Friday, June 17, 2016

An Autism Mom's Thoughts on Disney's Finding Dory

My son, Tate, and I just came away from the Pixar movie, Finding Dory. It’s been on our calendar for weeks, as are most animated films. Movies are Tate’s “thing” and we rarely miss one he shows an interest in. 

I had not seen a trailer for Finding Dory. The only thing I knew going into the theater was that it was a Pixar film and a sequel to Finding Nemo. Finding Nemo was a favorite of Tate’s when he was young, and Tate has much of the dialogue memorized. I knew Tate was going to love the movie, but I did not expect to be overly interested myself. I had no idea that three blue cartoon fish, a couple of clown fish, and a grumpy octopus (make that a septopus) would draw me in and cause me to feel gut wrenching empathy and compassion during parts of this film. Throughout the film I found myself comparing Tate and autism to Dory and her own disability. Dory was unable to remember the things she needed to do to be successful and to keep herself from harm. I saw myself in the caregivers who surrounded Dory and tried to keep her safe. 

As a very small fish, Dory’s parents tried so hard to surround her with rules and plans. They taught her rhymes and songs to help her remember the safety rules. They taught her to repeat her name and her diagnosis. They showed her the path back home over and over and marked it for her. And still Dory’s mother cried and worried because it might not be enough.

I remember all the discrete trial programs we had for Tate. He memorized his parents’ names and his address. Those things meant nothing to him, but he could spout them if asked. In the autism community we have Tee shirts that help our kids tell others they have autism. There are ID bracelets available. We can buy signs for our cars and even stickers to put on their bedroom windows for rescue workers to see. Some of us have service dogs and special locks on our doors. We are so very careful. And yet, we worry. What if….

Dory, as a young fish, could not advocate for herself or find help once she was lost. As an adult fish she still depended on others to keep her safe. At fourteen years old, Tate cannot communicate well enough to advocate for himself amongst strangers, nor would he know who to turn to and ask for help. Through no fault of her own, Dory made tremendous mistakes at time and she felt guilty because she could not do the things she felt she should have been able to do. I hear Tate constantly apologizing for things he cannot do because of his autism. I assure him that there is no need to apologize and my heart aches for him. 

Nemo was a character that never once gave up on his friend Dory. Nemo KNEW Dory was capable of more than she was being given credit for. He was always supportive and patient, ready to help but willing to wait to see if Dory could do it herself. Nemo is much like the typically developing friends Tate has at school. They encourage him and know just when to step in to help. 

Dory’s caretakers were understanding and patient with her most of time but occasionally when things were tense, someone snapped at her, making her feel like a failure. At one point in the movie, Marlin criticized Dory and it crushed her. It rarely happens in our home. But I’m not perfect. Marlin spent a few minutes in denial that he had said anything wrong and then much longer beating himself up for what he said. Once again, I saw myself in the animated character on the screen.  

Tate made "Nemo" in his art class this past school year.
Marlin underestimated Dory several times in this movie. Of course she still had special needs and needed help but there were some things she could do well. Once again, I saw a comparison here. There have been many times I have doubted Tate and he showed me just how wrong I was. At the end of the film, we saw Marlin trying so hard to trust in Dory like her friend Nemo did. But even after he had “learned his lesson” he still followed and spied from afar to make sure Dory was safe. And Dory knew. Dory knew that Marlin was watching and there for her if she needed him. It is such a fine line we walk (or swim).

If you liked this movie review, you might like this: A Review of Disney's Inside Out



  1. Hi: I just saw Finding Dory with my typical youngest. Had the same feeling throughout, especially when the younger Dory overheard her parents crying over what would become of her. We have a non-verbal seven-year old, but the parallels were uncanny. Would love to know if at least one of the writer's has a special needs child. Thanks very much for the post.

    1. Hi Mike!

      One of the writers was inspired by a pre-term boy who "Kept Swimming" like Dory did.

      Hope we find that out from the writers.

      Here is how Andrew Stanton explained this inspiration - he was touched by his own life and later by this boy

      Francis was the boy. His Uncle sat with Andrew Stanton on the plane.