What's Eating Arnie Grape: An Evaluation on Arnie Grape's Cognitive Development

Arnie Grape, from the movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), is turning 18 years old and he has a developmental disability. The nature and name of his disability is never thoroughly discussed in the movie as it centers mainly on Arnie’s older brother, Gilbert, and his family life and responsibilities. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2012), a developmental disability is a group of conditions caused by the impairment of physical, behavioral, learning, and/or language areas and it affects one in six children in the United States. Boyle et al. (2011) determined the prevalence of developmental disabilities in United States children for a period of 12 years and found that males had a higher prevalence over various disabilities when compared with females; Hispanic children had a lower prevalence when compared with white and black children of no Hispanic descent; low income and lack of health insurance were also associated with higher prevalence.

Developmental disabilities, as discussed above, affect different areas of development in a child’s life. To accurately analyze Arnie’s character, it is important to look at the various theories of development and where Arnie falls under the milestones found in each theory. This article focuses on the Cognitive Developmental theory of Jean Piaget and proposes the stage under which Arnie Grape is under through a thorough analysis of Arnie’s thought processes.

Cognitive theorists stress the importance of conscious thought processes (Fiore, 2011, p. 34) and on how people’s behavior is affected by their beliefs, their expectations, and their attitudes (Seligman & Reichenberg, 2010).

Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental theory is a four-staged theory that is centered on an individual’s thinking, reasoning, and problem solving (Haley, Module 02, 2012) and how these thought processes change, adapt, and grow. The four stages on Piaget’s theory are the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage.

Sensorimotor Stage

Piaget’s sensorimotor stage begins at birth and ends at around the two years of age; during this stage, children’s sensory experiences with the environment begins to form patterns that lead to different cognitions. Object permanence develops during this stage; according to Piaget, before the age of nine months, children believe that objects exist only when they are paying attention to it; if the newborn gets distracted away from the object, it ceases to exist (Haley, Module 02, 2012). Arnie Grape seems to grasp very well that objects do not cease to exist even if he’s not paying attention to them; when Gilbert leaves angry after hitting Arnie, Arnie is still aware of Gilbert’s existence and is still aware of what has occurred. Another important aspect of the sensorimotor stage is that of symbolic representation; children learn to visualize and think about something that is not physically present. This is seen in this example, with Arnie still being aware of what has occurred and visualizes this when it is not present.

Imitation also occurs in this stage, whether it is immediate imitation or deferred imitation, which refers to the imitation of something that happened hours or days earlier. Imitation skills are vital to the success of the child in social settings (Ganz et al., 2008); these skills are thought to be related to cognitive functioning, peer engagement, and learning abilities. Furthermore, Ganz et al. stressed the importance of the development of imitation skills by conducting a study on children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD); according to their research, children with ASD are less likely to be successfully integrated into their communities because they are unable to learn by observing peers and professors. Children learn social cues from imitation which later translates into symbolic representation.

There are plenty of imitation examples that can be seen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Arnie constantly looks up after his brother and imitates his words, his postures, and sometimes even his body language. Arnie is seen constantly repeating his mother’s words of worry whenever Arnie disappears. His mother is constantly repeating “do not disappear on me again”, something that Arnie recalls throughout parts of the movie and imitates by telling Gilbert not to disappear. The first example of Arnie imitating something is when Gilbert sings him a song in order to get him down of the water tower; Arnie sings it immediately after it and decides to climb down upon hearing it. Arnie is also seen repeating Gilbert’s remark on their mother’s body figure. “He’s a whale!” he yells over and over again, repeating Gilbert’s remark. Another instance of imitation is when Gilbert’s younger sister refers to him as dad. “Okay, dad. Sure thing, dad.” Arnie repeats this over and over in the same mocking tone than the younger sister; this again occurs when Gilbert states that their father is dead, to which Arnie begins singing joyfully “Dad’s dead! Dad’s dead!” This will be discussed later on under the egocentrism portion of the preoperational stage.

