Being an autism parent is no easy task and when planning routines, working on behavioral and communication skills, and preventing meltdowns is on the top of your agenda, a movie night might be just what the doctor ordered. In fact, it really is, with the National Library of Medicine revealing movies are not only a great tool for modeling social interactions, but they can also be used to increase the quality of family life.
NLM’s findings are important because they show the educational benefits of screen media for children affected by ASD in improving language, creativity, and social exchange, but also that movies are highly beneficial as a way of scheduling family time and for providing individuals on the spectrum with relief from sensory challenges. Watching movies about autism can also make you and your family feel like you’re a part of the autism community and, with movies like Temple Grandin and even the Pokémon series, you get an insight into the lives of famous individuals who were/are on the spectrum.
A great strength that is often overlooked when people hear the diagnosis of ASD, is that some individuals develop fixations or special interests which could potentially lead them to develop extreme knowledge around a topic, setting them up to perhaps become an industry leader in that field. For instance, Pokémon’s Satoshi Tajiri had a fixation with video games and bugs growing up and some think his nickname of Dr. Bug was a key inspiration for the Professor Oak character.
The actor and writer Dan Aykroyd also proudly states that being on the spectrum helped him create the blockbuster hit Ghostbusters. Dan attributes his obsession with law enforcement as well as his fixations with the supernatural for sparking his idea for the film. Dan also explains that his success in writing the series Blue Brothers, a story of two recidivists, was propelled by his extensive knowledge of criminological terms.
Temple Grandin, an autistic individual specializing in animal husbandry, had a knack for summing it all up, saying: “The world needs different kinds of minds to work together.” Which is why I recommend you put all 10 of the movies listed below on your watch list. Each movie will explore how different everyone is and why there is a spectrum. From high functioning asperger’s syndrome to low functioning (if you choose to use those terms), let us have fun learning and bonding in this epic movie marathon!
Movie masterpiece #1 – Temple Grandin
As one of the most prominent and famous figures in the autism community it’s a no-brainer that the movie based on Temple Grandin’s life snags the top of the list for best autism movies. The film is based on the life of a young autistic woman who overcomes the limitations and barriers facing her as a result of her diagnosis.
We discover that she only learnt to speak at the age of four and how she struggled through high school. Yet she went on to graduate with a PhD and became an expert in her field of animal husbandry and made great strides within the autism community.
Based on a true story, this heart-warming tale is truly one of overcoming diversity, and is a great pick me up film as you watch as Temple learns to focus on what she can do rather than on what she can’t.
Movie masterpiece #2 – Jack of the Red Hearts
While a lot of movies around autism focus on the experiences of high functioning children on the spectrum, Jack of the Red Hearts is a great movie displaying what it’s like for individuals who are low functioning and how it’s still possible to have a fulfilling life. As the mom from the movie explains that while she may not be a savant, “she has an extraordinary personality”.
The movie depicts the journey of Jack (short for Jacqueline) an orphan who cons her way into a job as a therapist and companion for an 11-year-old girl with autism, as an effort to keep her sister from foster care. As you watch Glory learn communication skills and so make it into a great school, you also watch as Jack transforms and grows too, and also learns how to communicate. Jack hides behind her lies and rebellious views of the word to keep her safe but it is all stripped by the end of the movie when she forms a genuine connection with the family, just as Glory did with her.
It is a great tale of how struggling through the adversities of autism impacts and transforms not only the individuals with the diagnosis but also for the family members. Making this the perfect movie to watch as a family as it has something that every member of the family can relate to.
Movie masterpiece #3- Love on the Spectrum U.S.
While it’s not a movie, this wholesome reality TV show follows a series of individuals who are on the spectrum as they work through the ups and downs of their budding relationship, practicing social interaction, and finding their love story. The best part about this show is the variety of individuals’ stories and lives you get to see, and how ultimately everyone just wants to feel accepted and connected.
On the show we get to meet Dani Bowman, whose success in animation was sparked when she found out her idol Satoshi and the creator of Pokémon are on the spectrum. Not only did her fixation in animation lead to great success for her career in the field, it also led to her sharing her joy by teaching other individuals on the spectrum about animation. Meanwhile, fellow contestant Kaelynn Partlow’s Facebook page, Kaelynn’s Autistic Angels, provides resources and a sense of community for autistic individuals, and has reached 50 thousand followers.
All in all the show not only highlights the experiences of autistic people it also shows how in breaking through adversity, these individuals use their diagnosis as a super power to create success and a sense of community for people who in the past have been shamed for being different and who now can instead be praised for it.
Movie masterpiece #4 – Atypical
Another series I wanted to include in this list is Atypical. A great thing about this show is that it hired individuals with autism for roles both on and behind the camera. Even if the characters weren’t scripted as having a disability, the Netflix producers noted that they wanted to have an inclusive environment and create something that anyone who felt different could relate to.
