This Man Is An Island

updated 01/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

As the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman utters a clipped, anxious "Uh-oh!" whenever anything unexpected threatens his rigidly ordered world. And when a simple yes would do, he often blurts, "Definitely. Definitely." Last spring, on the set of the movie, "Uh-oh!" and "Definitely" became the crew's comic refrains. But when a tall, softly handsome young man with a strangely languid manner came by during filming one day, the joking stopped. "Suddenly, when they saw him there," says Hoffman, "it was kind of quiet on the set."

The crew's respectful silence was understandable. The young man was Joseph Sullivan, 28, one of two autistic savants who served as the principal prototypes for Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbitt. (The family of the other young man wishes him to remain anonymous). Autism is a mysterious brain disorder, with no known cause or cure, which occurs in roughly four of every 10,000 births. It severely impairs a person's ability to adapt to his surroundings and to relate to other people. About 70 percent of all autistics also have some degree of mental retardation.

Joe Sullivan is one of the lucky ones. He represents the 30 percent of autistics who are classified as high-functioning, meaning they can get along with relatively little supervision. Sometimes he can seem almost normal, if eerily innocent for a man his age. He came to the Rain Man set clutching a photo album. "He said, 'Do you want to see my scrap-book?' " Hoffman recalls. "It was like a kid coming over to someone's house, saying, 'Do you want to play with my toys?' " Hoffman sat down with him, and some members of the crew asked the visitor if he wanted to look through the camera. "He looked," Hoffman says, "and he just kept looking. I think he would have stayed there for the rest of the day."

When Hoffman began work on the movie that is currently No. 1 at the box office, he knew virtually nothing of autism. But, with his usual thoroughness, he prepared by consulting experts and autistics and their families. A major source was the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital. Barnett Addis, director of the institute's Behavioral Sciences Media Laboratory, had made two documentaries on Joe Sullivan. The first, called Infantile Autism: The Invisible Wall, was done when Joe was a boy of 7. Then 18 years later Addis and his film crew returned to Joe's hometown of Huntington, W. Va., to tape Portrait of an Autistic Young Man, later aired on PBS stations. Hoffman studied the film intensely and pored over more than 15 hours of unedited outtakes. "The documentary really moved me," he says. "Joe's a lovely guy, and if you look closely enough, there is a very healthy soul there."

There is a lot of Joe Sullivan in Raymond Babbitt. Like Joe, Raymond insists on eating his favorite snack, cheese puffs, with toothpicks, recites seemingly random phrases to himself, and neatly records daily minutiae on treasured sheets of paper. Also like Joe, Raymond is a savant, an extremely rare type of autistic blessed with an inexplicable gift. He can do complex math in his head and matter-of-factly name the day of the week that any date will fall or has fallen on.

But Raymond is a cinematic creation, with qualities he does not share with Joe. Before shooting began, Hoffman and director Barry Levinson met with Joe's mother, Ruth Sullivan, in Los Angeles. "We sat and talked," Dustin says. "I did try to 'do' Joe in front of her, and she felt that it was fairly accurate. But Barry felt that Joe had a slower rhythm than he wanted. He felt it might hold the film back." On the screen Raymond comes across as robotic and brittle, while Joe's demeanor is dreamy and almost beatific. Raymond's herky-jerky walk also bears little resemblance to Joe's fluid movements. "Generally," says Addis, "unless they are severely damaged, autistics are incredibly graceful, very adept and fey."

There are other, more significant differences between the character in the movie and the man on whom he is partially modeled. In the movie, Raymond Babbitt has grown up in an institution—albeit a benevolent one—and has been isolated from society since childhood. Joe, by contrast, has always lived at home with a loving, supportive family. His father, William Sullivan, is a professor of English literature at Marshall University; his mother, Ruth, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology, special education and speech-hearing science. Besides his family, a succession of dedicated teachers, job coaches and companions has helped Joe lead a life as normal and independent as possible. A high school graduate, Joe Sullivan now holds down a paying job shelving books at the Cabell County Public Library in Huntington.

Joe leaves for his job daily at noon, walking to a bus stop one block from his family's home in Huntington. Autistics have a compulsive need to observe strict routines and are frequently adamant in refusing to deviate. When Joe's mother asked him one day recently to wait a few minutes longer than usual in order to meet a visiting reporter, he would not.

Even in his absence, a sense of Joe's personality lingers in the house. His room upstairs is tidy enough to make a drill sergeant smile. "Joe remembers how many inches he's left the door ajar, he remembers just how he left the room, and he'll probably know we've been in here," said Ruth Sullivan. Later she pointed out four flour-and-sugar tins of different sizes lined up on the kitchen counter left to right, from the shortest to the tallest. "Joe thinks they should be the other way, and I keep finding them rearranged, so we made a deal," she said. "I get to have them my way one week, and he gets them his way the next."

Joe was the fifth of seven children in a family that had no history of mental problems. "Joe was a beautiful baby and spoke quite a few words—enough for us to think that he was normal and bright," Ruth says. Then at 18 months Joe began showing signs of withdrawal—"always playing at the periphery," his mother recalls. "I look at family pictures now, and he's always trying to get off someone's lap, with a kind of Mona Lisa smile on his face."

