Learning Differences in Film / by Tim Nuttall

Although individuals with learning differences are vastly underrepresented in popular culture, a number of films in the past few decades have found critical acclaim by portraying these individuals and telling their stories. In light of our upcoming documentary (We Are All) Disabled, which aims to change the way people perceive disabilities, here’s a look at how individuals with learning differences have been represented throughout the years.

Rain Man (1988) – Autism

Perhaps the most recognizable portrayal of autism to this day, Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man set a new standard for how learning differences are represented in film. In preparation for the role of Raymond Babbitt, Hoffman took care to represent the autism community with respect and accuracy by studying two individuals with Asperger’s over the course of several months. However, the film’s choice to make Raymond an “autistic savant”—someone on the spectrum with extraordinary skills in math and memory—established a misleading stereotype about autism in general. As a result of Rain Man, people began to assume that everyone on the spectrum possessed such skills, when only some 10% display the pattern.

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Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) - ADHD

Although his learning differences are never outwardly acknowledged, Daniel Hillard’s whimsical, immature antics as Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire make him the quintessential example for undiagnosed ADHD among adults. Played by the incomparable Robin Williams, who himself was diagnosed with ADHD, Daniel learns to balance the responsibilities of being a parent through the love and support of his family. As a result, regardless of whether or not he was intended to have learning differences, Mrs. Doubtfire’s ability to capture the hardships of parenthood has made Daniel an inspiring figure for adults in the ADHD community.

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As Good as It Gets (1997) – OCD

Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning performance as Melvin Udall, a misanthropic novelist with ritualistic “compulsions,” is one of the few representations of obsessive-compulsive disorder to date. His rituals—turning the lights on and off five times, not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, going to extreme lengths to avoid “contamination” from the outside world—get so intense that they start affecting his relationships with other people. However, since Udall also boasts a quirky, emotionally insensitive personality, the film unintentionally makes it appear as though his many social faux pas are also due to OCD, rather than his eccentric nature. In this regard, though the film certainly isn't “as good as it gets” in terms of representing learning differences, Nicholson’s performance was an early step in the right direction.

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 Finding Nemo (2003) – ADHD

One of film’s more overt depictions of learning differences comes in the form of a forgetful blue tang from the Great Barrier Reef. Though Dory’s hyperactivity certainly isn't the focal point of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, her character has become widely relatable to kids who share her difficulties with focus and memory. Rather than portraying her as a victim to her differences, however, both the original and its 2016 sequel Finding Dory also do an excellent job of showing how Dory’s strengths outweigh her weaknesses. Her iconic mantra “just keep swimming” is a powerful reminder that it’s possible to have learning differences without being defined by them

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Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) - Dyslexia, ADHD

Based on the popular young adult fantasy series by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief tells the story of Percy Jackson, a twelve-year-old boy with dyslexia and ADHD who discovers he’s the demigod son of Poseidon. Riordan wrote the series for his son Haley, who has dyslexia, ADHD and an affinity for Greek mythology, with the intent to (literally) empower individuals with learning differences. In portraying such individuals as superhuman, Percy Jackson & The Olympians seems to suggest that our differences become disabilities only if we let them. Since the first book, there have been four sequels, two films, and two sequel-series.

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Power Rangers (2017) – Autism

This year’s gritty Power Rangers reboot was a huge win for representation, featuring a diverse main cast, an LGBTQ-identified Yellow Ranger, and most remarkably, a Blue Ranger on the autism spectrum. In remaking an established franchise with a character with learning differences, the film makes strides toward diversity that go beyond gender, race, and sexuality. That being said, Billy’s intersectionality as a character who is both autistic and black is also significant, since people with autism are almost exclusively depicted as white in TV and film. Conscious choices like these set the Power Rangers remake apart this year, giving underrepresented communities a chance to save the world for a change.

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