For years documentaries have been used as an educational resource to teach about autism spectrum disorders (ASD) but the number of titles have been limited. As the rate of autism diagnoses increases, more and more parents are looking to equip themselves with as much knowledge as possible. The thing is, there is now so much information out there (of varying quality) that it can be extremely intimidating.
For those looking to choose an autism documentary for information, it’s worth noting documentaries on ASD have been made going back into the 90s. They can be an invaluable resource as families can see evidence that different therapies can work, and not give up hope that one day their child may lead an independent life.
There are many enjoyable movies that feature ASD as well as series and films that kids with autism may enjoy. This article unveils some of the best documentaries made about ASD, a list of movies that feature autism, and some animations that your autistic child could absolutely love.
Documentaries about autism
The Horse Boy
The Horse Boy is a heartfelt documentary that stars a father who would do anything to help his son. This documentary follows the story of the Isaacson family and their young autistic son Rowen. Rowen has a love for horses and his behavioral symptoms seem to abate when he is around them. This revelation doesn’t go unnoticed as Rowen and his family leave their Texas home to travel through Mongolia in search of shamans and nomadic horsemen who may be able to help heal Rowen.
Life, Animated explores the life of Owen Suskind. Owen was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he stopped talking at the age of three. As an autistic child, Owen had a love for Disney animated films which he used to create his way of communicating. To find a path of communication with their son, Owen’s parents found themselves immersed in the same Disney animation films beloved by Owen. As Owen developed his communication skills he found he had a story to tell. Life, Animated is narrated by Owen Suskind and features an animated version of his story.
A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism
Faced with the knowledge that her ten-year-old autistic son might never be able to be independent or be able to express himself, Margaret travels to the USA and Europe to speak to parents and scientists on a quest to find a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder. Margaret speaks to parents whose children were also diagnosed with ASD and who share similar struggles in their daily lives. Margaret encounters many scientists and doctors who are leaders in the autism field such as Dr. Temple Grandin, best-selling author, and autism advocate, as well as Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University.
This Business of Autism
This Business of Autism is a documentary that explores the social and economic benefits of employing young adults with autism. This documentary exposes the reality of the lack of employment opportunities for those who are on the autism spectrum. Watch as they introduce companies and different initiatives that are centered towards employing those who have ASD.
The Reason I Jump
This documentary film is based on the autobiography of Naoki Higashida and directed by Jerry Rothwell. There are many documentaries based on the lives of autistic people, but very few based on the perspective of young nonverbal individuals. This film examines the musings of a young Naoki who answers 50 questions he hears asked about autistic people and explores other stories of young people who are nonverbal/non-conversant and the challenges their parents or caretakers face in trying to understand them.
Autism in Love
This award-winning documentary film follows the journey of four adults with autism spectrum disorders as they search for and navigate romantic relationships. Join autistic couple Dave and Lindsey who have been together for eight years as they decide to tie the knot, young adult Lenny who lives with his single mother, and Stephen who is grappling with his wife’s terminal illness. This film explores the struggles of dating and long-term relationships when on the spectrum.
Autism is a World
This documentary film follows the story of Sue Reuben who was assumed intellectually disabled till the age of 13. This documentary shows Sue’s journey as she is diagnosed with ASD and trained in Facilitated Communication that “wakes up” her brain and helps her to be able to attend high school and college and live a somewhat “normal” life.
Beyond the Spectrum: A Family’s Year Confronting Autism
When parents Carly and Stef’s two-year-old son is diagnosed with ASD, they take a year off to focus on his therapies. Follow the family of seven as they navigate life with four young kids and their autistic son Oskar as they navigate the first year of Oskar’s diagnosis and face hard realities while asking themselves difficult questions, such as, does accepting Oskar mean accepting his autism?
Sounding the Alarm: Battling the Autism Epidemic
Sounding the Alarm follows the lives of 12 families affected by autism as they face battles from diagnosis to adulthood. This documentary examines the challenges and opportunities these families have had to face due to financial strain and politics.
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As educational as these documentaries are, there are as many or more enjoyable films that feature autism spectrum disorder. Below are some of these films.
Films that feature autism
A powerful and well known individual in the autism community, this biopic follows the story of Dr. Temple Grandin, a woman on the spectrum who becomes one of the top scientists in the humane livestock industry.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
This film follows a young autistic boy named Oskar who has just lost his father. A year after his father’s passing, Oskar finds a key in his father’s belongings, and sets out on a mission to find where it leads.
Rain Man features a young Tom Cruise who plays Charlie Babbit, a car dealer who kidnaps his autistic brother Raymond to try and convince him to give up his inheritance.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
Johnny Depp stars as Gilbert Grape, a young man in a small town who is responsible for his younger brother Arnie, who is on the spectrum, and their morbidly obese mother.
Movies and series kids with autism might enjoy
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
This animated kids series is centered around the life of Daniel Tiger and his friends. The series features socio-emotional themes that are relatable to children, demonstrating real-life challenges and friendship.
A favorite amongst both kids and adults, Inside Out is a good way to teach your child about emotional regulation.
A Disney classic, Finding Nemo is about a clown fish named Marlin who’s son Nemo gets swept up by humans. Marlin goes to extreme lengths to get his son back. In order to get Nemo, Marlin must be flexible, as well as be able to adapt and work with others in order to find his son.
Watching these documentaries and movies is a good way to remember that you are not alone in the challenges you are facing. These documentaries are a source of education and inspiration. The journey that people face every day with children or adults with autism can look completely different from each other. Many of these documentaries were made by parents who want to help inform and do away with stigmas surrounding ASD.
Huard M. (2014). The Reality of Fiction: Understanding Autism Through Narrative Films. Ann Arbor MI: ProQuest LLC