QBLOG: Disney’s Frozen and parenting autism

elsa from frozenAs I slip-walk along the icy sidewalks on this morning, I am reminded of Frozen – Disney’s latest animated feature film. Elsa would have been fine with this, I think.

I took Fiona to see this movie a few months ago. (Quentin cannot sit still for more than about 20 minutes through any given event, so this was my special day with her while he did something with his Dad.) We both loved it. The message of sisterly love stuck with me. Fiona and I sung the “Let it Go” song the rest of the day and talked about the two sisters. It never once occurred to me that this movie had anything to do with autism. But it might.

For those of you who have not yet seen the movie, I will attempt to outline the basic story without too many spoilers here. (And let’s face it, if you haven’t seen the movie yet then you probably don’t care about knowing the basics, right?) Elsa and Anna are princess sisters. Elsa (the older one) has this special power to freeze things up with her hands. It’s fun for the sisters to play with ice and snow when they are little, but one day, Elsa’s freezing powers almost kill Anna. The parents decide to lock Elsa away in her room, never allowing her to go outside again. Time passes, they get older, and when it’s time for Elsa’s coronation, she must come out in public. She tries to hide and control her special freezing powers, but she cannot. Everyone is shocked when she removes her gloves and things start to happen. She freezes the city and runs off into the frozen tundra, singing the song “Let it Go” in an act of freedom and defiance. The sisters are eventually reunited and it ends with them happily living together again. (There’s a lot more to this movie than what I described, but I want to focus on Elsa and this very powerful song.)

A little later, I came across this blog post written by a young PhD student with autism that changed my outlook on this movie entirely. (Seriously – click on that last hyperlink. It’s worth reading!) OF COURSE the whole story is a metaphor for autism! I can’t believe I missed that! We could easily substitute Elsa’s freezing superpowers for stimming, echolalia, or scripting, or any other “behavior” related to autism. Elsa, like other people with autism, are told to bottle up those behaviors. They are not allowed to share their powers. The concealment of autism behaviors often begins in childhood, just like Elsa’s.

Also, when you first see Elsa, you have no idea she has this power. She looks “typical.” It’s not until her freezing power escapes accidentally that people realize that she is different. This “hiding in plain sight” phenomenon happens all the time for Quentin, and so many others with autism spectrum disorders. He is always approached by kids on the playground who try to interact with him. It is not until he starts shrieking, babbling nonsense, or not responding to their interactions that he is shunned.

I understand that the movie Frozen can be interpreted in many ways. Some might see the simple story of sisterly love (as I did). Others might see it as a metaphor for gays and lesbians who need to conceal their sexual orientation. You could also interpret it as something religious (Elsa as a Christ figure), or an argument for climate change. I’m sure there are many other ways to go with this one, which is perhaps why the movie remains so popular for adults as it is for kids. No matter, I’m sticking with the autistic community on this one.

A few days ago, I found this video that shows that the notion of Elsa representing autism is not a random idea; others are thinking about the connection. A young woman with autism changed the lyrics of “Let it Go” into an autism version. Watch it here:

I love how this song has become an anthem of sorts for all people with autism. It’s a powerful song, one of strength and courage. I also hope that it explains autism behaviors to people who are unfamiliar with them.

All of this has made me think about Quentin and how I’m parenting him. The movie showed Elsa as being lonely and sad. She wanted to interact with others, but was kept locked away. It made me think: Am I giving Quentin his freedom? I want him to be able to express himself. While he is not much of a flapper, he does have some minor stims. There is also his newly-found scripting habits, which I’m both amused and befuddled by. There is also his long-time logo obsession, which becomes a strange behavior at times. As a parent, I struggle to straddle this line. I want him to be happy, which also means, to some degree, fitting in. It means not being stared at in public. Or laughed at. Or bullied.

My solution is not perfect, but it is what it is. At home, he is always allowed to “let it go.” He can jump, screech, read logos, and script to his heart’s content. Sometimes I even join in! But when we are outside the confines of our home, he is expected to act more appropriately. No putting random things on your head. No more screeching. Less logo reading.

Is this a double standard? Am I confusing him with this policy? Perhaps. I am only a non-autistic parent trying to give my son some freedom while simultaneously attempting to teach him some cultural norms. Still, I hope one day he will be able to sing “Let It Go” with pride, so he can celebrate everything that he is.


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