The series follows Sam, an autistic teen who, in his quest to find love, balances school and work while striving for more independence, and throws his whole family on a path of self-discovery. This show addresses the stress that the individual and family may endure as they enter into their teens and so the family who have put in all their effort to protect their loved ones must let go in order for them to grow. Along with witty and insightful conversations with his therapist, this show truly provides insight into the mind of a hormone radon teen, dealing with his mental health.
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Movie masterpiece #5 – Miracle Run
Miracle Run is a tear jerker that many parents whose kids have been diagnosed with autism can relate to. The story follows Corrine Morgan-Thomas, mother of twins, who receives a diagnosis for her sons that she refuses to accept, after visiting a specialist who tells her that her sons have a neurodevelopmental disorder known as autism and will most likely spend their lives institutionalized.
We are taken on the journey with Corrine as she must battle denial and disbelief but must persevere in the face of her boyfriend leaving her and her son’s school suggesting the boys leave following their diagnosis. Fast forward to their teenage years and we see the boys pushed past struggling with echolalia and being mute, to now thriving.
The great takeaway from Miracle Run is the realization that, while autism provides challenges, it is not a life sentence and in the end Phillip and Stephen prove that individuals with autism spectrum disorders can do exactly the same thing as everyone else.
Movie masterpiece #6 – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a film based on a novel and follows the journey of an autistic young boy, who goes on a journey to find one last letter following his father’s death in the 9/11 attack shortly into the movie. In this incredibly touching film we see Oskar Schell battle with his autism as he must enter large bustling cities and brave the subway in order to solve what the mystery key is for, that his father has left behind.
The film showcases the incredible ways in which Oskar can see puzzles and the world, and how this gift, or his asperger’s syndrome, leads him to transform and in doing so connect with his father. Although autism provides limits you will be reminded during this film that it also provides a powerful gift, and you can still find a way of connecting.
Movie masterpiece #7 – Inside out
While this movie might not be directly outlining the experiences of individuals with autism, it is a must watch. As Temple Grandin states: “All people and animals have the same core emotion systems in the brain.” Which is why this is such a great movie to watch for understanding autism, and to better understand what role emotions play for an autistic person.
The movie follows a young girl named Riley, as she deals with the stress of moving, and Joy as she tries to lead Riley’s emotions through this life changing event. When Joy and Sadness must journey to the depths of Riley’s mind, the only emotions left at headquarters are Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Snippets from this movie have also been used in therapy and can be a great entertaining way to learn about different emotions, especially when dealing with stressful situations and sensory overload.
Movie masterpiece #8 – The Other Sister
In The Other Sister, Carla Tate is the only child in the family who is on the spectrum, and following her return from a school for children with intellectual impairments, she finally comes home, only now she seeks to gain more independence. This is such a great film to watch as a family as you get to see that learning to give your child independence is a stressful time, maybe even more so for the parents than for the children.
For most parents, seeing their kids go off to college and finding love is a joyous moment but for Carla’s mother it is a very stressful time. Carla’s boyfriend Danny also has autism and together they prove that they can live a “normal” life.
Movie masterpiece #9 – Please Stand By
To Wendy, a fiercely independent woman with a brilliant young mind who has autism spectrum disorder, people are an indecipherable code and the world a perplexing place. However, in Please Stand By, we watch as this young autistic woman runs away and goes on a road trip of a lifetime in order to deliver her script and enter into a screenwriting competition.
Wendy wants nothing more than to connect to the world and in this film we watch as she learns how, in a tale of self discovery, independence, and acceptance. This is a great witty film to watch as a family and by the end you’ll realize that we all have to go on a “road trip” to discover how we connect with the world.
Movie masterpiece #10 – Lilo and Stitch
Last but certainly not least I must mention Lilo and Stitch, a story about a young Hawaiian girl’s search for a friend as she feels misunderstood by her peers and struggles to communicate and deal with her emotions. When she goes to adopt a dog, however, Lilo comes back with the galaxy’s most wanted extraterrestrial, Stitch. Through her faith, love, and unwavering belief in Ohana, Lilo teaches Stitch how to love and together they form an unbreakable bond.
This heart-warming movie makes it on the list as, although it is not explicitly stated that Lilo is autistic, there are small tell-tale signs that many individuals on the spectrum can relate to and so have found great joy in watching. For you as the parent then, this is a great allegory for understanding how your child may feel in the world.
Feeling connected, that’s the main thread throughout these movies and it is ultimately the greatest benefit of watching movies about autism, either to feel connected in the realization that you’re not alone or to feel connected in sharing an experience. So why is this so important to folks and families dealing with autism spectrum disorder? Feeling disconnected and overcoming feelings of isolation is a major factor in dealing with this disorder, both for the parents and individuals on the spectrum.
Watching movies around someone’s struggles is a great way to connect with them and remind them that, “Ohana means family, and family means no one is left behind or forgotten.”
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