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Reflecting on 'Inside Out': What the movie taught both my son and me

The post below is by Lisa Smith, the mother of seven children, two with special needs. Her son Tate has autism. Lisa blogs about her experiences and can be found on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos or at

My thirteen-year-old son Tate has autism. Tate has a “thing” for 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.

Tate spends most of his waking minutes thinking about movies and talking about movies. So, of course on the 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. This break in routine, without a meltdown was huge.

I accompany Tate to many movies and about half of them are not interesting to me in any way. But I watched this movie closely, all the while watching Tate too. In my opinion, the first five minutes of the movie were absolutely amazing. We were introduced to the emotions of a baby girl named Riley. There was Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Each character was well defined and I watched Tate’s reaction. He was totally consumed.

Although the movie was mostly about Riley and her five emotions, we were exposed to personifications of other characters’ emotions too. We saw 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. 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 Anxiety. 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 anxious 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.

Since the movie, there have been a few times when Tate perceives one of our family members to be aggravated with another. He asks, “She still loves me, right?” or “No worries. He still loves her.” That is one of the things I know the movie helped Tate to understand as he verbalized that for the first time during that movie. He now sees our emotions, including anger or disgust, can be expressed, and all the while we maintain our love for the people we are temporarily upset with. He’s always had trouble reconciling those things.

Because Tate and many with autism are visual thinkers, seeing emotions personified has helped him to understand feelings better than he has in the past. And because he understands, Joy will be able to take control of things just a little more often than ever before perhaps.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.