This 2010 film – subtitled “Understanding Asperger’s Syndrome” – looks at first sight to be just another autism film, with a tour of autistic patients, much talk about symptoms and therapies, etc. But there is much more in the 55 minutes of this documentary.
After suggesting that famous people like Einstein, Beethoven, Mozart, Van Gogh were on the spectrum, they concentrate on one – Hans Christian Anderson. Not only did Anderson, born 1805 in Denmark, have autistic traits – shy, socially inept, etc. – but he had an acute autistic understanding and used it in his stories. A full century before we ‘discovered’ autism in our own time, Anderson was already explaining it in sophisticated fashion.
We walk through the streets of Copenhagen where Anderson once walked, then we visit a few of the stories – The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Ugly Duckling, each with its own autistic message. The last one was particularly interesting to me, because I had the idea long ago that the story of the duck who couldn’t be a duck no matter how he tried was aimed at solitary/autistic loners. This story explains to shy solitary people that because they are so different doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with them. It just means that they are different. Like the ugly duckling, who discovered that he was a swan, we too can find out who we are.
I put that idea in my novel The Birdcatcher, published in 2006, so it’s nice to think that my book might have influenced this film. But it’s more likely that they received the idea directly from Anderson’s duck.
As for the title, Oops, Wrong Planet!, I was a bit surprised that I heard no mention during the film of the website Wrong Planet (wrongplanet.net), though I admit fast-forwarding a couple of times. I’m pretty sure that site started well before 2010 (originally wrongplanet.com). Wrong Planet is a meeting place for many ugly ducklings and they obviously enjoy getting together there.
But this film makes up for that several times over, and not just with Anderson. They interview some big names – Temple Grandin, the autistic animal behavior scientist/engineer, Steve Silberman of Wired magazine, and Simon Baron-Cohen, the British autism researcher.
I had never seen Baron-Cohen before, though I’ve read a number of his articles. He has suggested, among other things, that ‘Asperger’s syndrome’, or high-functioning autism, may be the basic state of autism, and probably a natural one. That was very much the view of the Austrian psychiatrist, Hans Asperger. Watching the soft spoken, obviously intelligent Baron-Cohen, I began to think of him as Asperger returned to take up where he left off.
The only bad news about Oops, Wrong Planet! is that it doesn’t appear to be commercially available. Though I searched and searched, I couldn’t find it on Amazon or any similar site. I got its DVD at the Toronto library, and a library may the only place you’re likely to find it.