Applied behavior analysts (ABA) can learn a great deal from movies. ABA sounds complicated, but the ideas behind it can really be simplified into just learning, maintaining and using life skills. Typically developing children are able to learn and use life skills on their own through exploring the world around them. However, there are other children and adults who are unable to take cues from their environments and transform those cues into life skills. These individuals can use the principles of ABA to set up a more structured environment in which the conditions are optimal for them to learn. The individuals most commonly requiring ABA assistance are those on the autism spectrum. Applied behavior analysts may find ideas for ABA techniques from great movies that depict people with autism.

1. I am Sam

This 2001 movie tells the story of Sam Dawson, played by Sean Penn. Sam is a mentally challenged, autistic man with a young daughter named Lucy, acted by Dakota Fanning. With the mind of a child himself, Dawson raises his daughter alone until she turns seven years old and begins to surpass her father intellectually and socially. Lucy realizes that her father is unlike most parents, learning most of his life lessons from Beatles songs, and the relationship between the two of them begins to change. As a social worker threatens their living arrangement, Sam tries to keep his daughter with him and not in foster care.

2. Temple Grandin

Starring Claire Danes as the titular Temple Grandin, this made-for-television applied behavior analysis movie aired in 2010. Despite not speaking until the age of four, Temple became interested in and obsessed with cattle on her aunt’s ranch. The real-life story of this autistic woman examines the limitations placed on her by society and academia as Temple attempts to earn a doctorate degree and become an expert at animal husbandry. In addition to her work with animals, Temple is credited with her development of the “hug box” to help relieve stress for autistic children.

3. Rain Man

Possibly the most recognizable film about autism, this applied behavior anaylsis movie was a box office success in 1988. Self-centered Charlie Babbit, created by Tom Cruise, discovers that his wealthy father left the family inheritance to his brother, Raymond, and Charlie decides to hunt down this unknown sibling. Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman, is an institutionalized autistic savant that Charlie kidnaps and takes to the west coast. The road trip is a lesson for both brothers as they learn to love and understand the thought processes causing them each to act.

4. Mozart and the Whale

This little-known film debuted in 2005 and stars Josh Hartnett as Donald, a taxi driver in New York City who also has Asperger’s syndrome. Donald is excellent with numbers but does not handle social situations well. He organizes a support group for others with Asperger’s syndrome, and he meets Isabelle, played by Radha Mitchell. Donald’s need for order and routine is in direct contradiction to many of Isabelle’s personality preferences. The pair must face their social deficiencies in creating connections and interactions with others when they decide to embark on a romantic relationship.

5. The Other Sister

Juliette Lewis plays Carla Tate in this film. Unlike her sisters, Carla has been sent to a school specifically for children with intellectual deficiencies and mental impairments. As Carla becomes an adult, she returns to her family in San Francisco, hoping to overcome her autistic traits in order to live independently. Despite her parents’ concerns, Carla undergoes a transformation to become her own person. She begins her journey to attend college and pursue a romance with Giovanni Ribisi’s Danny who faces a similar autistic diagnosis.

Related Resource: How are Children Diagnosed with Autism Diagnosed?

Applied behavior analysis movies, despite being fictional depictions of characters, offer many opportunities for applied behavior analysts to study the actions of autistic individuals.