19 Films with Characters with Special Needs

When I think of Hollywood, I picture Rodeo Drive, the Hills, the Chinese Theater, the cookie cutter A-listers. It’s a cliché that’s (hopefully) only in my head. So many films tout the shell of a story, a hook and nothing more. So I pass. Not worth money on the babysitter. As the Oscar list rolls out now, I find I don’t recognize or care to see a single title. But I will make the effort if the film deals with something in my realm and my realm is special needs. So here are a few films that feature characters with special needs for those who are curious.

Disclaimer: We all have proclivities and sensitivities to how the special needs world is portrayed in film. These are just my reviews of a sampling of films to show what’s out there. For the purposes of this list, I am including physical, mental, emotional, and psychological disabilities.

19 Films with Characters with Special Needs

  1. Rain Man

Autism is a hard role to play. The nuances and varying levels on the spectrum also make it one of the most difficult conditions to accurately diagnose. But Dustin Hoffman does an excellent job of showing the often disabling anxiety that comes with over-stimulus or unfamiliar situations. Because it’s Hollywood, they also made him a gambling savant, but the relationship between him and his brother, played by Tom Cruise, is worth noting.

  1. My Left Foot

Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his depiction of real-life Christy Brown, an Irish writer with cerebral palsy who uses his only functioning limb, his foot, to write. This one is close to my heart as a mom to a son with CP and as a Celt…and as a lover of all things Daniel Day-Lewis.

  1. Simon Birch

Based on one of my favorite novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, this film is about a boy whose stunted growth does not stop him from being a hero in a small Maine town. You need to watch the film AND read the book. You will forever hear this character’s voice in ALL CAPITALS. Teaser from the book: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.”

  1. Benny and Joon

Mary Stuart Masterson and Johnny Depp are powerful in this film about two adults on the autism spectrum (the diagnoses are not explicitly defined) who fall in love and fight for their independence. As a romantic comedy, the film has some of the best and awkward “meet cutes” out there, but it also shows the reality of adults with special needs who are not readily understood by the rest of the population. And it has a stellar soundtrack.

  1. Forrest Gump

I love Tom Hanks in everything, but this is one of his best and won him an Oscar. Forrest does just about every noteworthy thing in history despite metal leg braces as a child and a classification by the local doctor as “simple-minded.” It’s an homage to American life and a feel-good film. He impacts everyone he comes in contact with, something I think all parents of children with special needs have witnessed in their own right.

  1. A Beautiful Mind

Based on the life of Nobel-prize winning mathematician John Nash who suffers from schizophrenia, this film received some criticism for its mind-over-medicine portrayal of such a serious disease. But it also received over twenty awards including best supporting actress for Jennifer Connolly who played Nash’s wife. And Russel Crow is outstanding. His portrayal of the tug-of-war between genius and illness is raw and intense.

  1. Born on the Fourth of July

Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam War veteran, Tom Cruise plays the lead who returns home from war wheelchair bound. Heads up: this movie is not uplifting. It traces the disillusionment of a man with his country as he suffers from PTSD in his newly handicapped state. He eventually becomes an anti-war activist and, in real life, speaks before the Democratic National Convention. This film is on my list because it reveals the explores the levels of grief and acceptance of those who come into the category of “special needs” later in life.

  1. Radio

A true story. And I love Cuba Gooding Jr. who plays the high school football player with special needs and I love Ed Harris who plays the football coach. Moments in this film are difficult to watch, mostly for the way intellectual disabilities are viewed in the small southern town, but it is still a “feel good” movie in the end.

  1. Finding Nemo

Yep. Disney wins again. Nobody thinks about this as a movie about a fish with special needs, but it is. Little Nemo has a fin, damaged before birth, that defines his early childhood (fishhood?). I love this one more for how it reveals a parent’s attitude towards their child. I am very familiar with Marlin’s anxious parenting style, the hovercraft parent. It’s hard to let go and trust they will be okay in the big wide sea. I still say/sing to my son during a hard therapy session, “just keep swimming.”

