Representation Matters

35+ Nuanced Movies & Documentaries About Autism To Stream

April is Autism Awareness Month, so add these films to your queue.

Written by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
While movies about autism aren't all created equal, some — like 'Life, Animated' get it right.
Thomas Bergmann/The Orchard

Although autism is by no means new, the 21st century has seen an improvement in the understanding, diagnosis, and treatment of the condition — especially in children. Medical professionals, educators, and parents have learned that autism is more nuanced than previously thought and exists on a spectrum. Even though roughly one in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to estimates from CDC's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment — especially since it involves self-regulation and emotional regulation. But it's also important to keep in mind that autism doesn't only affect children: teenagers and adults live with the condition, too. And as strange as it may sound, one of the ways that people have gained a better understanding of the condition is by watching movies about autism.

Autism representation onscreen is important (albeit unfortunately all-too-rare), especially when those productions prioritize the inclusion of people with autism and give them a platform to share their stories. Of course, not all portrayals of autism on the big screen are positive ones. Many lean on outdated stereotypes that may further stigmatize those living with the condition. Beyond that, most movies about autism don't do a great job of providing an accurate description of the underlying cause of the condition. This matters because the film may indicate that a character is living with autism when they actually more closely fit the description of another neurodevelopmental condition.

The hope is that highlighting films that do a reasonable job of centering representation will help underscore the need for more movies made with input from autistic individuals and reputable autism advocacy groups. So, whether you're looking for a documentary about autism or a decent portrayal of a neurodiverse person in a scripted film, the following films are a solid place to start.

Critically Acclaimed Movies About Autism

1. Temple Grandin (2010)

Temple Grandin tells the story of the real-life professor of the same name (played by Claire Danes) who helped revolutionize livestock handling on cattle ranches. A respected autism rights advocate, Grandin was portrayed in a way that made it very clear she was extremely intelligent — the film didn't show her having the savant-like quality Dustin Hoffman did in Rain Man. And once you've finished the movie, if you're interested in learning more about autism, you can read two of Grandin's books on the condition: Inside Autism Spectrum Disorder and Employment and Autism Tips.

2. Please Stand By (2017)

Dakota Fanning stars in Please Stand By as Wendy, a young woman with autism who writes a 500-page Star Trek script for a fan competition, misses the mailing deadline, and decides to sneak away from her caregiver to travel to Los Angeles and deliver it in person. Though the movie got mixed reviews for its portrayal of autism, it is one of the few examples of a film with a protagonist with autism who's female (most are male).

3. Life, Animated (2016)

If you're looking for a documentary about autism, Life, Animated is a good place to start. Based on journalist Ron Suskind's 2014 book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, it tells the story of his son, Owen, who learned how to communicate with the outside world through Disney films like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. The documentary was praised for portraying both the challenges and triumphs of living with autism.

4. Rain Man (1988)

Probably the best-known movie featuring a character with autism, Rain Man follows the journey of two brothers (played by Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman) as they get to know each other on a cross-country road trip. Hoffman won several awards for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, who boasted genius-level mental abilities. Though the movie was well-received (thanks, in part, to putting medical experts on autism in advisory roles), it also perpetuated the stereotype that all people with autism are intellectually gifted, which is not the case.

5. Dina (2017)

Dina and Scott are a married couple who are both on the autism spectrum. Dina is a suburban woman, and Scott is a Walmart door greeter. Together, they try to manage their life as newly wedS and strengthen their relationship. They are a quirky and fun-loving pair and together embark on this journey that is their marriage. This film has a documentary feel and is wonderfully authentic and captivating.

Other Well-Received Movies & Documentaries About Autism

  1. My Name Is Khan (2010)
  2. Brilliant Young Mind (2015)
  3. Autism: The Musical (2007)
  4. Snow Cake (2016)
  5. Mary and Max (2009)
  6. The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)
  7. Nathan's Kingdom (2018)
  8. Keep the Change (2017)
  9. A Boy Called Po (2016)
  10. Jack of Red Hearts (2015)
  11. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
  12. Ocean Heaven (2010)
  13. Adam (2009)
  14. Loop (2020)
  15. Mozart and the Whale (2005)
  16. Autism in Love (2015)
  17. I Am Sam (2001)
  18. Fly Away (2011)
  19. Neurotypical (2013)
  20. The Other Sister (1999)
  21. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
  22. The Accountant (2016)
  23. The Lighthouse of the Whales (2016)
  24. The Autism Puzzle (2003)
  25. Wretches & Jabberers (2011)
  26. The Horse Boy (2009)
  27. The Reason I Jump (2020)
  28. How to Dance in Ohio (2015)
  29. Her Name Is Sabine (2007)
  30. The Story of Luke (2012)
  31. Maria and I (2010)

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