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World Autism Awareness Day: 25 Movies About Autism on Netflix, DVD and Blu-ray

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Temple GrandinIt’s World Autism Awareness Day, which is a great day to take a look at a few movies about autism. But first, a couple of shout-outs:

My friend Cari Noga has a wonderful new book out called “Sparrow Migrations.”

“My primary motivation for the story was my own son’s diagnosis with autism spectrum disorder in May 2010,” she writes on Facebook. “Writing was a way to process my emotions. In the character of protagonist Robby Palmer, a 12-year-old boy with autism, I projected my hopes and prayers for my family’s future.”

And even though this is a list of autism movies, I must include the beautiful TV show Touch,” the Fox series starring Keifer Sutherland as a widower struggling to raise his emotionally challenged son (David Mazouz) who can predict events before they happen. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s definitely worth a look.

Ok, here are 25 movies about autism — either documentaries about autism or feature films centered on autistic characters. Add your favorites or additions in the comments below.

1. Rain Man. This movie took Academy honors for best director, screenplay, picture and actor (Dustin Hoffman) in 1988. It’s a touching story about two brothers, an autistic one played by Dustin Hoffman who inherits 3 million dollars from their father, and a car dealer played by Tom Cruise who’s been estranged from his family. The two brothers go on a cross-country journey after their father’s death. On Netflix.

2. Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon. Documentary filmmaker Tom Murray chronicles the struggle of his mother to heal his brother’s brain damage and autism, while delving into his family’s sad history of mental illness and creative brilliance. On Netflix.

3. Mozart & The Whale. Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell star in this romance between a boy and a girl who both have Asperger’s Syndrome.

4. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, and Mary Steenburgen star in this 1993 movie about family loyalty, sadness and the power of love. On Netflix.

5. The Asperger’s Difference. This 30-minute documentary was produced for teens and young adults with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome and those who interact and work with them. The film features the personal stories, challenges and triumphs of three students — middle-school, high-school and college-age. Also included is a discussion guide with a list of resources to assist young people with Asperger’s in building self-awareness, self-esteem and self-advocacy skills.

6. Killer Diller. Lucas Black, Fred Willard, William Lee Scott, and Ashley Johnson star in this 2004 film based on Clyde Edgerton’s highly acclaimed novel. When guitar-playing car thief Wesley Benfield meets Vernon, an autistic savant with rocking piano skills, they transform themselves into the Killer Diller Blues Band.

7. A Mile in His Shoes. An inspiring story about a loving family, a special boy with an amazing gift, and the coach who believed in him. Dean Cain and Luke Schroder star in this heartwarming story about Mickey Tussler, a sheltered farm boy with Aspergers Syndrome and a killer fast-ball who’s recruited by minor league manager “Murph” to play for his struggling baseball team. On Netflix. 

8. The Boy Who Could FlyJay Underwood, Lucy Deakins, and Fred Savage star in this 1986 movie about an autistic teenager who goes to live with his uncle after both his parents die.

9. Mercury Rising. Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and Miko Hughes star in this movie about a 9-year-old boy with autism who has a knack for breaking codes. He becomes a target of assassins after he breaks a top government code.

10. A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism. This documentary by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson tells the story of a mother who has done everything in her power to help her son. Along they way, she meets other families and hears their unique stories about how they too have been touched by autism.

11. David’s Mother. Kirstie Alley, Sam Waterston, Stockard Channing, and Chris Sarandon star in this 1994 movie about the mother of an autistic boy. When her devotion drives away her husband and daughter, she’s approached by a social worker (Phylicia Rashad), who suggests placing the child in a special school.

12. Autism: The Musical. Following five L.A. children over the course of six months, director Tricia Regan captures the struggles and triumphs of their family lives and observes how this musical production gives the performers a comfort zone in which they can explore their creative sides.

13. Fly Away. This powerful film directed by Emmy Award winner Janet Grillo (“Autism: The Musical”) follows the story of Jeanne and her autistic teenage daughter, Mandy. As the pressures of work and her child’s needs increase, she must decide whether or not to enroll Mandy in a therapeutic residential facility. Greg Germann, Ashley Rickards, and Beth Broderick star. On Netflix.

