Warning: contains plot spoilers!
Sometimes the easiest way to explain autism and neurodivergence is to explain it through depictions in film and tv. By this, I am not suggesting that the original film makers intended the characters to be interpreted in this way, but we can pick out certain characteristics which definitely resonate as autistic traits.
In my home, we watch a lot of Disney films and a lot of tv generally. We have enjoyed a number of them on Disney+. The most recent film which has been a big hit with us is the film Encanto – and not just because of the catchy songs! (Although I do have ‘We don’t talk about Bruno’ going round in my head most days at the moment!) Many themes or characters from Disney can help us – here are just a few:
First of all, Mirabel feels different from the rest of her family. They can all do things without effort that she is unable to do – such as lifting heavy weights, healing people, understanding animals, etc. Their gifts also include an inherent understanding of the specialised knowledge surrounding that gift – e.g. Mario’s understanding of all of the different animals and what they want. She spends a lot of her time throughout the film trying to figure out where she belongs, both as a member of her family without a special gift, and as part of a community which defines itself by the help given by her gifted family members. It can feel a bit like this as an autistic person, being unable to do things such as reading social cues or understanding what is expected without it being expressly explained. There can also be a real sense of being excluded or not being quite sure of where or how to fit in both in the family and beyond.
Mirabel also has a strong sense of justice and fairness, and wants to do the right thing, even when her grandmother disapproves. She does not take her grandmother’s disapproval as a reason to stop doing what she knows to be right, even up to the point when the house is falling down.
This is similar to another Disney film, in which Moana journeys beyond the reef in the face of her father’s disapproval because she knows that she must act to save her island. Both examples show how many autistic people feel a strong sense of needing to abide by the rules and to do the right thing, even in the face of others’ opposition. This can lead to problems such as becoming known as the one who tells on others, or who becomes angry with other people who break the rules.
Back to Encanto. Luisa and Isabela feel that they have to comply with their grandmother and not speak up for themselves. Isabela is even on the point of getting engaged to someone who she does not love because she believes that it is for the good of the family. Both are masking their true selves and their own wishes hugely. Isabela has not explored her amazing gift in ways other than that approved by their grandmother, and Luisa has not allowed herself to take a break even though her mental health is suffering as a result, which is having a detrimental effect on her well-being. Many of our autistic girls want to follow the rules and to be seen as well-behaved, sometimes to the sacrifice of their own well-being. There is also a fear of failure and of letting people down, which can be very common in our girls.
Sometimes it can feel like fitting in with (non-autistic) people is like putting on an act or a show, perhaps even making ‘perfect practised poses’ like Isabela, and hiding things behind a smile. This is what is known as autistic masking, and it can lead to problems in the future if our autistic girls do not have a place where they can fully accept and be themselves. Camilo literally masks, by changing to look exactly like the person he is speaking to. Many autistic people change the aspects of their personality that they show to the world according to who they are with. An interesting example of this is in a former job when I had my mum come to visit me at work while my manager was there. I could feel my brain panic as I tried to be both my work persona and my normal family persona at the same time! Until that point I had not realised how much I had been masking at work. It was quite a learning experience.
Dolores is an interesting character, not least because of her sensory sensitivity. Her incredibly sensitive hearing frames her whole life and interactions with others. She can frequently be seen covering her ears during louder conversations involving the rest of her family. She takes a strong interest in all that is going on around her, even conversations that she is not supposed to be party to, such as when Mirabel and her father are talking about Bruno’s prophecy from when Mirabel was younger. Dolores is also unable to keep a secret, another thing that can be an issue for some autistic people. This can be either because to keep information from others may involve lying, or because of a lack of understanding about why the secret should be kept in the first place. It can be difficult to navigate this aspect of other people’s expectations as an autistic person because the unwritten rules change according to circumstances and the people involved. And as my daughter says, it’s not possible to change the way your ears are pointing and so not hear something! (Although we have tried to explain to her that not every conversation is one which she is expected to listen in on).
Pepa shows her emotions through the weather which surrounds her. When she is happy, everyone is blessed with sunny skies, but when she is upset, it is clearly seen by the clouds which form above her head. She experiences big emotions, and this is something which is definitely a part of being an autistic person. She is unable to hide how she is feeling, and is frequently affected by the emotions of others. Many autistic people are extremely sensitive to others’ emotions, more so than neurotypical people (contrary to outdated views of autistic people lacking empathy). When my daughter was younger we were unable to watch anything remotely resembling mild peril or emotional turbulence as she was so affected that she couldn’t cope with it at all. She was unable to watch many Disney films including Frozen until she was at least 5 because of this. There is still one song in Frozen II that we have to mute part-way through because of the emotional resonance it produces (‘Do the Next Right Thing’).
Finally, contrary to the wording of the song, we do talk about Bruno here! His talent is used but not understood or often accepted by the others around him. He has a real sense of being an outsider and not knowing what he could best do to fit in apart from not using his gift. He wants to protect his family but his actions are misinterpreted in a negative way. He also lacks tact (e.g. Pepa’s story of him coming up to her on her wedding day with a mischievous grin and saying it looks like it will rain), not realising the effect that his words may have. Or perhaps having a different and misunderstood sense of humour. He does not appear to be very good at reading social cues either. Sadly this can be the experience of many autistic people if they are not surrounded by people who know the unique ways in which their brains work.
There are other Disney films which also show traits which we could highlight here – such as Anna from Frozen / Frozen II. She has no social awareness at all about the risks of getting engaged to the first man she meets. She also goes off with Kristoff on her adventure – another man she just met. She is open-hearted, honest and kind, and has no qualms about doing the right thing in both films – rescuing her sister and subsequently rescuing her kingdom. Rapunzel from Tangled is another one we could highlight – she does not wear shoes for most of the film, preferring to go barefoot (another common trait), and has figured out her own, unique and sometimes utterly brilliant ways to deal with things. For example, she has used her hair as a climbing tool for a long time, and also makes use of frying pans in a new and useful way. She is also very honest about her dreams with the people she encounters in The Snuggly Duckling and encourages them to talk about their dreams as well. These qualities of resourcefulness, sensory sensitivity and honesty, are definitely ones that can be found in many autistic people.
For more analysis of Bruno's autistic traits, you might be interested in this article from Neuroclastic.com .Perhaps you know of another Disney or similar film which depicts even more autistic traits – let us know!
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy