Autism Pride: How Film Taught Me to Live

When anyone receives any sort or kind of diagnosis, each person will absorb it differently. For some, it’s a clinging shadow. For others, it’s a stone attached to the wrist, dragging its mass forth. Instead of writing your name, you trace the letters of your condition until it scars; it becomes a burdening namesake, a cross that one must haul to the sun. For a young me, diagnosis meant freedom. Diagnosis meant celebration. Diagnosis meant life.

At the age of ten, I knew that my autism would help me to go far. I knew that I would have to learn to trust it; as I aged, I would need to accept it, to blur our edges together. And now, aged twenty, I have discovered that this has to be worked at. I have faced monsters who barked at what they didn’t understand, who labelled me as wrong, who skewed my path to self-discovery. Similarly, there have been days on my journey where it felt like no progress had been made, that I would never fully understand myself. But, as my journey progressed, the high road was found, and the path of love was re-taken.

At every opportunity, my diagnosis would be richly splattered on your walls, with every paint I could reach. I would begin to write a book on it, give school assemblies on it, conduct research on it. I proudly proclaimed my story because my diagnosis wasn’t just hushed words in a doctor’s office – it was a fountain of potential. I knew that if I could learn to understand the ways in which my autism presented itself, I could be whatever I wanted. I could be a fluttering poet, a skilled warrior, a wise preacher – all I needed to do was understand myself.

To recognise myself, I turned to the open palms of culture. I poured over library books to extend my pride, to fill in the gaps my curiosity presented. This unfortunately lacked the personal element I craved and so I looked further to television and film. Where an emotional connection was expected, I found only incomprehension. The so-called ‘autistic characters’ I found were merely brilliant. They were neatly-programmed robots, whose intellect was inhuman and whose misgivings were infantile. You could scour their every written detail and find no trace of sentiment or warmth. And suddenly, my journey was skewed once again. All I could think was:

Is this all people see of autism? Is this all that people see in me?

It wasn’t until I became a film critic that I figured I was going about this the wrong way. It was like lifting a poem’s most base meaning whilst completely missing the wider nuance. My autism is often sensory; it heightens the minutest of changes, particularly in my emotional state. So, I was certain that the movies weren’t the wrong place to look, that’s for sure. But, looking to autistic characters wasn’t going to show me who I was. Where I was grazing cities, whole worlds were pulsing in wait for me. So instead of clamping down to a spectrum’s point, I took my journey to the best place possible: depictions of the human experience.

As I reached my late teens, films suddenly became the centre of my existence. Outside of also being the focal point of my career, they were nourishment. These weren’t just moving pictures on a shimmering screen; they were souls, swirling and whistling like a bowl of constellations. On a bad day, they were a mentor, awash with wisdom and safety. On a good day, they were a friend, swinging by for warmth and a catch-up. Most importantly, I realised that films were essential to my journey to self-discovery. This came down to one simple reason: their stories could give me the emotional awareness I needed to grow. They were going to teach me how to live and I was going to listen.

I have selected five facets of the human experience that I found were nourished by cinema, and a film to accompany each one. Each film saw me through an important phase in my life and represents a lesson learned over the course of my journey. All are personal to me, but (by sharing my memories with you) I hope you can feel what I felt when I saw them. So, breathe soft and slow. Let life flicker fluorescently in your bones.

The Inner Child – Petite Maman (2021)

Petite Maman is the fallen leaves of my forgotten autumns.

Directed the steady hands of Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), a unique story of whimsical proportions is weaved. Our central character, eight-year-old Nelly (played by Josephine Sanz), is in the throes of grief after the loss of her grandmother. And, after a trip to her mother’s (Nina Meurisse) childhood home, she encounters another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in a labyrinthine forest. It is only when Nelly realises that the girl is the eight-year-old version of her mother that I found her – the little version of me.

For some months now, I have been rifling through my past. I have wandered through my earliest memories, as if they were the fluttering pages of a picture book. It takes a lot of nerve, to show up in her worst moments and relive the sewing of the seeds. But, in the midst of this difficult process, I have found compassion for her and the memories she wished to hide. I have been strong enough to stand by her, shielding her when necessary but commending her for the strength she possessed.