14. George. Documentary filmmaker Henry Corra gave his 12-year-old autistic son a video camera to document his own life. “George,” the film that emerged, is a moving look at autism. The film originally aired on HBO in 2000.

15. The Horse Boy. This movie chronicles the journey of the Isaacson family as they travel through Mongolia in search of a mysterious shaman who they believe can heal their autistic son. Delving into the world of autism, horses, shamanism, and Mongolia, it tells the story of a family that will go to the ends of the earth to find a way into their son’s life. Directed by Michel Orion Scott, this movie stars Rupert Isaacson and Temple Grandin. On Netflix.

16. Loving Lampposts. What would you call a 4-year-old who caresses all the lampposts in the park? Quirky? Unusual? Sick? Such labels are at the center of the debate about autism: is it a disease or a different way of being or both? “Loving Lampposts” explores the debate with parents, doctors, therapists, and autistic people. On Netflix. 

17. The Red Kite Project. This documentary follows Jacqueline Russell, Artistic Director of Chicago Children’s Theater, as she sets out to create the first interactive, multi-sensory theatrical performance installation for children with autism. Having spent 13 years volunteering in classrooms of autistic children, Russell’s mission is to assemble a team of artists, educators and parents to create a program that brings joy, excitement and education to autistic children.

18. Temple Grandin. Directed by Mick Jackson and starring Claire Danes and Julia Ormond, this HBO movie paints a picture of a young woman’s perseverance and determination while struggling with the isolating challenges of autism at a time when it was still quite unknown. The film chronicles Temple’s early diagnosis; her turbulent growth and development during her school years; the enduring support she received from her mother, aunt and her science teacher; and her emergence as a woman with an innate sensitivity and understanding of animal behavior.

19. Snow Cake. This 2006 drama focuses on the friendship between a high-functioning autistic woman and a man who is traumatized after a fatal car accident. Directed by Marc Evans, it stars Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Emily Hampshire.

20. Adam. Directed by Max Mayer and starring Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving, this 2009 movie follows the story of a lonely man with Asperger’s Syndrome who develops a relationship with his upstairs neighbor.

21. Molly. A bachelor becomes the unwilling guardian of his autistic sister; then an experimental treatment works a dramatic change in her brain and his attitude. Directed by John Duigan, this movie stars Elisabeth Shue, Aaron Eckhart, Jill Hennessy and Thomas Jane.

22. I Am Sam. Directed by Jessie Nelson and starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning and Dianne Wiest, this movie follows an autistic man who fights for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, and in the process teaches his cold-hearted lawyer the value of love and family.

23. The Other Sister. Directed by Garry Marshall and starring Juliette Lewis, Diane Keaton, Giovanni Ribisi and Tom Skerritt, this 1999 movie follows an autistic girl who proves herself to be every bit as capable as her “perfect” sister when she moves into an apartment and begins going to college.

24. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thomas Horn plays a nine-year-old amateur inventor who searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Directed by Stephen Daldry, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow also star.

25. Touch of Truth. A battle between a mother and a psychologist for the heart and mind of an autistic boy turns into a desperate fight for justice in this powerfully compelling drama, based on a true story. Michael Switzer directed this 1994 TV movie which stars Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert, Bradley Pierce, and Markus Flanagan

Jane Boursaw is the founder and editor-in-chief of Reel Life With Jane. Her credits include hundreds of print and online publications, including The New York Times, People Magazine, Variety, Moviefone, TV Squad and more. Follow her on Twitter at @reellifejane.

Jane Boursaw has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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10 comments

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Jane! When the movie version of Sparrow Migrations comes to the State, you get the VIP seat!

  2. Better than the one who knows what is right is the one who loves what is right. (Confucius)

  3. Let us continue to work hand-in-hand with persons with autism spectrum disorders, helping them to cultivate their strengths while addressing the challenges they face so they can lead the productive lives that are their birthright.

  4. There have been many studies that show that Mother’s of children with Special Needs, have the same type of stress levels as a soldier in combat… Now, for me personally, I think I could never be compared to our soldier’s who are in harm’s way, every day.
    karen recently posted…The Essence of MeMy Profile

  5. Unfortunately, many of these are no longer on Netflix…

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