15 Must See Movies About Autism

Must See Movies About Autism

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that most often presents with impairments in social and communication skills. If you’re considering a career in psychology or social work, you might be interested in movies that feature characters with autism.  Not only will they help you understand the condition in general, but they’ll also prepare you for some of the emotions, reactions and stereotypes that you’ll face in the real world as you work with a variety of autistic people. Here are just fifteen movies about autism to start your studies.

1. Joyful Noise

Genre: Comedy, Drama Music

Cast: Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Jeremy Jordan

Length: 1h 58m

Rating: PG-13

A powerful movie about music and family, Joyful Noise follows the struggles of a small-town church choir trying to stay afloat in tough economic times. The son of the choir leader is an autistic teenager named Walter who begins to find himself after he’s recruited to play the keyboard. Initially a shy, self-contained boy who doesn’t like disruptions to his routines, he learns to embrace his innate musical talent and find joy in performing as he helps his family’s choir reach the national championships.

2. The Boy Who Could Fly

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Cast: Lucy Deakins, Jay Underwood, Bonnie Bedelia, Fred Savage

Length: 1h 54m

Rating: PG

The Boy Who Could Fly is a classic film from the ’80s that can be used to examine how the public perception of autism spectrum disorders has changed between then and now. In the movie, the main character is a girl named Milly who becomes intrigued by her autistic neighbor Eric. Both teenagers have experienced the loss of their parents, and their shared feelings of guilt, grief and longing lead them to emotionally connect despite Eric’s condition. One of the first mainstream films to feature a character with autism, The Boy Who Could Fly is a must-see for those interested in media portrayals of spectrum disorders.

3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Mystery

Cast: Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow

Length: 2h 9m

Rating: PG-13

Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an emotional film about a young boy with autism who loses his father on September 11th. Unable to cope with the world without a steady parental influence, Oskar embarks on a treasure hunt with one of his father’s unfinished riddles in hopes of suppressing his feelings and memories of that fateful day. All things must come to an end, however, and eventually Oskar is forced to come to terms with his father’s death and what it means for his future.

4. The Story of Luke

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Cast: Lou Taylor Pucci, Jayne Eastwood, Pay Hyatt, Cary Elwes

Length: 1h 36m

Rating: NR

The Story of Luke is an uplifting tale about a 25-year-old autistic man named Luke. Having spent his life in the loving, supporting embrace of his grandparents, he’s forced to grow up quickly when his grandmother dies and he’s shipped off to live with less forgiving relatives. He doesn’t let their disdain get him down, however, and he takes his grandmother’s final advice to heart. She wanted him to have a job, a girlfriend and a normal life, and Luke is determined to make it happen.

5. Chocolate

Genre: Action, Drama

Cast: JeeJa Yanin, Hiroshi Abe, Pongpat Wachirabunjong, Taphon Phopwandee

Length: 1h 50m

Rating: R

A movie that defies expectation at every turn, Chocolate is a Thai film about a young girl with autism who learns kickboxing through her power of mimicry. Raised by a single mother in a society that doesn’t understand or accept her condition, Zen’s only real source of comfort is a television that plays old martial arts movies.  She begins to copy what she sees on the screen. This comes in handy when her mother is kidnapped. Forced to go out into the world with her new skills and unique worldview, the young autistic woman discovers her capacity for self-reliance with a combination of punches, kicks and sheer willpower.

6. Temple Grandin

Genre: Biography, Drama

Cast: Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara

Length: 1h 47m

Rating: PG

Temple Grandin is one of the best movies about autism.  This made for TV movie is the biopic of Temple Grandin.  When Temple was a child, she developed an interest in cattle and animal husbandry.  As a young woman with autism, Temple had difficulty in school but had the support of her mother and teachers.  The movie focuses on overcoming limitations and has a positive tone.  Temple Grandin went on to earn a PhD and is a world renown expert in animal husbandry.  She is a strong advocate for the autism community.  Ms. Grandin has written several books and frequently speaks about autism and responsible animal handling.

7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Genre: Drama

Cast: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen

Length: 1h 58m

Rating: PG-13

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is the story of the Grape family.  The oldest son, Gilbert, has a lot of responsibilities in his life.  He is the provider and caregiver for his two sisters, bedridden mother, and his autistic brother, Arnie.  Although it is never formerly stated that 17-year-old Arnie has a diagnosis of autism, the character has many classic autistic characteristics.  Gilbert, played by Johnny Depp, cares deeply for his younger brother and their bond is unshakable, even as they face challenges.  While Gilbert navigates his role as provider and caregiver, he struggles with his feelings when a new girl comes to town.  Gilbert engages in a bit of soul searching and realizes that family, however dysfunctional, is everything. Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for numerous awards for his role as Arnie, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the Oscars.

