Autism in Film & Television

See also:    Rain Man   

Internet Resources

A selection of the Santa Barbara film festival, "Mozart & the Whale" is based on the story of Jerry and Mary Newport, who were profiled in a 1995 Los Angeles Times piece and on "60 Minutes" and who will chronicle their relationship in an upcoming book. This fictionalized telling of their romance could carve out a modest box-office niche for the right distributor. The title refers to the Halloween costumes Isabelle (Mitchell) and Donald (Hartnett) wear on one of their first dates, and there's a nice clarity to the notion that these socially challenged individuals find a measure of belonging on that night, when the rest of the world is acting weird, too. Through character observations like that, and the central couple's shared love of animals, Bass' script makes its dramatic points with pleasing economy, at least in the early going.
Sheri Linden, Reuters
In surveying the evidence--focusing on the depiction of mobility impairment in mainstream film and television--it's clear that familiar stereotypes continue to endure. It's equally evident, however, that Hollywood's acceptance of disability is running parallel to society in general; as the mass public grows more familiar and comfortable with disabilities of all kinds, that gradual integration is reflected in mainstream entertainment.
Jeff Shannon
This article discusses and provides examples of successful use of two methods that may be used to incorporate a variety of full-length feature films into neuroscience instruction. One, the "neuro-cinema" pairs the presentation of a film featuring extensive neuroscience content with primary literature reading assignments, group discussion and writing exercises. The second, a neuroscience film series, features group discussion of movies of perhaps more limited relevance to neuroscience.
Eric P. Wiertelak
the UK newspaper, The Guardian, is THE newspaper of the year 2000 in terms of assisting in speading awareness of Asperger's Syndrome.
Includes Autism Film List 1995-2003 and Books on Autism in Science Fiction
Stephan Linsenhoff
Wednesday, July 19, 2000 All Things Considered
In a society where many Indian males (according to specialists in the field of disability) continue to find great difficulty in accepting a child with disability, regarding it a visible projection of the 'failure' of the father's masculinity, all forms of disability can gain greater acceptance only when a critical mass of the educated is created. It is this mass that can interrogate the limitations of a patriarchal perspective on disability and an intellectual 'closure' on the subject.
Sudha Rai
A young girl with autism starred in a film by the Serbian director, Goran Paskaljevic, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 52nd San Sebastián Film Festival. San zimske noci (A Midwinter Night's Dream) tells of a deserter from the Serbian army, played by Lazar Ristovski, who returns to Belgrade after 10 years in exile to find his house occupied by a Bosnian refugee (Jasna Zalica) and her 12-year-old autistic daughter. Instead of throwing them out, he chooses to live with them, and the man, scarred by the Balkans war, finds that the child's innocence acts as a soothing influence. "You are like a bear cub who sleeps during the winter. All you need is for someone to wake you up," he tells her.
Adam Feinstein
At no time has a child or adult with autism ever been portrayed as an able, independent and functional [even partially] human being at odds with the world. Instead s/he is always painted as a freak.
Melissa Bee
This list contains only movies which were released in the cinemas, and all have been subsequently released on videocassette.
Stephen Edelson
The documentary is about Sue who is autistic. She was diagnosed and treated as mentally retarded until the age of 13 when she began to communicate using a k eyboard. When you meet her, she does not make eye contact. She obsessively attacks your buttons, endlessly stands at the faucet and watches water pour over her hand. You would not approach this person. But the documentary takes the viewer on a journey into her mind, into her world and her obsessions. Autism Is A World explores Sue's world, her writings, and the remarkable friendships she has created while in college.
The entertainment world's take on autism has long been Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man, a savant who's a whiz with numbers but can't connect with people. Now a range of movies, TV series and books promises to shed light on the biological condition's varied guises.
Marco della Cava, USA Today
The media is allowing a picture to be painted to the public that would make autism a condition that would require no one to take any responsibility.
Adelle Jameson Tilton
"Normal People Scare Me," a feature-length documentary based on the award-winning short film of the same title kicks off its world tour in New York and Canada next week. The film produced by Joey Travolta, is co-directed by 17-year-old filmmaker, Taylor Cross, a high school student with autism, and his mom, Keri Bowers, a long-time advocate in the disabilities community.
Normal Films
On Shining Time Station, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Thomas and the Magic Railroad
Floyd Tilton
The survey confirmed our assumption from anecdotal evidence that children with autism spectrum disorders associate far more strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine than with other children's characters.
