Friday, June 19, 2015

An Autism Mom's Thoughts About Disney's Inside Out

Spoiler alert. I’m going to talk in detail about the plot and the characters from the Disney movie “Inside Out.” Stop reading if you do not like spoilers.

If you’ve followed my blog for more than five minutes and if you know anything at all about us then you know my son Tate has autism and our lives revolve around movies. He has the release date of all the movies he is interested in (which include most G and PG rated ones) on our calendar. I don’t know how he does it, but before most of us have seen the first trailer for a new movie, he has the release date on the calendar and has memorized the actors involved in the making of the movie. To Tate, these things are as important as our loved ones and our careers are to us. He spends most of his waking minutes thinking about movies and talking about movies. So, of course today, on opening day of Disney’s “Inside Out” Tate woke with great joy (pun intended.) He toe-walked and bounced as he paced all over the house in anticipation. I was a bit apprehensive myself. We had been told earlier in the week Tate should avoid popcorn as he has just gotten braces on his bottom teeth. Tate was not happy about this news and had been telling me all week the orthodontist must have been mistaken. But we went to a favorite restaurant before the movie, got some m&ms, and a bottle of water, and settled into our seats without incident over the missing bucket of popcorn.

The first five minutes of the movie were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The writers and animators illustrated a baby’s first feelings and memories and how they are stored away. They took a very complex and abstract idea and made it simple and clear. I loved it. We were introduced to the emotions of a girl named Riley. There was Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Each character was well defined for the targeted audience of children. The characters sat behind a control panel and used the controls to react to the things happening to Riley throughout her day. They collaborated to decide which of the emotions should use the controls and help Riley to react.

The moral of this kids’ movie was a credible message for adults. I cannot always find a real solid plot in animated movies but this one was pretty clear to me. And I think it was a good one for parents to think about. The character Joy went to great lengths to help Riley avoid Sadness and be happy all the time. Riley’s parents unknowingly had pressured her to be “their happy girl” so Riley tried hard to put on a front even when she needed to be something other than happy. The premise of the movie was that Sadness is an important emotion, and one we cannot always avoid. Sometimes our children have to be sad. We cannot shelter ourselves or our children from every sad experience out there. And we cannot ask our children to deny their genuine feelings of sadness so we will not be inconvenienced either. I understood the message to be that sometimes after a sad experience we can find happiness we would not have otherwise found. Without sadness there would be no joy.

We were exposed to personifications of other characters’ emotions as well. If you go to see the movie, be sure and stay until the credits roll. It is then you will see Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust as illustrated for Riley’s teacher, a dog, a cat, a clown, and a few of the other people in Riley’s life. This was another magnificent part of the movie for me. Every character had the same five emotions that were almost identical in appearance. I began to ponder at that point, what would it look like if I were able to illustrate those five emotions for Tate in the same way they had done in this movie? Joy would sit at Tate’s control panel and giggle for long periods of time while everyone around him wondered why. Sadness would be very confused, underdeveloped and never able to convince Tate to cry, while Anger would be able to produce tears when he was provoked. Disgust would be overactive. Almost every food the rest of us eat would cause that character to recoil and gag. Smells other people barely notice would be a problem for Disgust too. Fear would have to be depicted as a hyperactive character who was extremely neurotic for Tate I think. He would always be trying to grab the controls from the other emotions. If I were able to personify Tate’s emotions I think I’d add a sixth character. He would be a sort of big brother to Fear. The sixth character would be named Anxiety (or Stress). Anxiety would tower above the other five and be a giant among them. Anxiety would have some massive muscles and would push the other emotions around. He would constantly be pushing his smaller brother Fear to talk louder. He would silence Joy anytime he got a chance. Anxiety would be a tyrant.

Even during the movie Tate had been so excited to see, his anxiety was ready to suck some of the joy right out of the experience for him. During one scene, Tate became stressed when Joy, Sadness, and another character were trying desperately to find their way back to headquarters. Tate became restless and said to me, “Nothing to worry about. Stay calm. They are going to save Riley.” Tate often reassures himself when he is anxious by offering support to me. Another time, Riley’s dad got stern with her and frowned after she had misbehaved. Tate became nervous and leaned over to ask me, “Her dad still loves her, right?” I assured him that dads still love their kids even when they are unhappy.” I know Tate struggles to understand these kinds of things and has always been nervous when someone speaks to him seriously about anything. He needs people to smile at him, even if they are explaining something quite serious or speaking to him about danger. Tate seems to believe Joy is equivalent to love while Anger or Sadness cannot be. After the movie I took the opportunity to talk with Tate about these things. I had hoped the movie would be a real teaching tool for us and I believe it was. I would highly recommend this movie to the autism community. Disney did a good job with this one. 