Deferred imitation also occurs in the film. Gilbert constantly reminds Arnie about saying thank you when something nice is done for him; when Gilbert doesn’t know what to say to Becky after the time they have spent together, Arnie reminds him, much like Gilbert used to remind him, “Say thank you, Gilbert. Say thank you.” Gilbert has taught Arnie to socialize with other people; something that Arnie learns through imitation of his role model.

Arnie also shows deferred imitation with his father’s death. He knows that his father committed suicide by hanging on the attic of the house; when Arnie is asked by Gilbert to go down there to help Tucker, he immediately recreates his father’s death by imitating a hanging noose and him hanging from there. This shows again that Arnie has learned to imitate an event that happened years ago.

Habituation is another part of the Sensorimotor stage in which an infant becomes desensitized to a stimulus; Arnie is seen in the movie several times trying to climb the water tower of Endora. Even with the townspeople and the police gathering to get him down, Arnie seems desensitized to all these stimulus and continues his task; he has managed to grow accustomed to this happening so it is no longer something that catches his attention.

Adaptation is another key aspect of the sensorimotor stage; this is the process of elaborating, modifying, and developing schemes. Adaptation involves assimilation and accommodation; assimilation is incorporating new information into already existing schemas, while accommodation involves creating new schemas to fit new information. In the sensorimotor stage, adaptation refers to the schemas that the child is building. Arnie has already his own schemas of how life works: Gilbert takes care of him; his older sister cooks and takes care of the family; his mother does not leave the house nor does she leaves the first story of the house; his father is dead. These set of schemas are what Arnie has learnt throughout his life; assimilation and accommodation will be further discussed in the preoperational stage so a comparison can be made on whether or not Arnie has difficulty adapting his already existing schemas built in the sensorimotor stage.

Because Arnie has already developed his own schemas, learns to socialize from imitating Gilbert, understand that objects do not cease to exist solely because he is no longer paying attention to them, and has learnt to visualize things even when they are not present, Arnie does not fall under the sensorimotor stage of development.

Preoperational Stage

In the preoperational stage children between two and seven years of age begin to use symbols and language growth occurs; simple mental operations are also visible in this stage, alongside with a more realistic view of the world around them. By the end of this stage, children are able to ask sophisticated questions (Haley, Module 02, 2012) and with higher mental abilities.

During the preoperational stage, children are able to accommodate and assimilate new information into their already existing schemas. Arnie seems to struggle in adapting his schemas and this is visible throughout the movie; Gilbert is the one who takes care of him; Gilbert showers him, takes him to work, and protects him. Arnie seems to not adapt accordingly to new schemas and this is seen when Gilbert instructs him on how to bathe himself; Arnie ends up spending all night in the bathtub because it his previous schema was that Gilbert bathed and dried him for bed; he failed to accommodate the information from the previous schema into this new one. This is also seen with the constant attempts of Arnie to climb the water tower; despite always getting into trouble with the police force, Arnie does not seem to assimilate that climbing the tower will lead to another police confrontation.

Despite certain schemas that Arnie is unable to assimilate or accommodate, he has successfully managed to adapt in two visible occasions; a strong example is found in him adapting to his father’s suicide; he has managed to accommodate that information that his father has passed away and does not include him any longer into his existing schemas revolving around his daily life. This again is seen with his mother’s death. After a year, Arnie is shown again returning to normal but aware that his life has changed since his mother passed away and, instead of continuing the old tradition of watching the travelers’ caravan and returning home, him and Gilbert join for the first time in their lives.

Animism is another key aspect of the preoperational stage of development. It refers to the idea that children hold in which everything that moves is alive. Arnie is well aware of this as he treats objects as merely objects. Similarly, realism involves not being able to distinguish between reality and dreams; Arnie is well aware that dreams are not real.

Conservation is one of the concepts that children in the preoperational stage haven’t mastered; it involves the understanding that changing the shape of an object does not change its mass, volume, or number. A good example of how Arnie has yet to master this stage is when he is carrying Becky’s groceries; he falls and they spill over the floor, to which he begins to grow extremely anxious about. Arnie does not seem to grasp that the fact that they have fallen, does not mean that they are no longer useful; something that relates to reversibility: the groceries have fallen; he can pick them up and they will conserve their integrity.

