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/
These sound like really interesting films, Ruth. Thanks for the round up. I don’t know if it’s of interest to you, but some colleagues and I wrote a bit about a (print) manga series “With the Light” thematising the experiences of the mother of an autistic son. The series was very popular when originally published in Japan and was republished in English as books, and a television series was also made based around it. There are some attempts in these texts via graphical elements to represent the point of view and sensory experiences of the young man at the centre of the story. Obviously because of their non-autistic authors these books are much less able to represent this experience. But we tried to tackle to some extent the broader frames through which these stories might be interpreted and mediated by their non-autistic publishers, marketers and readers, so may be of interest? It’s here: https://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/portal/article/view/3279/4582
Thanks, Nicole! That is definitely of interest!
It seems there are very few opportunities for works that centre around Autism to receive the high profile that Life, Animated has achieved, and I do wonder if time will allow such a film to re-write the impression that was left by Rainman. It would be a more positive image but also a skewed one – the diversity of Autism in how it presents makes addressing it through individual case study problematic – It is called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because of the diverse manifestations that contribute to classification under DSM-IV. The uniqueness between cases is profound, and I think any single case presented well could create a stereotype that omits a large proportion of people with ASD. There is a positive story in Life, Animated that will not resonate with a large number of profoundly Autistic people. Nor will it resonate with more mildly affected people very well. This is not meant to seem negative, but to put it simply there are people without speech or basic life skills on the spectrum. There are also people who simply lack the ability to integrate well socially, and exhibit problematic behaviour. Does any singular representation aid the cause of understanding the real health issues and social issues that ASD generates? Not when it stands alone. I guess that the other consideration is the idea of social responsibility versus commodification – do we assume that by invoking a stigmatised issue in film that it is meant as an act of social justice? It’s easy to say that if you are going to represent impairment or social difference in cinema it should be done with sensitivity, but what that means is eternally evolving. Social concerns are an element of zeitgeist, I suppose. Was Rainman seen as humane at the time? I recall that Dustin Hoffman was lauded for his performance, and this was not in any way conveyed by the media as a tacky pastiche. It was still a tacky pastiche, but the times were not evolved enough to see this. How does one truly create a positive framework of understanding as opposed to a stereotype? We have the same issue with Feminism/Femininity in animation. Where is the progress? Where is the truth of our modern lives? I hope there are more films that present an alternate experience of society and life with Autism. It is common yet surprisingly misunderstood. It would be great if more cinema attempts to mirror the world in way that is constructive. Thank you for writing on this interesting topic.
Thank you, Rachel! I would love there to be a greater range of films that present alternate experiences of living with ASD – Life, Animated is definitely a step in a better direction (I was pleasantly surprised by it), and I’ll be very interested to watch it back in ten years or so to see how perceptions have again changed. Even though I personally recognised some of the experiences of the family members in the film, I know other families and people on the spectrum would not have the same experience.