Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story


Utensils, noise, stress and autistic meltdowns

I watched a fantastic movie over the weekend. “Love and Mercy” the Brian Wilson biopic. It tells the story of Brian Wilson, the creative soul behind the Beach Boys. It is worth watching on so many levels. Actress Elizabeth Banks portrays his love interest interrupting the abusive cycle of Brain’s therapist Dr. Landy, played by the ever brilliant Paul Giamatti. This intervention exemplified the pain and intensity of breaking free of an abuser. The trials of the disabled to brave the journey back to oneself.

Within the movie I saw quite a bit of what could be analogous to the autistic life experience. The struggle to embrace one’s differences and sensory meltdowns.

The struggle of being different is portrayed in the strained relationship between cousin and band-mate Mike Love. Love’s motivation was to sell records, while Brian had an intense need to release the creative music in his head.  This is a struggle for many creative types and was portrayed by the dominant and socially-oriented Love’s attempts to suppress, dismiss and invalidate the creativity. Invalidation can often be a tremendous source of subtle abuse and social stress.

Brian also experienced excessive sounds and input that was considered both a part of his genius and part of his uncoupling of reality into madness and depression. This too is akin to what many on the spectrum experience.

“He has hallucinations but they are not visual hallucinations, they are auditory. That really intrigued me (Bill Pohlad the direct of “Love and Mercy” states). That he hears really complex arrangements and harmonies and melodies that nobody understands and don’t think would work until he executes them and they are amazing. That’s part of his genius, but he can’t turn it off.”

To express this in the film Pohlad didn’t want to do the typical camera tricks to visually express hallucinations, instead he used the film’s sound mix to explain Wilson’s pain.

In one scene, Wilson is at the dinner table with friends. Everything seems fine until we hear the clanging of the silverware build louder and louder. The audience and Dano (playing Wilson) are the only ones who hear the sounds as they get to the point where it drowns out the dinner conversation.

This, to me, is a great example of what an Autistic Sensory Meltdown feels like:

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis;  a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers.   This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.


“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience.  It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior.  In work situations, I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

When Noise Becomes Painful and Creates Oxidative Stress

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of over-sensitive physiology and ramped-up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those autistics are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

A recent study by researchers in Argentina (Molina, 2015) take the approach of noise exposure as a condition of our oxidative stress balances. That what may appear to be an average exposure to noise can create health issues beyond what we’d expect. That noise can hit some of us on a fundamental level of allostatic load and create problems of internal stress. This stress expresses itself as many different physiological outcomes, like diseases and disorders such as heart disease, digestion disorders, and immune conditions created by this unbalance (Münzel, 2018). Internal damage to tissue, neurological structures, and in other studies also show impacts on the microglia for nonspecific stress outcomes (Du, 2010).

What the word stress means to most people is anxiety, too much to do and getting anxious or depressed, while this is true, it is much more than the benign-sounding word that “stress” and “anxiety” have become. The reason for the anxiety is because on a deep physiological level noise has become a true threat. A real problem. Stresses in our world have gone from being an effective tool of evolution to deep and troubling complex neurophysiological problems.

Creativity from the extraneous and unique organization of information

The genius of many creative types is that they are able to organize the chaos of information. For Brian Wilson he could turn the noise he heard into complex melodies and orchestrate it into musical arrangements. However, under chronic or acute stress the complexity of patterns turn into a chaotic derangement of mixed up information, emotion, reactions and energy “brain-drain”.  Many types of stress, when combine with various genetic and neuroendocrine thinking types, might lead to behaviors like self-medication and degradation of health. However, on the road to the degradation of health can also be the amplification of one’s environment. Hence why many observe the connection between mental illness, creativity and madness.

Vincent Van Gogh is historically considered an example of madness and creativity.  In an article from Psychology Today Van Gogh is also discussed as a synesthete with autistic traits.  What in autism we might consider a Pattern thinker (described below). Van Gogh could see more of the world around him than the average person. So much so that he could see what it took scientists hundreds of years to mathematically describe; turbulence.  What seems like chaos (random noise) may actually be understood through mathematical and scientific patterns. Patterns many artists and scientists can naturally pick up on and process, but this processing may come at a cost.

“We know now that he (Vincent Van Gogh) wasn’t just a normal guy,” he (Fred Leeman, curator of the Van Gogh Museum) said. “He was a little bit crazy, and this craziness was part of his mental makeup. It was part of what allowed him to be the great painter that he was.” Times 2014

Picture, Pattern and Word Thinkers of the Autism Spectrum

Pattern-Thinkers are known for putting complex nonlinear patterns together. They are known to be great scientists, mathematicians, and artists. We might even speculate Wilson and Van Gogh to be the elusive and rare combination of two autism thinking-types; a Pattern and Picture Thinker. Able to visualize and organize complex information from a “bottom-up” perspective instead of the typical “top-down” perspective (Temple Grandin describes these Thinking Types in further detail).

In the movie, directly contrasting Brain’s type of thinking, would be his bandmate Mike Love.  Mike may have been the diametric opposite “Word-thinking” to Brian Wilson’s “Pattern-thinking”. While this may represent a partial reason for their conflicts and very different motivating priorities, it may also represent their collaborative genius as musicians and songwriters. Different thinking types working together are what makes us great. Variety within communities improves both our survival and our evolutionary greatness. Each thinking type is equally as important to collaborative community evolution.