Arnie has a self-centered view of the world. He cannot see the world through another person’s eyes nor feel empathy toward other people’s feelings. This is known as egocentrism, a key concept in the preoperational stage of development. Bachara (1976) conducted a study in which 12 year old boys with learning disabilities were compared on the Borke Scales for Empathy and found that learning disabled children had significantly greater difficulty recognizing and labeling emotions. Furthermore, Auyeung et al. (2009) conducted a study in which children were tested with the children’s version of the Empathy Quotient and Systemizing Quotient; findings show that children with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC), a learning and developmental disability, scored significantly lower on the Empathy Quotient when compared with typical boys.

There are plenty of examples that show Arnie’s self-centered views. When Arnie begins yelling that their father is dead at the table; he does not seem to understand the distressed look on her mother’s features; he can’t understand why anybody would be upset about it if he is having fun. Similarly, during the funeral for Mr. Carver, Arnie does not understand the sorrow of the people gathered nor does he feel empathy; instead, he is seen in the distance playing on his father’s tombstone and, later, joyfully cheering as the Burger Barn restaurant is being hauled through the street. Throughout the movie we see Gilbert fighting his urge to leave all behind and the responsibilities that come with being the head of the family and taking care of Arnie; Arnie, however, does not understand his point of view and constantly gets into trouble, which adds to Gilbert’s distress; for example, when Arnie climbs the water tower for the third time in the movie, he did not understand why people were upset at him or where worried about him; he solely thought of what made him happy or joyful as opposed as noticing the non-verbal cues of distress in Gilbert and his mother’s features.

Arnie still has difficulties with the key concepts of the preoperational stage, which places him under this particular stage of development. Although he has learned about animism and realism, Arnie is still very egocentric in his behaviors and cognitions, which is a major aspect in this stage.

Concrete Operational Stage

To further demonstrate that Arnie falls under the preoperational stage of development, it is necessary to take into consideration the following stage in order to successfully asses him. The concrete operational stage of development occurs between the ages of 5 and 12 years. The key concepts in this stage are those of logical inferences, flexible thinking, and abstract thinking.

Children in the concrete operational stage can evaluate cause and effect relationships. They are able to understand that a particular action will have an effect, something that Arnie is not widely aware of. The prime example is his constant attempts at climbing the water tower; Arnie does not understand that climbing it can harm him; furthermore, he fails to accommodate that climbing the water tower will get him into trouble, despite the constant warnings from the police and his own mother. Another example is seen when he cuts the grasshopper’s head; a child in this stage could easily infer that by cutting an animal’s head, the animal would die; this is a logical inference; however, Arnie does not understand this and he later realizes it as the grasshopper lies dead. Children during this stage make hypothesis about what they know from their experience, which is something that Arnie has yet to master.

Formal Operational Stage

Finally, the formal operational stage represents the last stage of development in Piaget’s model. This stage occurs starting from the age of 12 and continues throughout life. People in this stage learn to think in abstract, intangible concepts and the ability to think about their own thoughts (metacognition) is also present. Because of Arnie not yet mastering concrete ideas and concepts, it is difficult to grasp abstract concepts. At the beginning of the film, Arnie is heard counting while him and his brother wait for the travelers to pass. Arnie asks Gilbert how much time they have to wait, to which Gilbert answers 3 million. Arnie has no visible idea of what this means and instead keeps counting; he does not understand the abstract idea of time and how it works. It is also difficult for him to understand simple cause and effects from their own experiences with concrete objects, which would make it incredibly difficult to hypothesize about abstract concepts or intangible objects.


It is because of this evidence that Arnie is placed under the preoperational stage of development. While he is taking steps to move onto the next stage, Arnie still needs to learn to form hypothesis about his tangible, present world, to develop empathy in order to see from others’ point of views, and to learn to adapt to new schemas that form as life progresses, all of which is necessary in order to develop onto the next stages of Piaget’s developmental theory.


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