CineMania: the combined effect of exploitation movies and news reports which stereotype users of mental health services leading to the implied conclusion that all people labeled mentally-ill are violent and deranged.
Who's worse? Nike, for producing the ad, or Backpacker magazine, for running it? Before the anti-PC crowd starts calling crips 'thin-skinned,' try substituting some racist or homophobic description in place of the 'drooling, misshappen' stuff.
Ragged Edge Magazine
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is not only busy coaching the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, it appears he'll soon be strapping on his producer gear to make a golf movie. Expect the announcement momentarily that Gretzky, who loves golf and hosts his own charity tourneys, will executive-produce "Dance the Green: The Moe Norman Story," with Suzanne DeLaurentiis also executive-producing and Gretzky's wife, Janet, among the producers as well.
LA Daily News
Whatever disagreements I have with what Sue Rubin has to say, I think it's significant that she has been enabled to say it, that she has chosen to say it, and that she has said it to such a wide audience. To do so she's had to get access to technology and training so that she can say it in the first place; she's had to get enough support that she doesn't need to spend all her time just trying to manage the basics of life or even the basics of college life but has time to say it; she's had to organize the assistance of other people to make a documentary; and she's had to ensure that those other people didn't take the documentary over and narrate the same old "Hear Our Silence" stuff that many neurotypicals seem to think is the only story that can be told about autism.
Cal Montgomery
This article outlines the sociology of disability and then suggests a range of approaches to media representations of disability. Any or all of these approaches can be used and developed depending on the interest of the teacher, their links to other issues in media studies, and the availability of texts. I have suggested certain media texts as particularly useful, but these are not always readily available, and numerous others can easily be used in their place.
Lynne Roper
Over the last couple of years disabled people and their organizations have become increasingly concerned about disabling imagery in the media. One of the most important examples being the cynical exploitation of disabled people by charities in their efforts to raise money. Here I would like to highlight another form of disablism common to the media which disabled people are expected to endure, which is equally disabling and which is often overlooked or ignored: the exploitation of disabled people by professional non-disabled comedians on television.
Colin Barnes
Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan Inc. was forced to stop release of a psycho-thriller video after receiving complaints from autistic patients whose condition is used in the Japanese title of the video.
Persons who are mentally impaired or blind can still amaze the world with their splendid creativity in arts and literature. In a project financed by National Science Council, three patients of savant syndrome had presented their talent in music, memorizing and poetry.
Taiwan News
Adrian Esposito, 17, has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism that affects behavior patterns, but it hasn't stopped him from leading a productive life, including a debut on the big screen. Adrian stars in his own documentary, "Different and Normal. My life with Asperger's Syndrome." He said he thought it would be a good opportunity to show the world what Asperger's is like for a 17-year-old.
WHAM TV Rochester
This past year, I organized a film series at the Asperger's Association of New England for my peers on the autism spectrum, and their family, friends, and supporters... The goal was more than simply getting people together to socialize. The films were chosen because they highlight issues impacting critical aspects of living fully as a person on the autism spectrum: identity and self-esteem, membership in a community with a history and culture, and the realities and possibilities of interaction with the majority non-autistic population. After screening each film, we opened the floor for discussion of the film and the issues it touched upon. This paper will illustrate the ideas behind the film series and the process and some highlights of the group discussions through exploration of the four films we screened this first season... (I)t is a narrative of the purpose, process, and outcome of the choice of the films for the series and the screening and discussion of the films that took place.
Phil Schwarz
Nick came up with the diagnosis while studying for a doctorate in clinical and humanistic psychology at the Center for Humanistic Studies in Farmington Hills. He is now focused on autism spectrum disorders.. He has written a book and created a film that highlight his journey to self-discovery. He brings his insights to educational and therapeutic workshops. He recently contracted with the Judson Center in Royal Oak as a speaker on bullying prevention. The nonprofit center is dedicated to children and families in crisis.
Judith Doner Berne
Many so-called neurotypical individuals, can, conceivably, be thought of as having developed their understanding of the world at least partially through fiction. It is not surprising, then, to learn that many individuals with autism speak about the ways in which they have used moments from film to attempt to understand the behavior of others.
Kristen Loutensock
In recent films depicting mental disabilities or mental illnesses, the rehabbing of the snake pit into comfortable living quarters is probably a product of broader societal trends.
Claude Smith, Jr.
In which Nike urges you to buy their shoe lest you become 'a drooling misshapen non-extreme-trail-running husk of my former self, forced to roam the earth in a motorized wheelchair with my name embossed on one of those cute little license plates...'
