Pixar’s Inside Out and The Special Needs Universe

July 4th weekend I took myself to see Pixar’s Inside Out, the animated film about, of all things, how feelings work. (For a non-special needs oriented take on this subject, see my post on The Couples ToolKit.) The main characters are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. Joy is Amy Poehler – funny fun and caring in Pixar yellow. Anger is Lewis Black, who else – hot red. Disgust is Mindy Kaling, green eyelashes and a pout of disapproval. Sadness is blue, as in the Blues – Phyllis Smith. And Bill Hader is Fear – apparently fear is purple. And yes Riley, the eleven year old whose mind is inhabited by all these emotional companions and much more.

I didn’t see the movie with my daughter, though I would have liked to but at the time she was more interested in seeing Max, the story of a Marine’s service dog. She texted me three days later that she saw the Pixar film with her apartment-mate and staff and loved it and in particular, Joy. I text back, “I loved Sadness.” She texts back, “Why?” (More on why later.)

I saw Inside Out alone while my husband and son were in the theater next to me viewing Jurassic World. We were viewing these very different films at The Prospector Theater, a 501 (c) (3) state-of-the-art movie theater that employs our daughter and many other adults with disabilities. The mission of The Prospector, which opened to the public in November 2014, is to hire, train and empower disabled adults in a venue that offers a variety of jobs and skill training. The core mission of The Prospector is to show the world that disabled adults are employable assets in our society!

While I watched the characters whirl around the screen trying to manage Riley’s emotional universe as she and her parents leave the cool serenity of her Minnesota hometown to settle in edgy, gritty San Francisco, I thought about how critical emotional education is to children/people with developmental disabilities – a number of whom took my ticket, served up my gourmet popcorn and, at the end of the film, were the ever-ready cleanup crew, pink broom and dust pan in hand.

Inside Out tells the tale through animation of a “normal” child who at eleven years old wasn’t able to communicate her emotional distress to her parents or teachers about her fears and uncertainties in moving to a new town, or of the sadness of the loss of her childhood home. In fact, Riley didn’t know herself what she was feeling until her feeling managers, Joy, Anger, Fear and Disgust, recognized the crucial role played by Sadness – and through Sadness, the awareness of loss – to enable Riley to embrace her new life.

Can you imagine how a child with intellectual disabilities, which often include delays and disorders in receptive and expressive language, as well as oral motor and articulation difficulties, is going to fare under similar circumstances? The great irony of life with special needs children and adults is that they tend to be the most honest and cut-to-the-chase voices in the room, despite their communication hurdles. The social censors that drive the so-called “normal” in our choices of what we share, and with whom, don’t always compute in quite the same way in the minds of folks with social and intellectual challenges – hence the emphasis in social skills training.

Dishonesty or dissembling is not amongst their strengths, which is one of the many reasons working with special needs adults is so gratifying. Despite that, the identification of feeling is a subtle, elusive and often muddled activity for all of us. And our cultural inclination, so well depicted in the film, is to highlight joy and dim the lights down low on sadness. So how to protect those in our world who struggle to find the words to say many things; who often require our time and patience while they search to put together a sentence, a request, a description of an activity; how to protect them from the emotional muteness so vividly portrayed by Riley in Inside Out?

The language of emotion has to be taught: at home, at school, through art and culture, science and games. For children with disabilities in the language development arena, facilitating the identification, labeling and articulating of emotional experience should be number one on the hit parade of parenting chores. But this is not an easy task. Our daughter, whose struggle with language development at two was the first clue that something was “wrong,” relied, as young children do, on behaviors to express emotions of fear, frustration, disappointment, and sadness – but it was hard to know which, when, and why. Even a parent whose profession as a psychotherapist is all about feeling identification can be stupefied and paralyzed by the array of disorganizing behaviors that rain down on the average day in the home of a child with significant developmental delays. Our daughter’s vocabulary for many years was very limited, which, as we were often reminded by the panoply of specialists we saw, increases “acting out.” And acting out looked a lot like Anger – hot red. Confusing.

The specialists in our school and larger community, the speech therapists, the social workers, the special education teachers, had some tools in hand. First of course there is the facial expression chart, crude, maybe useful. Later in elementary school we moved to social stories, tales that were suppose to teach proper social behavior. The emphasis was on skills training, communication skills and social awareness. Our daughter participated in “lunch bunch” and other facilitated social activities where “typical” students helped model age-appropriate behavior. BEHAVIOR is a big important word in special needs academia. I think all those exposures were helpful. Privately she went to art therapy and had AIT training all aimed at reducing acting out and facilitating expression. That didn’t work. Pulling my hair out wasn’t working either. Behaviors were still the modus operandi for expression. At the time, I don’t think educators recognized that developing the awareness and expression of personal emotion was as important as learning appropriate social behavior. Telling someone with significant language difficulties to “use your words” is like telling them to fly.

