Why Is The Only Autism Movie I Like From 2002?

I’ve always been super nervous to talk about my love for this film, because it’s not perfect. They use the r-slur to describe Sam, his daughter (Dakota Fanning) asks him if God “made him this way” on purpose, and the use the “mental age” term – a term I’ll dissect more in a later post. So, with all of this, why has it hit me so hard? Why has it become one of my favorite movies to watch over and over?

Simply because it’s so multi-faceted. Sam is portrayed as a autistic person with friends, a child, a job, and supportive environment. He is accommodated by the people around him…. until the plot of the movie gets deeper and ableism causes him to almost lose his kid – but, that’s real! Disabled folks are so often viewed as lesser than, as though parenting or love comes from able-bodied ideals of what you can physically do, or neurotypical ones, like being good at the times tables, or being able to fold clothes and keep your house neat. Sam challenges all of that – his strengths are complemented by the people around him, with his neighbor Annie (raised by a disabled mother herself) presuming competence at every turn, coming up with ways to help him be successful (without making him different),

The court scene was one that was hard to watch, because it was a place where he had no accommodations and they appeared to make little effort to make sure he understood what was being said – even though we know from his scripting* that he can understand things if he has time to process.

I first saw this film in Grade 10 Family Studies class, five years before my diagnosis. I was taken aback even then by how accurate the portrayal felt – to what I didn’t quite know yet, but it just felt like I understood Sam. His line at the climax of the movie; “People like you are perfect. People like you don’t know what it’s like when you try and you try and you try and you never get there.” Oof. That was quite a stab in the heart for 15 year old me.

It’s now almost two decades later and I really feel like disability representation (especially intellectual and developmental disability representation) hasn’t moved very far at all. (This isn’t to say that there is no good representation, and I’d have to do a deep dive into media analysis to make that a more accurate statement), but after the Sia debacle* I’m just not seeing progress that’s concrete.

Sure, I Am Sam could have been a bit inspiration porney* at times, but there was also a big critique on ableism that I think really enhanced the film, even if the word ableism was never said. The ending proved what a lot of us disabled adults already know – that accommodations and support show how much capability so many of us have. Take away the barriers and measures of success that don’t critically look at and include other identities, and the need for expensive and often harmful interventions becomes much less necessary.

Sean Penn is not #ActuallyAutistic, nor is this movie perfect, as I said above. However, for a movie set in the 2000s, when disability was much less visible than it is now, it was my very vague introduction to a more holistic model of disability.

*https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxrS7-I_sMQ – Stella Young’s talk and explanation of inspiration porn

Published by Taryn Jaye

Autistic. Writer, advocate, and future therapist. Yes, I support individuals with high-support needs.

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