The Social Perception of Civility

It's Autistic Children vs Prejudices of society.

The story of an intellectually disabled person struggling in society...

Elissa Down’s 2008 film "The Black Balloon" deeply explores the complex theme of the social perception of civility and the dynamics of a family whose teenage son suffers from Autism and ADD

Social perception of civility refers to how the majority of people interpret speech and behaviour according to their own thinking and understanding. This film is about the Mollisons' which consist of Maggie (mother), Simon (father) and their two sons; Charlie has autism and attention deficit disorder, and his younger brother, Thomas is a 15 year old who juggles his teenage life by taking the role as Charlie's ‘carer’ after the doctor orders their heavily pregnant mother, Maggie to rest.

This theme is evident throughout the film "Black Balloon" as 15 year old autistic and ADHD Charlie struggles against the predetermined mindset of his society towards autism.

Society vs Intellectually disabled. It's not a fair game!

In the 1990's autistic or intellectually disabled people were seen as "spastic" (the term used in the film), mentally retarded or clinically insane. The film clearly portrays society’s harsh attitudes towards individuals that are different such as Charlie, and their unforgiving and oblivious nature to the fact that he suffers from a condition in which it is not his fault, so has no choice but to cope with it. This is particularly demonstrated through dialogue, when classmates ask Thomas “Why's your brother a spastic?” and also when the boys at Thomas' school call the students on the special needs bus “freaks”, “retards” and “spastics"

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This image shows a group of high school boys throwing food at the "special needs" bus. It looks like an everyday ritual that these boys take part in daily when the bus goes by. This illustrates the ignorance and the cruelty these boys have towards disabled children. Throwing food at the bus shows that the boys see children with special needs as "animals" and are hence depriving them of the respect that humans deserve.

This also shows a lack of compassion and society's negative attitude because they refuse to use terms that are respectful to these people. They don't see people with intellectual disabilities as equal.

Throughout the film, close-up shots of different character’s faces are shown as they pose a sympathetic or angry expression when they encounter the Mollisons' family. The facial expressions give audiences an understanding of how society interprets the behaviour of mentally disabled people.


In the 90s, Intellectually disabled people were generally considered to be a curse. A curse "that may spread". If there is someone suffering from a psychological disorder, people thought that he/she is going to affect them and their children badly. Society tended to discriminate and be rude to these people simply because their demeanour and opinions are different to those that are considered as "normal", so we tend to hide that fear by being mean to them.

An example is shown when Charlie has a tantrum at the supermarket, and the people’s face expressions are those of interest, amusement, shock, judgemental.

From these film shots, we can gather that society in the 90s were not respectful or sympathetic towards people with intellectual disabilities. This is illustrated by the open stares of the customers, which exemplifies their nescience. They saw these people as sources of entertainment and did not treat or accept mentally disabled people as real individuals that are a part of their society.

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How Families Deal with Autism

Various families deal with autism in various ways. In the Black Balloon, Charlie is always Maggie and Simon's first priority and devotes most of their time to caring for Charlie and keeping him under control. They provide Charlie freedom and introduce opportunities that encourage his development.

  • Other families, the more "selfish" ones ignore autism and feel the burden on their shoulders BUT take no notice of the victims of autism. This worsens the situation and the negligence of such families result in INCREASED burden and "curse"-like feeling to them.
  • This can be seen in the 1994 film "Touch Of Truth", when 7 year old autistic boy Michael is offered a form of facilitated communication because he is unable to speak or write (like Charlie in Black Balloon) Even though his therapist is fully supportive of this idea, Jeff (Michael's caretaker) is outright dismissive claiming Michael's "not that bright" and "can't even spell."

Michael in "Touch of Truth" is very similar to Charlie in "The Black Balloon" They both suffer from autism however Charlie's is a lot more serious that Michael's autism. Both have the tendency to run away from home either for entertainment (Charlie) or as a way of escaping the confines of their house (Michael). This comparison illustrates that autism can come in various degrees of seriousness, and that no two autistic people are the same.
  • Other families simply gives autism secondary importance and while the parents are busy with their businesses and parties, they give the charge of the victim to an elder sibling. Now this elder sibling in control may or may not deal with the patient appropriately. Such families put autistic children at a risk although they ARE concerned about them.