When I didn’t think something such as the inner child existed, Petite Maman proved me wrong. With its chandelier-sharp cinematography and autumn-soup tones, it took me by the hand to sit beside little me. With its quilted-simplicity and its soft pacing, it allowed me to look in her eyes. It reunited wandering adult with imploring child and I held her like a mother. Petite Maman proved to me that we never shed who we are, and we never should. Even when knee-deep in fragments of sharp memories, we must piece them together and gaze at it. We must pray before them as if they are stained glass; in spite of our desires to protect our younger self, we must remember that their struggles made us stronger. Petite Maman also reminds us to hold those who see us for who we are, not as an amalgamation of personalities or ideas – but for our younger selves, our core self. For them, they must be embraced as we embraced our parents, with tiny palms and fizzing potential.

Family – The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Wes Anderson’s films have always clung to me, like DNA to skin. And, when I watched The Darjeeling Limited for the first time, I knew then that we would be bound for life. It is the story of three brothers, Francis, Jack, and Peter (played by Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson), who attempt reconnection whilst on a train to India. Their trip is overshadowed by the grief at losing their father and their attempts to track down their mother (Anjelica Huston). During their journey, I learned to drop my gaudy baggage in place of entering a welcoming pair of arms.

Just before watching this for the first time, I was blindsided by a significant loss in my life. It was as if I had just watched the final night train leave the station, with nothing but its lights for company. When I selected The Darjeeling Limited, all I expected was a florid return to Wes Anderson’s filmography. I was expecting to find my loss of control wedged between his rigid lines of symmetry. What I was not expecting to find, however, was the rapturous joy that comes with healing. That comes with the remembrance of family.

The film’s introspective jades and oceanic blues bathed me, baptizing me. Its characters seemed to pick me up, brush me off and give my journey a pump of fresh fuel. Wes Anderson’s signature dead-pan delivery can often conceal a wealth of rife emotions, and this was no different. The brothers felt eerily reminiscent of a sibling connection I have known all my life. My two siblings and I are remarkably close, and, in my grief, I hadn’t remembered to be with them. So, when the unspoken ties of the three brothers sung to me, I felt something dawn within me; I don’t need to look for control, control is within me. And in The Darjeeling Limited’s final sequences, I was taught the art of letting go. I could now return to my family with glistening cheeks and a pounding, breathing heart.

Grief – The Holdovers (2023)

The Holdovers is the wooden warmth of a church’s full pews.

The plot concerns itself with an ill-tempered teacher, Paul (played by Paul Giamatti), and his misguided pupil, Angus (Dominic Sessa). After Paul is left responsible for the ‘holdovers’ (the students staying at the school for the holidays), his frustrations mount as Angus is forced to join him. Stuck together, they are joined by the grieving caretaker Mary (Da’vine Joy Randolph.) Each character is buried under a unique layer of angst but are bound by their secret griefs. And, whilst I was expecting a warm take on one of my favourite tropes, nothing could’ve prepared me for what this film saw me through.

The night I watched this feels as fresh as the first shock of snow. Lying in bed, I was half-way through The Holdovers when I found out a family friend of ours had passed away. When my mum came to tell me, all I could feel was my feet on the carpet, my hand on the door-frame. Pelted by its jolting impact, I searched the fuzz in my brain for something to say. And, as I watched my mum go down the stairs, all I could say was ‘I’m watching The Holdovers right now and if you watch it tonight, I think it will help.’

That night, I came to realise that grief was deceptive. The Holdovers gives a penetrating account of this. The bustling town is quickly starved by the oncoming chill of pain. With soothing choral melodies and soft acoustics, The Holdovers creates a love-letter to sitting with one’s afflictions. Slowly, each petal falls away from the characters to reveal their truest selves; be it an obvious tragedy, an ignored isolation or a buried past, their basest sorrows are raw as rough turf. But instead of a quick-fix, The Holdovers’ wintery embrace begins and ends with endurance. When the characters are at their most haunted, they retire to the comforts of a hearth-lit Christmas party. And, when the snow-globe of their psyches are stirred, unspoken words cause knowing nods. As I sat with the ice-cold shock and silence, I allowed the characters to also sit with me, to acknowledge me, to acknowledge my sorrow. And, when I took my place for dinner with my family, we sat with compassion. We sat and we acknowledged, with compassion.

Freedom – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is very much the outrageous red ruby of my cinematic lessons. Beating with brassy tones, it involves the boring affairs of couple Janet and Brad (played by Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick). After getting married, their car breaks down in a storm and they must retire to a ghoulish castle. Upon entering, they encounter a selection of freakish and frightening characters. This includes Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a transvestite with a penchant for lust and creation. I never expected this manic and explosive piece of cinema to enter my sacred selection of favourites. But, who was I to deny infectious joy when it was most needed?