In fact, one of the tools that worked best was the use of the cultural arts; movies; what we now call audio books, formerly tapes (hours in the car); stories of animals suffering and being rescued; love stories, always a favorite – Joy – yellow; and the master works of great artists. At one of our many visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, our daughter lingered at an oil painting of a young girl who lay dead in her bed, a beautiful rendering of youth halted, which led us to a discussion of a young child’s illness and a family’s loss – Sadness – blue. We watched Finding Nemo, which surprisingly wasn’t a favorite; it was scary – Fear – purple.

The key for parents in developing emotional awareness for our children is “being there” modeling emotional acceptance, our emotions and their emotions (one of the reasons parents should always say “I’m sorry” to their children when they do a bad thing). As parents we can experience our feelings alongside our children – not to overwhelm or flood them but to be real; on the couch; at their bedside; in the movie theater; at the museum; over a screen – not to tamper down the lights on the “bad” feelings or reframe them as something else; instead to shed light by giving them a name and saying them out loud. “Boy, that part in the movie made me sad; joyful; angry; frightened; disgusted. How about you?” It doesn’t matter if they can answer the query at that moment – you have accomplished two things: you have given a feeling a name and you have shown your personal acceptance of having that feeling.

In middle school, our daughter’s team recommended that she see a psychotherapist regularly to help her identify, understand and communicate her feelings – someone who knew how to dig in and work with children whose language skills and cognitive challenges made them “special” therapy patients. (That was the goal years earlier when our daughter’s expressive language skills were significantly limited and I sent her to art therapy.) Our daughter is twenty-five years old now and, to this day, this same psychotherapist plays a critical role in her well-being. Finding a professional who our children learn to trust and who understands them is an incredible gift and a tremendous partner in this journey.

Emotional education starts with the parents – to be there both as a model and a guide in our children’s emotional development. Inside Out, in its animated universe, showed that the only way Riley could grow up to be her optimal self was through experiencing all her feelings, not cherry-picking the happy ones or the socially acceptable ones; that all her feelings would guide her in making honest and personally beneficial choices. Otherwise little Riley was lost, heading out of town into the world of emotional muteness and big trouble.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



8 Responses to “Pixar’s Inside Out and The Special Needs Universe”

  1. kim schneider

    I loved reading this and will no doubt read it again. It made me feel sad for those special needs kids or typical kids whose parents couldn’t or didn’t find ways to teach and share emotions. Art is a brilliant medium, so much emotion in a painting or picture or sculpture. And I felt joy because of the possibility Inside Out may help one kid, one adult with special needs or just one adult. A little disgust and a little anger too, but those emotions are selfish.

    To answer your question, no I cannot begin to imagine how a child with special needs would ever fare in Riley’s situation.

    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Thanks Kim for getting the significance. And FYI no emotions are “selfish.” Only actions can be selfish.

  2. Babette

    great post. You turn the lights on for us Jill. Leading us to see the world differently and always with more understanding and compassion.


    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Such a lovely compliment. Thank you Babette.

      • Jo LaMarch

        We have an adult son with disabilities. He is hard to read often.
        He has a great job at the Starbucks plant. We are getting older so
        maybe worrying more all the time about his living with less support.
        We live in Nevada and he has been living in an apartment by himself
        for one year. He is 48 years of age. Wish I was wiser about things
        he will need. His apartment complex seems to keep and eye out for
        his needs. We are there nearly every day. His dad takes him to work
        four days a week. There is a group called People First that he would
        like to rejoin. The world isn’t really an easy place for people like him.

        I am glad he is usually happy with his daily life.

        Need to read about how others help their family.

        • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

          Dear Jo, I understand your concerns completely. Finding a network for special needs adults that is supportive, social and with luck bring to your son’s world folks younger than yourselves who can watch out for him is the best plan of all. Does he have siblings or cousins who are able to provide lifetime connections and some oversight? Is People First an agency that services adults with special needs or a non profit support organization.

          Take a look at this organization that we have in Connecticut: http://www.spherect.org/

          Good luck.

    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Thank you so much. I’m glad to read that something I write makes life a bit easier.


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