My Autism and Me (Video example)

Below is a video clip about a boy with autism. His favourite thing to do is play a game called war hammers. From this video it can be observed that hobbies of autistic people are not temporary or something that is let go of really easily. It is a deep passion. This boy's passion for war hammers is similar to Charlie passion for playing video games using a Commodore 64 console system.

Thomas never understood why Charlie was so obsessed with his video games..However, from the video below it can understood that having a hobby is a lot more important to these people as it makes them happy and feel like they have a sense of purpose.

BBC - My Autism and Me

Living with autism in adolescence

Depending on the level of maturity, the siblings of the autistic child can either become concerned about their attention-seeking sibling and begin to care about them, hence developing a sense of love and even "possessiveness" towards them. (Black Balloon movie is an example). Or in case of less mature, self-sufficient and extrovert siblings, they grow indifference, expulsion, hatred or EVEN ENMITY towards their autistic siblings.

The Black Balloon gives valuable insight into life with an autistic adolescent. Thomas despises his brother as it is a prime reason for all the bullying that he has to face at school "Why is your brother such a spastic?". As Thomas is related to an autistic brother, his social status at school is affected. It is harder for Thomas to make friends because his peers relate him to Charlie and hence make unfair prejudices against him.

Maggie and Simon's lives revolve around the well-being of Charlie and sometimes Thomas feels jealous and isolated, as it seems like they don't have any time to attend to Thomas's needs. Therefore many scenes of continual tension between the needs of the child with autism and other children can be seen throughout the film.

Siblings may also feel frustration over not being able to connect or interact with their sibling.

Towards the end of the film, it can also be seen that Thomas is the target of aggressive behaviours from Charlie. This can be seen when Charlie bites Thomas's shoulder showing the level of rage and anger Charlie has towards his brother.

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Why won't society accept me?!

Surveys show that every fourth family in the world has at least one physically or psychologically disturbed child. Society was repulsive and "hateful" towards such people due to mainly religious beliefs and they also believed that the families in which such children are born are "cursed" families. The idea is: The people who believe themselves to be normal conclude that if "abnormal" people are treated as normal, the whole society will gain some of their abnormality and lose some of their normality; i.e. they think that the whole society will be affected. This inhumane and rude thought has gotten stuck in peoples' minds and it may take generations to get rid of this attitude.
However, as social awareness grew better, especially during the current years, people have become more helpful and positive towards such families in which there are children with autism. A few short tempered people are an exception who have still found it next to impossible to receive such families as "not cursed". For the selfish people, to be "mean" to someone is perhaps the easiest way to get rid of her/him or make her/him stay away from oneself.

"Autistic kids aren't very bright..." This idea can impact on their development.

In the 90's society looked at autistic people with very little empathy which gained the following reactions:
1. "Strange" looks (this can be seen in the customers faces in the supermarket scene where Charlie has a fit)
3. over-sympathetic remarks of people

All these and several other factors give the autistic people some or more of the following effects to face:

1. They develop a sense of isolation and being different from others
2. They develop inferiority complex
3. They either begin to expect more empathy from others accompanied by undue favour and help or they develop a sense of innate hatred towards the society and become more reserved, repulsive and reactive
4. Lack of self confidence and refrain from even trying something new.
5. If their parents or siblings try to encourage them, they begin to see them as their enemies and take a step further backwards
6. If by any chance they participate in an activity with normal people, and fail to acquire their target, they immediately conclude they are not as good as others and may become a victim of phobia
7. Sometimes, seeing other people's behaviour and achievements they may become disheartened and lose hope and "run away". Suicidal thoughts may captivate their minds and an extra-normal desire for love and care may also result depending on the impact past events have left on their minds

Reactions to Charlie in Black Balloon


The first image is of a boy pressed up against a foggy window. This illustration represents the difficulty that autistic kids have in communicating and sharing their feelings with the world. Autism becomes a "barrier" to these children and is an obstacle that cannot be removed. This background with foggy lights has been chosen for the same reason.

Another image contains a row of colourful crayons which are separated from a black crayon. This illustrates the discrimination of intellectually disabled people in the society of black balloon. The coloured crayons represent all the "normal" people as happy, bright individuals with a strong definitive future. However the black crayon is away and separated from the other crayons which implies that autistic people are detached and unsocial. The colour black has been used to demonstrate the idea that autistic people are depressed, sad and dull without a promising future.