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Autism and Film: How To Dance in Ohio and Other Relevant Documentaries

While January is often a time of the year when people find themselves staying inside more, filmmakers, actors, critics, and Hollywood executives make their annual trip to Park City, Utah for the annual Sundance Film Festival, a celebration of independent films of all genres and types.


Coming-of-age films can often be a hot ticket at the festival and one film in particular is gaining a lot of attention both within and outside the film community for its portrayal of a group of teenagers who prepare for a spring formal dance. While this might sound like rather generic fare, the film, How to Dance in Ohio is anything but.


While the teen years are hard for any young person in the personal and social changes one must navigate, teenagers with autism undoubtedly have a unique set of issues they must learn to deal with. As such, the film follows a group of young people who are enrolled in a special workshop in Columbus, Ohio designed to help them improve their social skills, with the twelve-week program culminating in a spring dance.


The film takes as its primary subjects three girls as the cameras capture them preparing for the big night. However, rather than depicting a rather cut-and-dry narrative that follows their linear progression towards the dance, the film’s strengths lies in its focus on the day-to-day struggles and triumphs that punctuate the lives of the film’s three central characters.


And though the film culminates in a heartwarming finale as the dance goes successfully for all those involved, it also shines a bright light on just what it means to be a teenage girl with autism, as one particularly affecting scene shows one of the girls having a minor breakdown her job, illustrating her difficulty in interacting with neurotypical individuals while also showing her being accepted as a “normal” teenager.


The film joins a rather small, but quality-filled genre of documentary films that aim to capture the realities of living with autism, presenting stories that audiences of all types can find accessible and enlightening. And speaking of accessibility, a number of remarkable films about autism are currently available to stream on Netflix, including last year’s powerful Sounding the Alarm: Battling the Autism Epidemic that focuses on twelve families affected by autism and the different ways each family member deals with the condition.


Another profound documentary currently on Netflix is Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon that tells the story of a mother’s mission to help her son with autism and the incredible art that he produces that helps him to better understand the world around him.


Rounding out the list is the monumental A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, which takes as its subject a singularly determined mother who is committed to helping her son with autism live the best life possible while also journeying through treatment centers and meets other families who have members with autism, helping her to better understand her son’s condition. This film is also accessible through Netflix.


So whether you’re looking to learn more about autism or find a movie that your whole family can relate to, the above documentaries offer illuminating insights into the complexities of autism.