In A Wrinkle in Time – both the original novel by Madeleine L’Engle and Disney’s recent live-action adaptation – Mrs. Who doesn’t use her own words. She finds it easier to interact by choosing quotes that in some way fit the situation. This is a trait shared by David, the autistic character in Cynthia Lord’s novel Rules, who often interacts with the world by quoting Frog and Toad. The pre-formed patterns of quotes are just plain easier for them to work with than the spontaneous, unpredictable world.
In this way, Mrs. Who is the character that viewers of this film are most likely to think “she’s probably autistic.” However, she isn’t the only one with autistic symptoms.
Autism is a spectrum, and manifests in a lot of different ways in different people – as the saying goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And A Wrinkle in Time is full of autistic people.
Charles Wallace is a child much more intelligent than someone his age is expected to be – and he knows it. That was the first big clue for me that he had some kind of autism. And while the movie removes another of his autistic traits (in the book, Charles Wallace doesn’t talk to anyone besides his family and the Mrs.), it gave him a different one: an uncompromising set of morals, which he wears on his sleeve. Charles Wallace has absolutely no sense of why other people wouldn’t behave in a good way, or why other people wouldn’t like praise or compliments, and this leads him to talk back to rude teachers and, much to Meg’s embarrassment, shout his love for her in earshot of the entire school, completely unaware that the other students are mocking him for it.
Several characters in the film have the high-intelligence part of autism, and they each handle it slightly differently. Charles Wallace is very patient with people who are “slower” than he is, like Meg, but he does so with an expectation that she’ll catch up with time.
Mrs. Whatsit (in her movie incarnation, which is a good bit different from the book) does not have this patience. Instead she carries herself with an attitude along the lines of “Well, I get it, so why can’t everyone else just get it, and why are we wasting our time with people who don’t get it?” This leads to her being very blunt – but not intentionally mean. It’s repeatedly clear that she just plain forgets that her words can hurt other people’s feelings.
Meg’s father is very similar to Mrs. Whatsit – he’s smart and doesn’t get why the rest of the world can’t just catch up. This leads him to make some very drastic decisions that hurt his family. But fortunately for him, he has his wife to help – and here we come to the members of the cast who are autistic, but more “passing” than the others.
There’s a great scene in the film (and not in the book), in which Meg’s mother tries to explain to her husband that yes, other people’s brains don’t work the way that theirs do, but if they want to get anything done, they can’t just run off with their smarts and leave the rest of the world in the dust (which, incidentally, he will do, though accidentally). They have to slow down, and help the “slower” people along. Meg’s mother is autistic, too, but she has enough experience with the neurotypical world to understand them, and she sees a point to working with them.
Mrs. Which is very similar to Meg’s mother. She clearly works on a different plane of reference than most, and at one point needs to be prompted to slow down for other people. However, much more than the other Mrs., she goes out of her way to help the “slower” characters like Meg along. She notices and acknowledges that need.
(It’s worth noting that Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which’s roles regarding how helpful and understanding they are seem to be swapped from the book to the movie. My guess is that nobody wanted to make Oprah be rude.)
Calvin’s autism is mostly cropped from the movie, but he has good hints of being a “passing” autistic. He is very adept at following the rules of the outside world, so much so that most people don’t notice his differences. However, there are big signs that that rule-following is an act he maintains for the purpose of survival. Though he seems “normal,” he connects very quickly with the other “weird” characters. And he’s similar to Charles Wallace in a major way: he just plain doesn’t get why people he thinks highly of (Meg) wouldn’t think highly of themselves. He doesn’t see how anyone would form a different conclusion than the one he came to.
And now we come to Meg, the hero of the story. She may be “slower” than the others, but she’s still autistic – the kind that passes, but struggles. For the most part, she seems neurotypical – but her brain works in directions that most people don’t understand, and so they look at her and wonder what’s “wrong” with her. She seems “normal,” so why can’t she just solve math problems the way she’s told to and stop being sad about her father’s disappearance? And by the start of the film, Meg has internalized other people’s opinions about her, and believes that there is something wrong with her.
As in several cases before, I don’t know if the things I read out of movies is intentionally put there by the creators. But media is unavoidably a reflection of reality, or our perceptions of reality. Everyone in the cast and crew of A Wrinkle In Time has undoubtedly met an autistic person of the type they portray; whether or not they knew at the time that the person was autistic is irrelevant.
What matters is that none of these people are ultimately portrayed as “wrong” for being the way they are. Though Meg initially believes that she’s “wrong,” over the course of the film she learns the truth: she is perfect the way she is. She is worthy of love, and she can and will be her own unique kind of glorious.
A lot of movies – possibly even most movies – focus on characters who are in some way “different” from the people around them. I can’t think of another time where I saw a movie in which the kind of “different” that so many members of the cast exhibited was autism, and in which multiple kinds of autistic people interacted and argued with each other and, in doing so, formed a frankly awesome message for autistic viewers.
The message is this: yes, you’re different. You do have to live with the world, so don’t get so caught up in the things that make you different that you abandon or otherwise hurt the people around you. But everyone who makes you feel bad for being you is wrong. There is nothing wrong with you, and you should feel free to flourish as you are and to love yourself.