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

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“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. Beautiful, original animations further give form to Owen’s fruitful dialogue with the Disney oeuvre as he imagines himself heroically facing adversity in a tribe of sidekicks. With an arsenal of narratives at his disposal, Owen rises to meet the challenges of adulthood in this moving coming-of-age tale” (Caroline Libresco, 2016 Sundance Film Festival catalog).

As Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, catch the Academy Award–winning Life, Animated or another Sundance Institute–supported film featuring people on the spectrum—from documentaries to claymation and a narrative love story featuring a cast of nonprofessional actors with autism.

Life, Animated

Streaming on Prime Video

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Mary and Max

This claymation feature film 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 Academy Award–winning director Adam Elliot.

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Keep the Change

In this New York rom-com featuring nonprofessional actors with autism, independent thirty-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.

Streaming on Prime Video

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Best Kept Secret

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.

Streaming on Prime Video; free on Vudu with ads

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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, which won the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, follows as the two move in together and navigate the challenges of an evolving relationship.

Streaming on Hulu

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How to Dance in Ohio

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.

Streaming on HBO

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The Horse Boy (Over the Hills and Far Away)

When three-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.

Streaming on Tubi for free and available for rental/purchase on Prime Video

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