As an autistic person, change is something of a personal antichrist; the minutest of switches to my routine occur and I’m off-balance. So, when it came to ending my own three-year relationship, I was forced to confront shifts I never knew existed. My break-up truly was an end to a certain sweetness I craved on summer nights. When I let it, it’s mallow-tones would melt in my chest, making me vacant and filled with longing. As soon as this hit, I sent out requests for any and all depressing media available. But, instead of opting for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I got front row seats to the most irreverent circus in town.

To me, Rocky Horror wasn’t just some bizarre trip, spent time-warping around a castle; it was a vodka shot of life I needed. With its glam-rock infused yells and its unashamed colour palette, I felt it rise like hope in my chest. Curry’s Frank pulled me into a jive that made my feet burn with energy. But I didn’t care. For the first time, I could feel every single hair on my arm raising its sinews to the light of the screen. I could feel energy grace across my skin, I could feel my very breath being demanded from me. Rocky Horror is the pulling down of the fences of every insecurity and inhibition, in its place messy corsets and smeared lipstick. It taught me that freedom wasn’t something to be afraid of, it was to be revered. Suddenly, I found myself placed under the lust of Rocky Horror’s vivid gas. Suddenly, I found the joys of freedom in the electricity of my chest.

Love – The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

As pure as a snow-melted ode, The Shop Around the Corner is the promise of mistletoe at the end of a restless week. Nestled in a general store in Budapest are two employees, Alfred (played by James Stewart) and Klara (Margaret Sullavan). They constantly find themselves at odds with each other; shortcomings turn into bickering, turning into passionate quarrels. However, both share a little delight which comes in the form of a pen pal. Little do they know that, as they squabble in speech, they adore in the written word. It was whilst watching this that I truly discovered the depths that a silly writer’s love can reach.

A few weeks prior to my first watch, I had entered a new relationship. It was a relationship that had burst forth from the sun-pounded pavements of summer; the breezes had played out like your favourite 80s hit, the trees seeming to bend at my crush-addled presence. And, as the nights grew cool and damp with stars, I was lost in a jazz-like state. And I couldn’t believe my luck! Here I was, sitting in bed, watching a film with a partner who brought life to me like baubles to a tree. And although we had not yet met, I knew we were, as he once described, soul-bound.

Watching The Shop Around the Corner is much like being a child in a sweet shop; every corner promises melted-pink, spun-sugar delicacies. It sweetened me, bubbled like honeycomb in my chest. But, then it did something even more fulfilling – it gave me the courage to love. Me and my partner had spent hours fantasising about our first meeting. But, something small and flighty within me agonized over this. I had this in common with Stewart’s character; both of us were made timid by the thought of a fantasy warped. However, as I watched on, I began to trust this film. I began to trust Alfred and Klara’s connection. I let fate’s hands weave future memories together until a jumper I could wear spawned, and I could savour its fibres. As my partner and I were enchanted by this little shop, I felt elated. Elated because I had opened the envelope the film had handed to me, and inside it, I read my future. Trust the fact that you have found love once again. Trust the fact that love will let you live.

What You and I Can Take Away From These Films

I shared these films with you because they changed my life. And, no matter what path you are on, they can change yours. Whether it is a struggle with emotions, a fencing match with lifestyle adaptations, a joyous sprint to the coming year – these films will strip back your defences and you will rise, anew; they will help you to touch base with parts of you that you never knew existed. Whether you are in a party of hundreds or an apartment alone, you are thriving or struggling, living or merely existing – the lessons of these films will repeat themselves like a mantra. You will discover more about yourself than you ever thought possible and love can be found in all of it.

At the age of twenty, I know that my autism has helped me to go far. No longer are there separate ridges, as we are one and the same. I have realised that static words of greying stigmas don’t determine my inner dialogue; who I am is found along the fringes of my skin. And on this journey of blurred emotions and heightened sensitivities, I have become schooled in what it means to live a life. Much like the preachings in Daft Punk’s song “Touch”, I realised that if love was indeed the answer, then I was home. And I realised that, in part because of these films, I was now living a life that I could love.

Films have showed me that emotions are fickle, fleeting and fiery; I have cradled my inner child, found my sense of control, acknowledged my grief, let things go, let love in. But I have by no means stopped being a student. I will continue to consume films like tonics of soul, write about them until my fingers blister with need. I will learn more lessons than we can ever dream of. But I think I may have learnt the biggest already: autism has taught me how to live, films were just the key.

Written by Bella Madge

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