Still, Ruth says, "He did so many bright things. When he was 4, he was drawing accurate maps of the United States from memory. He was singing snatches from "The Star-Spangled Banner" before he was 2." About that time, Joe was first diagnosed as autistic, a finding that was confirmed by a second round of testing after the Sullivans moved from Louisiana to Upstate New York when Joe was 3. Psychiatrists knew little about the condition in those days, and the one Ruth consulted warned her against reading about it in the medical literature. Undeterred, Ruth went to the library and read anyway. To her dismay, she found that the experts then believed that parental coldness was responsible for the problem. "In fact we were called 'refrigerator mothers' by the profession," she says, still bristling at the idea. Then, as now, the Sullivans emphatically rejected any notion that they loved Joe less than their six other children, all of whom went on to become high achievers.

In those days New York State's public schools accepted physically handicapped but not autistic children. "We knew we had to change the system in order for it to serve Joe," Ruth says. Toward that end she helped found the National Society for Autistic Children in 1965 and served as president of the Albany chapter. Her tireless efforts ensured that Joe, always accompanied by a special teacher, could attend public school in New York and later in West Virginia.

At Huntington High School, Joe, with his remarkable rote memory, survived math and science. But English and social studies confounded him. His condition isolated him socially, and though he was known to everyone, he had no friends. Still, when he received his diploma in 1981, the entire graduating class rose to give him a standing ovation.

That summer Ruth persuaded the public library to hire Joe, and he now receives $63 for working an 18-hour week. From the start he has been supervised by trained job coaches, usually Marshall students. When he began, one librarian recalls, Joe sometimes behaved in an unconventional manner; he thought nothing of rolling up his trousers to brush the hair on his legs or of picking his nose in public. By reinforcing appropriate behavior, the job coaches have helped him largely to abandon such habits. When he performs well, Joe is rewarded with a trip to the movies or with a car cruise to check out license plates. Joe loves license plates. "There's a van in town with the number` DT-5153, and Joe knows exactly where it is," a counselor says. "We always stop by." Adds Ruth: "Something about that number gives him tremendous pleasure."

Like Raymond Babbitt, Joe is obsessed with cleanliness. In the library, he carefully wipes each book front and back across his pants leg before he shelves it. When he comes home, the first thing he does is toss his clothes in the washing machine. Sometimes he will keep washing his hands, and it is difficult to make him stop. Hoffman found Joe's habit of eating cheese puffs with toothpicks "mischievous and impish." However, it could simply reflect his discomfort with the sensation of touch. He seldom eats any food with his hands. Nor does he like physical contact with other people—a trait typical of autistics.

Joe has, however, been taught the rudiments of social conduct, and when he was introduced to a reporter while he was working in the library, he thrust out his hand and said, "Nice to meet you."

"Do you read any of these books?" he was asked. "I read Billboard's Top 40," he said. Every Sunday, after returning home with his Roman Catholic parents from Mass, Joe rushes to his radio to monitor the rock-hit countdown. "He's done that for 20 years," Ruth says. "He writes down each song, the number it is, the name of the group, what key it's in and probably most of the words. Then types them and keeps them in order."

In Barnett Addis' documentary, Dr. Edward R. Ritvo, a leading expert on autism, compares the working of Joe's mind to that of a pocket calculator. "The calculator is not a mathematician," observes Ritvo in the film. "It can perform certain functions, but it can't tell you what the value of anything is or the meaning of a number."

One of Joe's pleasures is drawing very precise pictures of dead-end streets, almost invariably with a house, a stop sign, a deep blue sky and bright green grass, with a jagged lightning bolt or a boy flying through the air. Why does he draw dead-end streets? "So I can remember them," he says.

Joe takes his meals with his parents "only because we want him to," says his mother. "He would gladly eat every meal by himself." Joe is capable of heating up canned spaghetti, which was all that he ate when his parents went away on a trip for a week last March. That's about as long as he can be left alone. "He needs supervision," says Ruth, who has taught him to select his own clothes every day but has had to make sure he doesn't tie his shoelaces too tight. "When we die, we couldn't leave him alone in this big house to take care of himself." At that point, Joe would probably be placed in a group home for high-functioning autistics.

Despite all the attention he has received, from family, counselors, teachers and filmmakers, Joe has no concept of autism and no sense of being different from anyone else. "Joe doesn't ever seem to be depressed," observes Dustin Hoffman. And for all the exasperating rigidity of Joe's behavior, his gentleness and innocence win people over. His companions and co-workers are fond of him and most find it difficult to accept the idea that their affection for him cannot be reciprocated.

Hoffman understands the feeling. At the end of Rain Man, Raymond's avaricious brother Charlie, played by Tom Cruise, discovers an unexpected well of love for his maddening sibling. The audience, Hoffman says, wants the awakening to be mutual. They want to believe, he says, that "if you could just put your arms around him and kiss him at the right moment, that terrible thing [he has] will disappear." But Raymond Babbitt will never be changed by such a gesture. And barring a medical breakthrough not yet foreseen, the sad truth is that Joe Sullivan won't either.

—Dan Chu, and Victoria Balfour in Huntington

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