Bill Sackter and Barry Morrow

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The Rain Man Effect

Bill Sackter was the subject of two television movies that helped change national attitudes on persons with disabilities.

Bill was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1913. He was the son of Sam and Mary Sackter, Russian Jewish immigrants who ran a grocery store. In 1920, his father died of a heart attack at age 35 when Bill was 7 years old. Bill did badly in school. The principal insisted that Bill was feebleminded, and that there was no place for him in the public school system. The State of Minnesota determined that he would be a “burden on society” so he was placed in the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. He remained there for the next 44 years, never saw his mother or two older sisters again.

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Bill wasn’t autistic. He was opposite: a born people-pleaser who said hello to strangers in the street. At the Faribault, they hadn’t tested his IQ until he had already been there for thirteen years. He was never taught to read or write or even how to tell the time.

In 1964, in the new waves of reform, Bill was moved to a halfway house and worked odd jobs to support himself. He became a handyman at a country club where Barry Morrow, a filmmaker, and his wife befriended him. Morrow made life a bit more comfortable for Bill and became his guardian. When he took a post at the University of Iowa, Bill followed him to Iowa City, and became the sole proprietor of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop on the campus, in which he excelled. In 1978, Bill was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year, and President Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House.

In 1980, Morrow produced a made-for-TV movie based on the story of Bill’s journey to independence. The film won an Emmy award, a Peabody, and two Golden Globes. Two years later, Morrow made a sequel, Bill:On His Own.

Bill died in his sleep on June 16, 1983. “What Bill taught me,” Morrow says, “is that not only people like Bill need society, society needs people like Bill.”

***

As he pursued his career in Hollywood, Morrow became active in advocacy organizations like the Arc, the network of parents and disabled adults. In 1984, at an Arc conference in Arlington, Texas, he met Kim Peck, a savant who had exceptional memories, but experienced social difficulties. By eighteen months, Peck was memorizing every book his parents read to him. He mastered the standard high school curriculum with the help of tutors by the time he was fourteen. Taking a job in a sheltered workshop for disabled people, he performed complex payroll calculations without the uss of an adding machine. Yet he could not dress himself or attend to many of his basic needs without help.

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After seeing the Bill films, Peek’s father, who was the communications director for the Arc, invited Morrow to Arlington to enlist him in raising public awareness of intellectual disability.  The result of the meeting was the 1988 movie Rain Man. Morrow’s original conception for the character of Raymond Babbitt was part Peek and part Bill. He had never even heard the word autism when he wrote the first draft of Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman was instrumental to make the character of Raymond autistic rather than just intellectually disabled. Gail Mutrux, Hoffman’s associate producer had mentioned to a psychotherapist named Bruce Gainsley that she needed to find out more about the savant syndrome. Gainsley referred her to two psychologists who agreed to read Morrow’s script and offer feedback. One of the psychologist is Bernie Rimland, who suggested that possibility of an autistic savant. Rimland felt that the eccentricity of autism would make the film far more interesting. Rimland also put Mutrux in touch with several parents in his network, including Ruth Christ Sullivan. At the end, Raymond was a composite of Joe Sullivan and an autistic young man in New Jersey called Peter Guthrie.

Rain Man opened in 1988 and won several Academy Awards. The film was nominated two Golden Globes and a People’s Choice award.

Rain Man has introduced a common but mistaken media stereotype that people on the autism spectrum typically have savant skills. But it has also dispelled several misconceptions about autism and increased public awareness of the failure of many agencies to accommodate autistic people.

The Rain Man Effect

Bill Sackter was the subject of two television movies that helped change national attitudes on persons with disabilities.

Bill was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1913. He was the son of Sam and Mary Sackter, Russian Jewish immigrants who ran a grocery store. In 1920, his father died of a heart attack at age 35 when Bill was 7 years old. Bill did badly in school. The principal insisted that Bill was feebleminded, and that there was no place for him in the public school system. The State of Minnesota determined that he would be a “burden on society” so he was placed in the Faribault State School for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. He remained there for the next 44 years, never saw his mother or two older sisters again.

Bill wasn’t autistic. He was opposite: a born people-pleaser who said hello to strangers in the street. At the Faribault, they hadn’t tested his IQ until he had already been there for thirteen years. He was never taught to read or write or even how to tell the time.

In 1964, in the new waves of reform, Bill was moved to a halfway house and worked odd jobs to support himself. He became a handyman at a country club where Barry Morrow, a filmmaker, and his wife befriended him. Morrow made life a bit more comfortable for Bill and became his guardian. When he took a post at the University of Iowa, Bill followed him to Iowa City, and became the sole proprietor of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop on the campus, in which he excelled. In 1978, Bill was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year, and President Jimmy Carter invited him to the White House.

In 1980, Morrow produced a made-for-TV movie based on the story of Bill’s journey to independence. The film won an Emmy award, a Peabody, and two Golden Globes. Two years later, Morrow made a sequel, Bill:On His Own.

Bill died in his sleep on June 16, 1983. “What Bill taught me,” Morrow says, “is that not only people like Bill need society, society needs people like Bill.”

***

As he pursued his career in Hollywood, Morrow became active in advocacy organizations like the Arc, the network of parents and disabled adults. In 1984, at an Arc conference in Arlington, Texas, he met Kim Peck, a savant who had exceptional memories, but experienced social difficulties. By eighteen months, Peck was memorizing every book his parents read to him. He mastered the standard high school curriculum with the help of tutors by the time he was fourteen. Taking a job in a sheltered workshop for disabled people, he performed complex payroll calculations without the uss of an adding machine. Yet he could not dress himself or attend to many of his basic needs without help.

After seeing the Bill films, Peek’s father, who was the communications director for the Arc, invited Morrow to Arlington to enlist him in raising public awareness of intellectual disability.  The result of the meeting was the 1988 movie Rain Man. Morrow’s original conception for the character of Raymond Babbitt was part Peek and part Bill. He had never even heard the word autism when he wrote the first draft of Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman was instrumental to make the character of Raymond autistic rather than just intellectually disabled. Gail Mutrux, Hoffman’s associate producer had mentioned to a psychotherapist named Bruce Gainsley that she needed to find out more about the savant syndrome. Gainsley referred her to two psychologists who agreed to read Morrow’s script and offer feedback. One of the psychologist is Bernie Rimland, who suggested that possibility of an autistic savant. Rimland felt that the eccentricity of autism would make the film far more interesting. Rimland also put Mutrux in touch with several parents in his network, including Ruth Christ Sullivan. At the end, Raymond was a composite of Joe Sullivan and an autistic young man in New Jersey called Peter Guthrie.

Rain Man opened in 1988 and won several Academy Awards. The film was nominated two Golden Globes and a People’s Choice award.

Rain Man has introduced a common but mistaken media stereotype that people on the autism spectrum typically have savant skills. But it has also dispelled several misconceptions about autism and increased public awareness of the failure of many agencies to accommodate autistic people.

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