Helena Bonham Carter was so touched when she watched a TV documentary about a remarkable mother of seven children - four of them with serious developmental problems - that she agreed to play her in a BBC film. Shooting starts next week on Magnificent Seven, which is inspired by the life of Jacqui Jackson, an extraordinarily determined single mother who employed a variety of weapons - particularly humour - in her fight to raise her family of four sons and three daughters.
Baz Bamigboye, Daily Mail
She is deep in conversation with an elegant, smartly dressed blonde woman, whom I later find out is Jacqui Jackson, the woman made famous in a documentary about how she has brought up seven children, four of whom have varying degrees of autism. You would think that Jacqui was the movie star, Helena Bonham Carter the harassed mum who has survived the past 20 years on three hours sleep a night, max.
Liz Jones, Evening Standard
Presence is the key category in discussing contemporary representations of autism. It is a sense of the increased presence of autism in the contemporary world that has created such popular interest in the condition. It is a misapprehension of autistic presence in the various films I have described, albeit through a desire to capture the difference of that presence, which leads to their refraction within the logics of neurotypical storytelling. An idea of autistic presence becomes the source of so much in these films, from mystical assertions of religious power, through the championing of an individual's right through the law, a resistance to a repressive government, to the love of a mother for her daughter, and yet I would argue that any greater understanding of the presence of autism within contemporary culture eludes the audiences of these texts. Agency is always elsewhere here, despite the fascination that operates a continual return to the autistic figure. Sentiment and melodrama stand in its place. But, as represented in these features, the autistic figure performs its double act of stressing the nature of humanity even as, when apprehended by a neurotypical readership or audience, it seems to point to that which is so very different from the condition of being human.
Stuart Murray
He's Joxer, the Mighty! He's Joxer, the Village Idiot! Which is he? An incompetent booby or a lion-hearted warrior? Joxer is neither. He is most likely a man who has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism.
My interest in filmmaking started at around age six, when I saw the orignal Godzilla movie. Throughout my childhood I wanted to make Godzilla movies. I literally adored Godzilla and was so obsessed it really interfered with my homelife. I started making some horrible stop motion "movies" when I saw about 9 with my Godzilla figurines (I liked Harryhausen a lot too when I was a little kid, Valley of Gwangi was one of my favorite movies). These films were terrible, most of them revolved around monsters and were totally improvised. When I was 10, 11 and 12 I made lots more of these terrible improvised stop motion shit. I also tried making some fan episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (sorry Anton, I know you hate it), which I was absolutly obsessed with in my early teen years. When I was 14 I finally attempted some more serious filmmaking by creating a slasher film called The Plastic Man. I got in trouble for doing some crazy things while filming it and thus couldn't make any films for about another year. That was when I got the idea make another little infamous film about fucking puppets, which I followed by a little film called The Big Toe inspired by this spooky urban legend I had found quite memorable as a kid, which I actually heard originated in the South during the Civil War. The rest is really history.
Anton Phibes
It isn't just Hollywood that is guilty of wrapping autism in a mantle of talent and virtue. There is such a dearth of anything remotely close to real life when it comes to autism on the screen, that the recent Nightline episode “A Place in the World” was met with acclaim even among autism self-advocates and parent advocates, including myself. We were all applauding the way the show was handled, but many of us failed to detect what for me is now the all-too-predictable set-up: Autistic subjects of documentaries also need to have a trick to perform. Otherwise, who will watch it? How will the show make money off of its advertisers?
Lisa Jean Collins
Current mass media representations of mental health service users appear to emphasize violence, dangerousness and criminality. This is despite the empirical evidence that indicates a decline over the last 40 years in the number of homicides carried out by people identified as suffering from mental health problems.
J.R. Cutcliffe, B. Hannigan
In today's podcast I talk about several seemingly unrelated events...a grant supported project here at the college where we are developing a podcast site to spotlight music performed by individuals with autism, and a visit by a local reporter from our very own Keene Sentinel who interviewed me about my interests in podcasting (I turned the tables and, in turn, interviewed the reporter about his thoughts on podcasting).
Larry Welkowitz
Directed by Petter Næss and starring Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell, "Mozart and the Whale" was filmed two years ago at various locations in Spokane, including the Gonzaga campus. The film tells the love story of Donald (Hartnett) and Isabelle (Mitchell), two adults with Asperger's syndrome. According to the movie's Web site,, Donald and Isabelle's relationship is nearly thwarted by the obstacles posed by Asperger's, a form of autism.
