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How 'Inside Out' Gave Me a Glimpse Into the Mind of My Son With Autism

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Every summer, you can count on at least one trip to a dark, cold movie theater for a kid movie, even though we spend all winter long dying to be outside in the bright, hot sun. Last week was our trip. Twenty-seven dollars later, Ryan, Emma and I were nestled in our big, sticky (gross) theater seats with our popcorn and sodas along with hundreds of other little kids. As much as I sometimes loathe a kid’s movie, I was excited to see this one. It looked unique, different and fun. Little did I know, this movie, “Inside Out,” would not only entertain me, it would allow me an opportunity that I have waited years for: a glimpse from the outside in.

Ever since we heard the A-word (autism), I’ve thought so many times, “If I could just get inside his head to see what he’s feeling” to try and understand my son, Ryan, better. Just a quick peak inside that big brain of his to know exactly what’s going on in there.

The desire has burned even stronger this summer as puberty, and the pendulum of emotions that goes with all that hormonal upheaval, has led Ryan to spend countless hours alone in his bedroom seeming to find so little joy in the things he once loved. Not knowing what’s going on inside that hormone-fueled brain of Ryan’s has led this mother to lie awake at night for countless hours worrying.

Since Ryan has trouble expressing his emotions, unless he’s on the extreme end of joy or anger, it’s hard to know what he’s feeling. As his mom, it’s hard to know what to do and how to ensure he’s “happy.” And there it is. The word every mother lives by and lives for: “I just want him to be happy.” Sometimes it’s hard to know if he is, or what “happy” means for Ryan.

Ironically, after years of wondering what was going on inside Ryan’s head, it took Disney-Pixar approximately 102 minutes to show me that not only did I struggle to understand the emotions going on inside my beautiful boy’s mind, he might struggle to make sense of them, too. Thanks to “Inside Out,” Ryan finally got to “see” Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear and how all those emotions make you feel. Thanks to Disney-Pixar, these emotions were finally explained in a way Ryan understood, quite possibly for the first time. And this mom got to get a glimpse from the outside in and what I saw made me recognize just how hard it’s been for Ryan to understand all those emotions running around in his head.

As I sat surrounded by hundreds of children crunching popcorn, slurping soda and giggling at the antics of emotions running around inside the main character, Riley’s, head, I heard none of it. As the theater screen illuminated with Pixar’s brilliant colors and the occasional light of a cell phone breaking through the darkness, I saw none of that. What I heard instead was Ryan’s giggles, his tears and his sniffing as the emotions in Riley’s brain impacted the emotions in Ryan’s brain. What I saw was something beautiful, something I’d spent countless hours trying to see and something I paid multiple therapists to help Ryan find. In that darkened movie theatre, with the glow of the screen on his face, I saw recognition, understanding and that lightbulb moment when it all comes together.

The movie showed the struggle with emotions that goes on inside all of our heads, and how sometimes even though we know what we feel, we’re unable to share those feelings. Whether it’s Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear or Disgust taking over the controls inside our head, sometimes it’s hard to let others know which emotion is running the show. 

“Inside Out” also showed Ryan that finding Joy can be difficult as we get older because the things that once gave us joy as kids might not anymore. Ryan has tried to tell me repeatedly he is “done with swimming” and that “swimming in no longer part of his life,” yet he can’t explain why. As I watched Riley’s childhood imaginary friend, Bing Bong, disappear into the rubble of childhood, I saw our swimming pool go with him. I have no doubt Ryan understood that when it comes to how he feels, and how his childhood Joy is replaced sometimes by Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, that he’s not so different than other kids.

Like so many moms sitting in the theater that day, I recognized I’m not so different than most moms either. We all want our kids to be happy, and we want nothing more than to protect them from sadness. I learned from Pixar cartoon characters that all kids have to experience sadness from time to time to help them find joy. Like many kids, Ryan may not be able to express what he’s feeling and sometimes that’s because of the A-word, and sometimes it’s because understanding our emotions, autism or no autism, is just hard.

Of all the Disney moments I’ve shared with my kids over the past 17 years, last week was the most valuable moment of all. When Ryan’s lightbulb went on, so did mine. As I watched it all come together for him, it came together for me, too. As much as I want to be on the inside trying to understand how he feels and making sure he is happy, what matters most is that he understands, that he gets it, and that he knows it’s okay to feel Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust when Joy occasionally gets lost.

Regardless of who’s at the controls of Ryan’s emotions, he needs to be the one to figure it out on the inside. Even if he can’t say it, he’s the one who must feel it, understand it and process it. And even though sometimes it kills me to be on the outside, unable to look from the inside out, that is where I need to be, ready to help Ryan embrace whoever is at the controls and do what I can to help him find joy, in his time, in his way… not mine.

Follow this family’s journey on The AWEnesty of Autism.

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Originally published: July 6, 2015
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