8. Please Stand By

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Cast: Dakota Fanning, Alice Eve, Toni Collette, Lexi Aaron

Length: 1h 33m

Rating: PG-13

In Please Stand By, a young autistic woman runs away from her caregiver to submit her 500-page Star Trek script in a screenwriting competition.  Wendy Welcott is an autistic woman with a brilliant young mind.  She longs to leave the group home she lives in to be with her sister’s family.  In order to achieve her goal, she feels like she needs to demonstrate her competence by creating and submitting the 500-page script. She carries out a plan to deliver the manuscript in person and refuses to let anything stand in her way.  This is one of the best autism movies focused on perseverance.

9.  A Brilliant Young Mind

Genre: Drama, Romance

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan

Length: 1h 51m

Rating: PG-13

A Brilliant Young Mind is loosely based on the life of Daniel Lightwing.  Lightwing was a former mathematics child prodigy who competed in the International Mathematical Olympiad.  He is the inspiration for the character Nathan Ellis. Nathan has Asperger’s Syndrome and struggles to connect with the people around him.  He befriends an unconventional teacher who recognizes his talents and helps secure him a spot in the International Mathematics Olympiad.

10. Fly Away

Genre: Drama

Cast: Beth Broderick, Ashley Rickards, Aramazd Stepanian, Denise Dowse

Length: 1h 20m

Rating: G

Fly Away is the story of the complicated relationship between Jeanne and her autistic teenage daughter Mandy.  Mandy has many challenging behaviors that Jeanne must deal with while trying to manage her own life.  At one point, Mandy’s behavior becomes so out of control that her mother must provide round-the-clock care and ends up losing her job.  Jeanne and Mandy’s father must determine if residential placement is an option for Mandy, which could provide her with a safe living environment and greater independence.

11. Little Man Tate

Genre: Drama

Cast: Jodie Foster, Dianne West, Adam Hann-Byrd, Alex Lee

Length: 1h 39m

Rating: PG

Jodie Foster plays Dede, a single mom doing her best to raise her son, Fred.   Fred is a seven-year-old autistic child with a genius level IQ.  Dede wants to ensure Fred has all the opportunities he needs to be successful.  She sends her autistic son to a summer camp for intellects run by a child psychologist.  While his studies advance, he is torn between his advanced education and a normal life.  Little Man Tate was directed by Jodi Foster.

12. Adam

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Cast: Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher, Amy Irving

Length: 1h 39m

Rating: PG-13

Adam is an electronics engineer on the autism spectrum.  When a young woman named Beth moves into his building, he develops a fondness for her.  While Beth is not initially aware Adam has Asperger’s Syndrome, she is drawn to his quirkiness.  When Beth’s parents become concerned about their budding relationship, Will their relationship survive?

13. Rain Man

Genre: Drama

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Gerald R. Molen

Length: 2h 13m

Rating: R

When Charlie Babbit’s (played by Tom Cruise) estranged father dies, he discovers he has an autistic brother named Raymond who lives in a facility in Ohio.  Charlies discovers the majority of his father’s $3 million estate goes to Raymond.  After hearing this news, Charlie decides to travel to Ohio and kidnap Raymond as a threat to get the inheritance for himself.  Life with Raymond isn’t as easy as Charlie imagined, and the experience takes a toll on their mental health.  During their journey, Charlie and Raymond develop love and understanding for each other and the brothers build a relationship on their own terms.

14. Mercury Rising

Genre: Action, Crime, Drama

Cast: Bruce Willis, Mike Hughes, Alec Baldwin, Chi McBride

Length: 1h 51m

Rating: R

Most movies about autism don’t fall into the action and crime genre, but Mercury Rising is an exception.  In this thriller, Art Jeffries (played by Bruce Willis) is an undercover FBI agent who is ordered to protect nine-year-old Simon.  Simon is an autistic boy who cracks a top-secret government code and is now the target of assassins.

Miko Hughes, who plays Simon, spent a considerable amount of time at a special school for autistic children to learn how to accurately portray a child on the spectrum.  He was tutored by the head of the psychiatry department at the University of Chicago for six weeks to develop his character.

15. The Other Sister

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Cast: Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Skerritt

Length: 2h 9m

Rating: PG-13

One of the most heartwarming movies about autism is The Other Sister.  When Carla, a young woman with autism, graduates from her boarding school, her goal is to be as independent as possible.  Unfortunately, her wealthy family struggles to accept that she can be independent and make her own decisions.  While the family plans Carla’s sister’s wedding, Carla finds herself.  This movie is notable for its autism related issues including the struggle for independence and self-respect.

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These are just a few autism movies worth seeing if you’re interested in big-screen adaptations of autism spectrum disorder. Though their stories and techniques may vary, they’re all about promoting awareness for spectrum disorders, and they can be valuable tools for anyone dreaming of a future in social work. Films that feature characters with autism spectrum disorders are a learning opportunity for everyone.