This boy's life on the autism spectrum


X+Y (M). Director: Morgan Matthews. Starring: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Martin McCann, Jo Yang, Jake Davies, Alexa Davies. 111 minutes

A highlight of last year's disability-themed The Other Film Festival was Summer Deroche's short doco about eccentric electric lamp enthusiast Andrew Pullen. The Globe Collector packed plenty of pathos and humour into its consideration of Pullen, his obsession, and his life with Asperger's. 'I don't like the term disorder,' he says in the film. '[Asperger's is] just another type of person. Another type of personality.'

His words ring true when viewing X+Y, documentarian-turned-feature filmmaker Morgan Matthews' coming-of-age film about a boy's life on the autism spectrum. The film contains at least two characters who have been diagnosed as 'on the spectrum', and they bear out Pullen's claim to 'another type of personality'. Their 'otherness' is portrayed merely as a different permutation of normality.

The film's adolescent hero, Nathan (Butterfield), was diagnosed when he was young, and was encouraged by his parents to view the diagnosis as a gift rather than a curse. In particular, it manifests in part as a prodigious talent for numbers and mathematics. Nathan finds order and patterns soothing, and so mathematics becomes a refuge and a passion more than simply an academic interest.

While Nathan's father Michael (McCann) shares a close bond with his son, his mother Julie (Hawkins), despite the depth of her love and her most sincere efforts, cannot seem to connect with him in the same way. The distance between mother and son is exacerbated when Michael is killed in a car accident; Julie's subsequent struggle to connect with Nathan is X+Y's touching, emotional through-line.

The film follows Nathan's efforts to win a place at a prestigious international competition for budding mathematicians. Travelling to Taiwan to train with a group of other prodigies from England, China and elsewhere, Nathan meets Luke, another boy who is 'on the spectrum' but who, with a more abrasive personality than the soft-spoken Nathan, has been singled out for bullying by their peers.

Luke's story provides a sad counterpoint to Nathan's. Nathan's introversion and quiet intelligence tends to appeal to those around him (no less than two girls on the camp, Rebecca (Davies) and Zhang Mei (Yang), display a romantic interest in him), and his social awkwardness might as well be attributable to adolescence as to autism. Luke, on the other hand, works hard to fit in, and is ostracised for his efforts.

In one heartbreaking scene, Luke attempts to win the other boys' approval with an impromptu Monty Python recitation, substituting a barbecued prawn for a dead parrot. Now, this is actually really funny, except that Luke is oblivious to the fact that his chosen audience simply does not get the joke. Nathan, of course, can relate to Luke's failure to know the rules of social interaction. Then again, so can we all.

Ultimately this is a film about connection — human lives intersecting like the axes of a graph, and the meaning found at the point of intersection. While Zhang Mei opens Nathan's mind anew, Julie bonds with Humphreys, Nathan's cynical but good-natured tutor (Spall), a fallen genius with multiple sclerosis. In the end he may be able to help her better understand her son, and so finally connect with him.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: X+Y, Morgan Matthews, Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Martin McCann, Jo Yang, Jake Davies



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Existing comments

Autism may be portrayed as a normal variant on the screen, but outside the cinema, a grave injustice is done by treating such as on a normalcy continuum by a process of denial mechanism as opposed to reality: #Autism therapies which attempt to lessen the deficits and abnormal behaviours associated with autism and other autism-spectrum disorders (ASD), and to increase the quality of life and functional independence of autistic individuals, especially children. Treatment is typically catered to the child's needs. Treatments fall into two major categories: educational interventions and medical management. Training and support are also given to families of those with ASD. # Furthermore good to remember iAutism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior. The diagnostic criteria require that symptoms become apparent before a child is three years old. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering how nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize; how this occurs is not well understood. It is one of three recognized disorders in the autism spectrum (ASDs), the other two being Asperger syndrome, which lacks delays in cognitive development and language, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified (commonly abbreviated as PDD-NOS), which is diagnosed when the full set of criteria for autism or Asperger syndrome are not met
Father John George | 08 April 2015

Thank you for your comment Fr John. I agree with everything you've written as I have a nephew in the US who was diagnosed with autism 10 years ago.

Mary | 10 April 2015


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