There are a lot of stereotypes and stigma that surround the word autism, and this facet of non-acceptance and sense of other has yet to largely transcend the world of film. That being said, there are some really fantastic films today that resonate with my experience of being autistic that I would like to share with you, and it would be brilliant to start a discussion on this topic.
I would like to preface here that most of the films I have selected do not feature an autistic character or a connotation to autism at all. There are two main reasons for this, the first being that there aren’t that many good films or series about it, instead the repertoire runs the gamut from poking fun at characters with a distinct lack of savoir faire such as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory (2007-19) , a comically overestimated sense of prodigious savant like Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (1988), and not to mention that countless reiterations of “mildly autistic super detectives” such as Saga Norén and Sonya Cross in The Bridge (2011), Will Graham in Hannibal (2013-15), Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock (2010-17), Holly Gibney in The Outsider (2018)… The second reason is that I have chosen these films based on a more abstract form of experience, as is the case with most art forms – a film does not need to explicitly claim its connotation to any such experience to be interpreted as so.
I also just want to mention that the article of the title refers to World Autism Day and not World Autism Month. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not support World Autism Month. This is because World Autism Month was started by an organisation called Autism Speaks whose values I strongly disagree with. If you want to find out more, please take a look at this page.
1. A Silent Voice (2016) [dir. Naoko Yamada]
A Silent Voice (original title: Koe no katachi) is an animated drama film from Kyoto Animation. It tells the story of Shôko Nishimiya, a student with impaired hearing. Because of her impaired hearing, she is bullied and ostracised by the other school children, especially by Shôya Ishida. Many years later Ishida finds himself on a path to redemption and foregiveness. A Silent Voice is a very moving film that encapsulates the feeling of isolation and otherness in a thoughtful and compelling narrative.
2. The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) [dir. Henry Selick]
The Nightmare before Christmas tells the story of Jack Skellington through its visually stunning stop-motion animation. Although there’s been a bit of a trivial dispute as to whether it’s a Christmas film or a Halloween film, for me it’s an anywhere, anytime film. Jack Skellington discovers a portal from Halloween Town to Christmas Town and becomes spellbound with Christmas Town’s snowy landscape and bright coloured lights, a stark comparison to Halloween Town’s own darker hues and bedraggled appearance that Jack has become disenfranchised with. After his encounter, Jack decides to put celebrate Christmas in his own town, but try as he may, everything just seems to go wrong. In the end, Jack realises he is happy in Halloween Town. Although the “Home Sweet Home” trope is very common in film, seeing Jack try to be something he isn’t and then embracing his true self is heart-warming and relatable.
3. The Shape of Water (2017) [dir. Guillermo del Toro]
Like A Silent Voice, del Toro’s The Shape of Water is underpinned by the theme of communication. The film tells the story of Elisa Esposito, a lonely and mute janitor, who falls in love with the Amphibian Man. The relatability of autism here is a shared understanding with Elisa’s inability to communicate with those around her, until she meets someone else who shares the same experience. The film’s hopeful undercurrent perseveres no matter how many rotting fingers get chopped off.
4. Mary and Max (2009) [dir. Adam Elliot]
Mary and Max tells the story of an unlikely friendship between an 8-year-old girl living in Melbourne, and a 44-year-old man from New York City. This is the only film on my list that has an explicitly autistic character in Max Horowitz, although it’s likely Mary might be too. In gorgeous stop-motion animation with beautiful cinematography and visual design, Mary and Max is one of my all time favourite films and I really think everybody should watch it at least once!
5. Paddington (2014) [dir. Paul King]
This is a bit of a silly one, but Paddington is a pretty relatable character for autistic people. He gets himself into all a manner of hijinks due to being a small bear in a world made for big humans, just like I have found myself in situations where my bear paws are literal thinking and a toothbrush is any social situation. He also has a very special interest in marmalade sandwiches…
Honourable mentions: awesome films that feature great autistic actors
- Blade Runner (1982) – Daryl Hannah
- Ghostbusters (1984) – Dan Aykroyd
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Anthony Hopkins
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), The Death of Stalin (2017) – Michael Palin
- Nanette (2017) – Hannah Gadsby (live comedy performance)
- Hot Fuzz (2007), The World’s End (2013), Submarine (2010) – Paddy Considine
Featured image: Max Horowitz in Mary and Max (2009)
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