If you liked this post you might like to read about the anxiety Toy Story caused for a while. Woody and his hat were a big thing at our house when Tate was younger. Here's the link:  Unusual Attachments


  1. Once again Lisa you nailed it on the head! I haven't seen this yet but now may shell out the dough to do so before it hits the Dollar Theater or RedBox.
    Movies tend to be less of an enjoyment for my Aspie kiddo. I sit & watch him be anxious & stem during movies as he is completely immersed in the movie. He usually begs us NOT to go to movies at the theater but he is better, yet he still stems (maybe more so at home). He only stems while watching intense tv/movies & at bedtime.
    Sorry...back on topic. I agree with Stress/Anxiety...I think it too would be a bigger meaner brother to fear. Maybe Disney will make a sequel using a boy as the main character & having some bullying issues as that's a hot button these days.
    For my son...Sad would be small & always hiding. As my son doesn't like to 'feel' at all but least of all sadness. Joy too would be fleeting at best.

    Thanks again for the info on the movie. Once again...a terrific blog. Keep it up!

  2. Hi ! I've reached your article through another website where you've linked your blog.
    I'm glad to have seen that, not even on purpose (Please excuse my english, I'm french from Paris ;))

    I've seen Inside Out today and I have absolutly loved it ! As a child, a teenager, and now a young adult (I'm 22) I've always imagined my mind as a "control center" where all my emotions would meet together. And the idea of the different little islands that build up a personality have blown my mind ! On my way back from the cinema I was just trying to figure out which were *my* islands.

    Well, this is to say that it feels good to see how this new movie can be benefic for lots of people, including the ones who need it the most ! :) And it was very moving to read how you've interpreted the emotions of your son thanks to this movie. Keep it up!

    Lots of love from France,

  3. Hi Lisa! I actually have a question. How old was Tate when you took him to see his first movie? How did the experience go? I want to take my son (who is on the spectrum) to see Onside Out but I am not sure how he will react.

    1. Michi,

      Wow. I just do not remember. Tate has five older brothers and sisters that like to go to the theater. I imagine he probably slept thru his first few movies in an infant carrier. He's always done well at movies. Once we took him to Disney on Ice and he was NOT happy there though. He was about two and a half. He was terrified of the lights and sounds and even the height we were sitting at. He stayed on my lap with his jacket over his head the whole time and fell asleep. It was before his diagnosis and I was still constantly baffled and bewildered by his behavior. I was very comforting to him but I was always just shaking my head wondering what his anxiety was about. Sorry I cannot help more. Lisa

    2. No worries. I decided that if I don't at least try to take him and test his limits a bit, I will never know what he is capable of. Tomorrow I'm taking him to a nice theater to watch inside out. I will let you know how it goes. :) thanks Lisa!
      P.S. I love u r blogs! So glad I found them.

  4. Is there any thing wrong that could be said about this film? It was beautifully animated, had a wonderful and creative story, and it was even humorous. But then again, this is the content one should already expect from Pixar. Even as an adult, seeing Inside Out for the first time gave the same feeling as seeing Toy Story for the first time as a kid. This will definitely go down as one of Pixar's best.

    Watch InsideOut Movie Online Free

  5. just discovered your blog - just diagnosed ASD after over 40 years thinking i'm broken somehow. Partner wanted me to watch Inside Out to understand emotions better - he understood i am autistic long before i worked out the possibility! - and it did help a bit. but i still cannot envisage my own set. even now, thinking about it, i don't know (other than pain, but i have a migraine at the moment). Loved the strip where Tate wants to 'talk about the future' - that's me!

  6. Dear Lisa, My husband, Victor Navone, is the supervising animator on Inside Out. A friend just copied me on Twitter a link to your post that was shared by the @autismspeaks account. My account here is @icandyapple. Please let me know if you would like a signed copy of the DVD. You can private message me there. Or email me if this comment shares my email.