Grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, sequined jumpsuits, a rockin’ set of sideburns. These are the things that people most often associate with Elvis Presley. Autism, on the other hand, doesn’t usually come to mind.
While working on an article about autism that was published this week in C&EN, however, I made the wacky connection. During that period, I watched a 1969 Elvis movie called “Change of Habit” and was surprised that the spectrum disorder was featured prominently.
In the film (trailer above), the King plays an overworked doctor practicing medicine at a clinic in a city ghetto. Alongside Mary Tyler Moore, who portrays a nun with a medical background sent to help lighten his caseload, Elvis wrestles with how to treat one particularly challenging patient: a young girl named Amanda who doesn’t talk, who shrinks from human touch, and who has episodes of rocking back and forth.
Elvis eventually diagnoses Amanda with autism and quickly administers some tough love via “rage reduction” treatment. Doctor and nun sit side by side, holding the girl while she kicks and screeches, all the while telling her to let out her anger and reiterating how much they love her.
Immediately after this intense session, Amanda begins to speak, respond to social cues, and hug people. Seemingly, Elvis has set the girl on a fast track to recovery.
If only it were that easy.
My knee-jerk reaction to this scene, as a person with an autistic family member, was one of irritation. And my reaction as a person who had just spent months researching the genetic causes of the neurodevelopmental spectrum disorder was one of disbelief. But then I quickly remembered that this movie was released in 1969, a time when most people thought autism was caused by bad parenting. The “refrigerator mother” theory touted by a lot of psychologists back then stated that women who didn’t show their children enough affection were causing the disorder. The frigid mothers made their kids feel unloved, and therefore the children shied away from human interaction.
The studies on twins that established autism as having a genetic basis and overthrew this notion weren’t published until the late 1970s.
So say what you will about Elvis’s acting career (don’t say it to me, though, because I’m actually quite a fan), but this portrayal of autism wasn’t his fault. He was acting out the prevailing theory at the time.
What I did take from “Change of Habit,” however, is how far autism research has come since 1969. Today, as I say in my article, researchers have identified hundreds of genes that are potentially involved with the spectrum disorder. Some scientists are studying the proteins and nerve circuits that these genes affect. And some folks are now even testing drugs to treat certain autistic behaviors.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though: The hope and determination that those touched by autism in their lives feel. Just as Elvis was hopeful that he could treat Amanda, researchers today have a positive outlook that they’ll someday understand many of the molecular pathways involved and that treatments for the complex disorder will eventually materialize.
I leave you with a bit of fun: I couldn’t find the autism clip from the film, but here’s Elvis singing “Rubberneckin’,” a hit from the movie.
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