Anne Pauw, Gonzaga Bulletin
For autism, lists The Boy Who Could Fly (1986); House of Cards (1993); Little Voice (1998); Mercury Rising (1998); Rain Man (1993); The Wizard (1989).
Susan Nicosia
A dramatic, romantic comedy, Mozart and the Whale is inspired by the lives of two people with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, whose emotional dysfunction threatens to sabotage their budding romance. Based on the lives of Jerry and Mary Newport.
"I began painting keeping busy as powerless to communicate young child. Without art, wafting smell of earth's pleasures would kite away to land of inanimate objects, so it's past point of personal hobby." This documentary is filled with Larry Bissonnette's humorous yet poignant assessments of his life--growing up, his family, and creating art. Moving back and forth between speech, typing, and painting, Bissonnette's wit and insight punctuate a day in the life of this Outsider artist, and artfully illustrate the complexities of expression.
Larry Bissonnette
In films featuring an autistic character, a wide range of symptoms are seen, including: total silence and extended staring (The Boy Who Thought He Could Fly, House of Cards); repetitive movement such as rocking and hand flapping (Mercury Rising, House of Cards); spending time alone rather than with other people (all of these films); "perseveration," the obsessive interest in a particular item, idea, activity or person (The Wizard, House of Cards, Rain Man, Little Voice); difficulty with a change in routine (House of Cards, Rain Man, Mercury Rising).
Heather Stewart
Bodily fluids seem to always be flowing from the disabled... flowing to ensure that disability is seen as both un-predictable and dirty (the 'Other'). The flowing of bodily fluids are, as Mary Douglas has repeatedly shown, the symbols of chaos, a society in turmoil and signs of taboo or potential social disintegration (thus their prevalence in Horror films). Consequently the disabled person who is not able to control his bodily fluids must either show they can or want to control them, or die as Ken Harrison (Richard Dreyfuss) does in Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Tabula Rasa is an original musical interweaving three convergent storylines: the first a creative retelling of the Wild Boy of Averyon, a true story of a boy in 19th-century France assumed to have been raised by wolves; the second about a 21st-century autistic girl named Emily who is confined in a medicated state; and the third an incorporation of the classic Hansel and Gretel tale originally told by the Brothers Grimm.
Tom Kressler, Nashua Telegraph
Teachers Guide and Lesson Plan
Revolution Studios has set Nigel Cole to direct Strange Son, the Bruce Joel Rubin-scripted true story of a mother's quest to communicate with her autistic son, reports Variety. The film is based on a book written by Portia Iverson, wife of producer Jon Shestack, about her son Dov, now 13. In the book, to be published next year by Riverhead Press, Iverson tells how she researched autism to find a way to break through the wall that kept her son from communicating with her.
This site is a partnership between mom and son team,Taylor Cross and Keri Bowers co-directors of the 90-minute feature documentary film about autism, Normal People Scare Me.
''All Lost to Prayers" is an operatic musical about a teenage boy with autism and the toll it takes on his family over one very difficult day. It premieres at the Boston Conservatory on Thursday, and continues through Sunday. Composer Dana Brayton and Tom Evans, a Holliston resident who wrote the libretto with him, found a parallel to autism's isolation in Shakespeare's deformed Caliban. ''I think it will generate a little bit of controversy in the autism community, and I think that's just absolutely terrific because it opens dialogue," said Brayton's neighbor Eileen Costello, a pediatrician at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center who specializes in autism spectrum disorders. ''People will read about it. Opera fans who know nothing about autism will read it just because they're interested in the music," said Costello, who has read the work and discussed it with Brayton. ''It's just another way to reach a broader audience who would not come to this topic naturally or through their own life experience."
Boston Globe
There have been many movies made about autism but as far as I am concerned, only "Rain Man" did us much good. It put autism on the map even if many who saw it mistakenly believe that Raymond Babbitt was a typical autistic man.
Jerry Newport
Jayson with a Y follows "two sisters in the midst of major changes in their lives, as they are forced to decide who will care for their suddenly orphaned nephew Jayson, who has Asperger's Syndrome," reads show materials. "Though Jayson is in desperate need of a stable environment, the women and their reluctant husbands struggle with a new reality that threatens to unravel the promises they made to his mother and each other long ago."
Ernio Hernandez, Playbill
While there's nothing inherently wrong with the phenomenon of films shaping and defining disabilities for the general public, the plots of these films deploy autism in ways that misinform audiences. In these films, art misrepresents reality in important ways. In order to explore the disparity between autism as it is represented in feature films and the experiences of real people living with autism, this paper illustrates ways that popular depictions of autism spectacularize the disability, identifies troubling themes regarding depictions of parents of individuals with autism, and explains how cinematic representations of autism may be reconciled with the realities of living with autism.
