their pairing into a farce. “I mean, you can’t laugh at the guy, obviously; that would be awful and not funny.”

Mr. Mayer was responsible for making sure the movie walked a tightrope between humor and seriousness, ensuring that “Adam” will connect with audiences without turning them off.

“Mostly, I started with Adam’s character and how he heard things and what he understood, and how … his interpretation might be different [from] the rest of [ours] and how in turn Beth would respond to that,” Mr. Mayer says.

“Miscommunication in general is ripe for comedy.”

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