I want to thank Pohland and Brain Wilson for creating and sharing a powerful story and giving us a video representation and peek into the mind and world of what a sensory overwhelm feels like. They captured it beautifully.  The wonderful world of creativity, the treacherous in-between of madness, and the up/down relationships with those who love us help us navigate and sometimes save us from our overwhelming world.

Additional note:

Brian was eventually diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder.  The relationship of these type of mental disorders to autism is that autism  would be an early or pre-life amplification and already “autistic-like trait” exhibitions, ie “peripheral mind”. Whether that amplification creates mental illness or physical illness depends on the situation. I think those with Autism (early life amplification of stress reactivity) can have co-occurring conditions and others within the BAP without “autism” or early life developmental impairments can develop “mental illness” or be impacted by stress more readily later in life (or during major change milestones in the brain). So Brian may exhibit autistic-like traits when a combination of factors weighing on him and biologically tweaked (from drug use which can both reprogram and oxidatively damage the brain), falls into psychosis.

Regardless, many mental illness outcomes depend on the system and the environmental adaptations in response to stress. It can be a unique manifestation or “variations on the same tune”, such as schizoeffective disorder.

When I discuss, autism subtypes, I referred to them as “Peripheral Minds“.  These are traits of autism in the highly variable 60% of the population (referred to as the Broader Autism Phenotype or BAP) that we might say process information differently than the norm (the more homogeneously grouped 40%). What we consider autism disorder may be in fact the amplification of the various thinking-types of the BAP.  When one has autism, this amplification is to the point that there are developmental (and internal like immune system) trade-offs that become disabilities and can become illnesses. The noise Brain heard and the visuals Van Gogh may have seen, while giving them an advantage of increased information to organize into music and art, may also have come at a cost of being a constant burden pushing their physical, nutritional, and energy limits. So much so that additional stress or lack of resources from their environment pushed them over the balancing threshold.  The brain as we know, while 3% of our body, uses 20% of our energy from calories. And that is for normal everyday thinking and functioning. Imagine hyper-information mode? What type of internal compensations may have to be made in order to shift, accommodate, create or trade-off for that energy? Taking in that much information may be a terrible burden for the body.

How can we communicate these types of needs to employers, parents and teachers to insure proper breaks and care to minimize stress overloads and sensory meltdowns? How can we improve our stress resiliency? How can we improve our understanding of sensory meltdowns and the needs of so many on the spectrum?


Noise exposure and oxidative balance in auditory and extra-auditory structures in adult and developing animals. Pharmacological approaches aimed to minimize its effects.

Noise coming from urban traffic, household appliances or discotheques might be as hazardous to the health of exposed people as occupational noise, because may likewise cause hearing loss, changes in hormonal, cardiovascular and immune systems and behavioral alterations. Besides, noise can affect sleep, work performance and productivity as well as communication skills. Moreover, exposure to noise can trigger an oxidative imbalance between reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the activity of antioxidant enzymes in different structures, which can contribute to tissue damage. In this review we systematized the information from reports concerning noise effects on cell oxidative balance in different tissues, focusing on auditory and non-auditory structures. We paid specific attention to in vivo studies, including results obtained in adult and developing subjects. Finally, we discussed the pharmacological strategies tested by different authors aimed to minimize the damaging effects of noise on living beings.

Autism Auditory Studies:

Atypical sensory reactivity influences auditory attentional control in adults with autism spectrum disorders. Karhson DS1, Golob EJ. Autism Res. 2016 Jan 18. doi: 10.1002/aur.1593 LINK

Auditory cortical structure predicts superior pitch processing in children with autism. Foster N, Tryfon A, Ouimet T, Doyle-Thomas K, Anagnostou E, Evans A, Zwaigenbaum L, Hyde K; for NeuroDevNet ASD imaging group. Int J Dev Neurosci. 2015 Dec;47(Pt A):96-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ijdevneu.2015.04.264. LINK

Are oxidative stress markers useful to distinguish schizoaffective disorder from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? Bulbul F1, Virit O1, Alpak G1, Unal A Acta Neuropsychiatr. 2014 Apr;26(2):120-4. doi: 10.1017/neu.2013.44. LINK CONCLUSION:
Schizoaffective disorder was found to be different from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in terms of oxidative parameters. This result may indicate that schizoaffective disorder could differ from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in terms of biochemical parameters. Increased TOS levels observed in schizoaffective disorder may suggest poor clinical course and may be an indicator of poor prognosis.

How does visual thinking work in the mind of a person with autism? A personal account
by Temple Grandin. Department of Animal Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society(2009) 364, 1437-1442 doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0297 LINK

Beyond the Life of Brian: The Myth of the Lesser Beach Boys       

Mike Love of Beach Boys on Love and Mercy: Poor Brian, he’s had a rough rough time.

1 Comment

  1. I always wondered if Brian had some form of autism. I saw an interview he did in 1976 or so, and he was describing his drug use. He said he took a lot of drugs because “I’m a millionaire, you know”, as a means of explaining how he afforded it (although no one asked him that.) It just struck me as an odd thing to say.
    As to his auditory issues, I remember reading he had decades of hearing things that he couldn’t control. He said it happened about a week after his first LSD trip. That nutbag psychiatrist that had him on all kinds of drugs supposedly used the auditory hallucinations as a reason for the psychiatric drugs (not knowing or caring that the drugs he put him on had a worse effect on him than the LSD did.)


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