Anthony Baker
In Refrigerator Mothers, seven women share their poignant stories. All but one were told by psychologists or physicians that they were to blame for their child's autism. Yet these courageous women refused to be crushed by the burden of blame.
Fanlight Productions
he mobile industry has always been happy to push the boundaries with its adverting -- think Nokia's N-Gage campaign. Sometimes, though, the industry goes too far -- like branding Dustin Hoffman's character in Rainman a 'retard' in an ad.
Jo Best
Pell presents characters out of sync with their lives, uncomfortable in their bodies and overly protective of their emotions. There is one live wire, but she must die early for these people to connect at all. Young and over-caffeinated Vivienne (Emily Hampshire) is the sacrificial lamb in this fiction, a gregarious and talkative hitchhiker who is grudgingly picked up by the sour-faced and incommunicative Alex (Rickman), whose entire body sags under the weight of the baggage of his past. As the two near her destination, a terrible car accident claims her life but leaves Alex with barely a scratch. Overwhelmed with remorse and guilt, even though the accident was not his fault, Alex seeks out Vivienne's mother, Linda (Weaver), who scarcely reacts to her daughter's death. This, he soon learns, is due to her autism. Only it's the kind of literary autism that allows her to make sagacious observations and funny remarks.
Hollywood Reporter
It might be tempting to write off these depictions of mentally ill people as merely harmless Hollywood distortions, but as advertising executives thoroughly understand, media images insidiously work their way into the collective unconscious of society and influence the way we all regard the world around us.
Steven H. Hyler
So an autistic character in a film is likely to be a sort of void onto which anything -- or nothing -- can be projected. At best it's lazy writing and lazy storytelling on the base of unthinking acceptance of stereotype.
Cal Montgomery
Mysterious Creatures stars Timothy Spall as jailed postmaster Bill, and Oscar-winner Brenda Blethyn is long-suffering Wendy. The 90-minute drama tells the story of how their family was torn apart by daughter Lisa's Asperger syndrome and her addiction to spending money.
As the parent of an autistic boy, and as a doctor in general practice who sees children with autism and their families, I have a special interest in the purveyors of potions and therapies that promise a cure... A spate of parental accounts of life with autistic children reveals how even well-off and well-educated parents struggle to cope with their autistic children and shows how their burdens are increased by the pseudoscience and quackery flourishing in the world of autism.
Michael Fitzpatrick
Films and television shows are now portraying Autistic characters. Does this increase public awareness and understanding or is the Hollywood portrayal of these people increasing misunderstandings and misinformation.
Floyd Tilton
It was quite possibly because of Bennett Leventhal that young Hughes was able to create so vividly the character of Simon, a reasonably high-functioning autistic child inadvertently caught up in a web of murder and international intrigue.
Achy Obejas
Stereotypes are groups of attitudes which have little or no basis in reality and yet persist in cultures. Stereotyping reduces the individuality and character of people to false social constructs. This leads to name-calling and violence towards the subjects of stereotyping, undercutting the humanity of the victims. There are ten main stereotypes of disabled people.
Larry Arnold is autistic. He is also an artist, a film maker, a musician, a photographer and a poet. All these talents are displayed in this DVD in which he invites us to revisit autism, not in terms of diagnostic categories, but as a mix of perspectives that may sometimes clash.
Larry Arnold
Director's Note: In the early 90's, I set out to do what families fear the most -- to tell the world, in my case through a video documentary, our most protected secret. "Well, you've certainly dropped a bombshell," my mother said, after a long pause, when I told her my intention. The secret was my brother, Alan, who in 1950 was born with striking blue eyes and a brain so severely damaged he would never develop the ability to speak. Alan became a secret suddenly. In 1958, he was sent to live in Letchworth Village, a state-run institution for people with mental retardation. And after that day, almost all mention of him within the home virtually ceased. "An honest, tender, must-see documentary for anyone who cares about people with significant cognitive disabilities and their families, Without Apology tells a tale once lived by thousands but until now revealed by few.. By focusing on the emotional struggles that she and her own parents endured when, desperate for services, they sent her brother Alan to an institution, Susan Hamovitch reveals one family's experience in the days when solutions were scarce and shame was plentiful.. The result is a heart-rendering gem of history, biography, and self-reflection and the triumph of truth over secrets." : Rachel Simon, author, Riding the Bus with My Sister.
Susan Hamovitch

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