In 2015, Griffith Film School’s LiveLab collaborated with Gold Coast Health and Sentis to produce an animated short on autism. Released online in 2016, Ky’s Story – Living with Autism aims to raise awareness about autism through the story of Ky Greenwood. The film is presented and narrated by Ky’s uncle, actor Hugo Weaving. While the film is bookended with live-action pieces to camera by Weaving and his nephew, it features mostly the animated counterparts of Weaving and Ky. Indeed, we see: a young Ky at the supermarket, overwhelmed by all the activity, his surroundings becoming a blur of color, the noise cacophonous; Ky as a teenager, playing his gaming device alone in the classroom, unable to interact with his neurotypical peers outside; Ky imagined as an adult, interested in gardening, football, animals and computer games, possibly channeling this last interest into a career.
Ky’s Story is the most recent film to use animation to explore autism, but it is certainly not the first. Tim Webb’s eleven minute documentary short A is for Autism (1992) is presented as a collaboration, based on the drawings and contributions by autistic people, who describe their experience in voice over. Snack and Drink (Bob Sabiston, 2000) is a short documentary animated using the Rotoshop software, and sees the filmmakers following autistic teenager Ryan Power to the local 7-Eleven where he gets a snack and a drink. The most famous recent example of animation in a documentary about autism is Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated (2016) about Owen Suskind, an autistic man who learned to communicate with his family and others using the dialogue, characters and world of Disney animated features. Williams’ film weaves the usual documentary devices of sit-down interviews, observational and archival footage of Owen with footage from classic Disney animated features. Original animation was also created for this film by French visual effects and animation company Mac Guff. Recollections from Owen’s childhood by Owen himself and his family are animated in grim black and white, emphasizing the isolation he felt. But the film goes a step further, and animates in vivid color an original story written by Owen, in which he imagines himself as a protector of sidekicks from the Disney films, animating his rich, inner life.
Film critic Sarah Kurchak writes:
Almost 30 years after its release, the well-meaning but stereotype-ridden Rain Man remains the most famous portrayal of the condition. To this day, people with perfectly good intentions still ask me if I can count cards … (Kurchack 2016)
As an autistic woman, Kurchak writes that in a world where autistic people are still expected to learn to mimic neurotypical behaviors and communicate on those terms, Life, Animated is groundbreaking in that it allows Owen to present his story on his own terms. What each of these films attempts (and achieves to a greater or lesser degree) is to present to the audience (under the presumption that the audience are primarily non-autistic persons) a worldview or kind of knowledge “that is in some sense hidden or masked by more conventional forms of documentary representation” (Ward 2006: 114). In these films there is an implicit claim that the animated form can better represent the autistic experience for the neurotypical audience. In other words, the use of animation in these documentaries is an attempt by the filmmakers to breakdown stereotypes, and present the autistic experience from the inside out.
Kurchak, S. (2016). “Life, Animated and How Movies Can Help Shape a Better World”, Consequences of Sound, http://consequenceofsound.net/2016/07/life-animated-and-how-movies-can-help-shape-a-better-world/
Ward, P. (2006). “Animated Interactions: Animation Aesthetics and the World of the ‘Interactive’ Documentary.” In: Suzanne Buchan (ed.), Animated ‘Worlds’. London: John Libbey Publishing, pp. 113-129.
Ruth Richards is a PhD candidate at RMIT University, where she researches the intersection between feminist theory and animation studies. Her main focus is feminist conceptions of the body alongside the body in animation.
 See “Griffith Film School, Hugo Weaving Team for Animated Short about Autism”, if.com.au for Screen Content Professionals, 2016, http://if.com.au/2016/08/22/article/Griffith-Film-School-Hugo-Weaving-team-for-animated-short-about-autism/YDCAKDKIYZ.html
 See “Life, Animated – The Film”, http://www.lifeanimateddoc.com/film/