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Autism in Movies: Does Art Imitate Life?

Autism in Movies

When I hear about a movie with an autistic character, I get eager to watch it. Most often, I feel there's very little representation of autistic individuals on the big screen.


When there is a representation, it's almost always a genius savant like Rain Man. Rain Man's character was based on a real person, Kim Peek, who is well known for his remarkable abilities. Although being a real person, the comparison of Rain Man to many autistics is a problem. He doesn't represent the whole spectrum of autism.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. Spectrum, meaning there is a wide variation. Autistic individuals range from non-verbal to typically verbal, low functioning to "high functioning" for lack of a better term.

My top choices.

These movie characters might not be exactly like the autistic individual you know but highlight the struggles and similarities well.

Temple Grandin
(2010) Director: Mick Jackson - Temple Grandin is very well known in the Autism community. She earned a Ph.D. in Animal Science and is an outspoken advocate for autistic individuals. She has also written books and hosted autism conferences across the United States.

This multi-award-winning true story of Dr. Temple Grandin is played by Claire Danes. It's one of my top choices because it stayed true to her experiences. Dr. Grandin stated that watching Danes was like "going back on a weird time machine." In the movie, it describes how she thinks in pictures and how she absorbs the world around her. It gives you an accurate glimpse into her fascinating mind. This movie is nothing short of amazing and a delight to watch.

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Please Stand By
(2017) Director: Ben Lewin - Screenplay: Michael Golamco

This recent film is based on a character with Asperger's Syndrome who is obsessed with Star Trek. A brilliant young lady named Wendy escapes her care home to enter a Star Trek, scriptwriting contest. She believes the winnings will save her childhood home from being sold. She travels out of her comfort zone to Paramount Studios after missing the postal deadline to submit her script. The film highlights struggles such as sensory processing, lack of eye contact and addresses complicated family issues.

I Am Sam
(2001) Director: Jessie Nelson

I Am Sam is about a father with mental disabilities along with autism raising a child on his own. Following an incident which leads to an intervention by child services, Sam fights to get his daughter back. There are mixed reviews about this movie, but it sends a strong message about love. It is heartfelt and shows how this father will go to great lengths to have the right to raise his daughter despite his disability.

Other movies that have spectrum based characters:
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Mozart And The Whale (2005)
Mercury Rising (1998)
Joyful Noise (2012)
The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)
Adam (2009)
My Name is Khan (2010)

We still have a long way to go when regarding autism in the movies. There's a lack of low verbal and low functioning characters. Hollywood movies with autism characters are also few and far between. I believe true representation happens when there's more representation on screen.

What movie do you think truly depicts autism?