Your Autism Awareness Month Watchlist: 7 Films That Feature People on the Spectrum

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Director Roger Ross Williams's 'Life, Animated' centers on Owen Suskind, an autistic man who learned to communicated with the world via his love for Disney films.

In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, we've rounded up a wide range of films celebrating neurodiversity. Start with the Academy Award–winning documentary Life, Animated, and continue on to a claymation feature that opened the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, as well as a narrative love story featuring a cast of nonprofessional actors with autism.

Also, make sure to look out for the upcoming release of British filmmaker Jerry Rothwell's The Reason I Jump, a documentary that delves into the experiences of nonverbal autistic people around the world. The project won the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary, at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival just a few months ago.

Keep reading for the list of Sundance Institute–supported films we'll be watching this Autism Awareness Month. Below, you'll learn more about each film and find out where you can rent or stream each project this April.


1. LIFE, ANIMATED

Roger Ross Williams's documentary Life, Animated screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Below, see what programmer Caroline Libresco had to say about the project; then catch it streaming on Hulu.

“At three years old, a chatty, energetic little boy named Owen Suskind ceased to speak, disappearing into autism with apparently no way out. Almost four years passed and the only stimuli that engaged Owen were Disney films. Then one day, his father donned a puppet—Iago, the wisecracking parrot from Aladdin—and asked, 'What’s it like to be you?' And poof! Owen replied, with dialogue from the movie.

“Life, Animated tells the remarkable story of how Owen found in Disney animation a pathway to language and a framework for making sense of the world. By evocatively interweaving classic Disney sequences with vérité scenes from Owen’s life, the film explores how identification and empathy with characters like Simba, Jafar, and Ariel forge a conduit for him to understand his feelings and interpret reality.”

2. MARY AND MAX


A still from Adam Elliot's 2009 claymation feature 'Mary and Max.'

The Australian stop-motion–animated film Mary and Max was an opening-night selection at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Rent it on Amazon or watch for free via your IFC Films Unlimited subscription.

Filmmaker Adam Elliot's claymation feature tells the tale of two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely 8-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max, a severely obese 44-year-old man living in New York. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette and narrated by Barry Humphries, the story is based on a 20-year pen-pal friendship from the life of the film's Academy Award–winning director.

3. KEEP THE CHANGE

Writer/director Rachel Israel's film Keep the Change played at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Watch it now via Prime Video.

In this New York rom-com featuring nonprofessional actors with autism, independent 30-something David looks down on the other members of his community group until he catches the eye of Sarah, who challenges the way he views others and himself.

4. BEST KEPT SECRET

Samantha Buck's documentary Best Kept Secret screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival before airing on PBS as part of the POV series. Watch it for free on Vudu now.

A Newark, New Jersey, public high school teacher races a ticking clock to find a place in the world for her students with autism before they graduate and age out of their rare support system.

5. DINA


Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini's documentary features a romance between Dina and Scott.

Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini's documentary Dina won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Stream it on Hulu now.

Outspoken and eccentric 49-year-old Dina can’t wait to express her love for her fiancé physically, but Scott freezes at the mention of anything remotely sexual. This charming portrait of a couple in love follows as the two move in together and navigate the challenges of an evolving relationship.

6. THE HORSE BOY (OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY)

Michael O. Scott's documentary The Horse Boy (aka Over the Hills and Far Away) had its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Stream it for free on Tubi now.

When 3-year-old Rowan was diagnosed with autism, his parents tried everything to ensure they wouldn’t lose communication with their little boy—but nothing was working. After noticing Rowan’s affinity for horses, his father, Rupert, took him horseback riding only to discover that his language skills immediately improved. Thus began a journey across the world in the hopes that some form of traditional healing involving horses just might help their son.

7. HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO


Teenagers on the autism spectrum prepare for their spring formal in 'How to Dance in Ohio.'

Alexandra Shiva's Peabody Award–winning documentary How to Dance in Ohio premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and later played on HBO. Stream it now via HBO Go or HBO Now.

In Columbus, Ohio, a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum prepare for an iconic American rite of passage—a spring formal. They spend 12 weeks practicing their social skills in preparation for the dance at a local nightclub.


This story was originally published at an earlier date; it has since been updated.


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Director Roger Ross Williams's 'Life, Animated' centers on Owen Suskind, an autistic man who learned to communicated with the world via his love for Disney films.