  1. Ray

A biopic about a man who rocks his talents despite his disability. Jamie Foxx plays Ray Charles, the famous blind rhythm and blues musician. It follows Ray’s life from birth to the disease that blinded him to the success and pitfalls of fame and back to a grounded life. Foxx won the Academy Award for best actor for good reason. He is incredible. If you haven’t, please see this film.

  1. Temple Grandin

Another biopic, Claire Danes plays Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who becomes a leader in her field of animal husbandry. Grandin can connect with animals in ways she cannot with people. In real life, she won an award from PETA for her accomplishments. I first heard about this one from a student whom I tutored who has Asperger’s syndrome. She recommended it to me and I’m glad she did.

  1. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

I love Leonardo DiCaprio and Leo loves character roles. He’s played Howard Hughes, Romeo, Frank Abignale the con artist and Danny Archer the South African thief. But before all that, when he was 19, he played Arnie, Johnny Depp’s little brother with mental disabilities. I watched this one before I had a child with special needs and after and the response was the same: it’s hard to watch how Arnie is treated in this small town. It’s hard to see the narrow-minded view of the disabled. But if you watch it for the incredible job Leo did as an actor, it becomes another good film and not so close to home.

  1. I Am Sam

I have mixed feelings about this one. Sean Penn is hit or miss with me. In this role as a father with mental disabilities, he fights for custody of his daughter with the help of a lawyer, Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s good in its depiction of an adult fighting for the right to be an adult when others want to rule him otherwise. The legalities of such a case are worth noting. However, it can get too Hallmark-y. Reality is enough of a tear-jerker sometimes. We don’t need it intensified.

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

This one is a swarm of special needs rolled into one film. As an English teacher who taught the novel by Ken Kesey and knew the background, aka the voluntary psychedelic drug testing Kesey underwent in a mental hospital while writing the novel, the movie is stellar. It reveals the mistreatment of patients with mental illness in the 1960s while also examining the illnesses themselves. Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for this one for a reason—he will make you question your own mental health by the end.

  1. Shine

Based on the life of piano prodigy, David Helfgott, this film chronicles the success and mental breakdown of a genius. With schizophrenia as the probable diagnosis, this film is epic in getting you in his head. This is the best role I’ve ever seen by Geoffrey Rush. You will forget to breathe as you watch him dominate the piano. You want to think it’s a trick, that he’s a magician pulling the wool over your eyes, because no one can be that perfect or that fast.

  1. The Three Faces of Eve

Joanne Woodward plays Eve, a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder in this 1957 film. Eve White, Eve Black and Jane (the three personalities) won Woodward an Oscar. I love this film for its psychological thriller aspects that the 50s and 60s did best. It’s also based on the life of Chris Costner Sizemore and the script was co-written by two psychologists who were the original authors of the book on which the film was based.

  1. 50 First Dates

A funny movie about memory loss. While not what you would consider your typical take on special needs, Drew Barrymore plays Lucy, a girl who loses her memory every night when she goes to sleep because of an earlier head injury. And then she falls in love with Adam Sandler who tries to help her heal. I like this movie for the sweet factor, but also the idea that sometimes there is no cure. And you still have to build a life. It’s not always about overcoming. Sometimes it’s about satisfaction in a life well-lived.

  1. Murderball

A sports film. Not my typical choice. But its Academy Award nomination and recommendation by a physical therapist drew me in. The documentary follows wheelchair-bound athletes who fight like gladiators on their rugby team in the 2004 Paralympics. It’s intense as any sport’s film is and will leave you standing and cheering. I also love that this was a low budget film and not meant to be a blockbuster, yet enough people recognized its merit to earn it a Sundance Film Festival award and many others.

  1. Phoebe in Wonderland

Phoebe is a girl who desperately wants to be in her school’s production of Alice in Wonderland. But the picture changes tacks from the typical family drama by diving deep into Phoebe’s psyche as her symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome intensify. Bill Pullman and Felicity Huffman play her parents. It’s magical realism at its best and worth a watch.


This is just a sampling of what’s out there. Have you seen any of these? Opinions? Suggestions to add to the list?