Parenting Dory: An Autism Dad’s Take on Pixar’s Latest Film

I’m a huge Pixar fan, and I was thrilled to hear reports that the Nemo sequel “Finding Dory” was essentially the story of a special needs child. So I took team Hague to watch it this weekend, leaving only Jackson, my 10-year old autistic son, behind. That sounds ironic, I know, but Jackson hates the original film. We think the sharks scared him off. Anyway, we loved the movie, and I want to share my perspective as an autism dad.



Dory is, of course, the friend of Nemo and Marlin, and she suffers from short-term memory loss. This film flashes back and forth between Dory’s childhood and her new quest to find her parents.  As a side character in “Finding Nemo,” Dory’s forgetfulness created some delicious hurdles for Marlin, but this time, those memory issues take center stage. The flashbacks were of greatest interest to me. It was amusing to watch Dory continually botch Nemo’s name in the first movie, but it is much harder this time to watch her parents try to protect her in spite of her disability. Dory is an insatiable explorer, after all. A wanderer. This makes her vulnerable, and her parents can only do their best to drill their safety lessons through the gaps in her memory. They can only hope…

These lessons, these endless repetitions, were instantly familiar to me. My heart sank a little as I watched the faces of her parents struggle to stay optimistic, even while their child forgets her instructions for the thousandth time. I get it. All of us with wanderers get it. The dangers outside are all too real. The world is too cruel a place for such innocence.

Dory’s parents know they are swimming upstream in this fight, so they fall back on social stories, hoping that they will be more effective. She has an affinity for shells, so they turn this into therapy, teaching her to follow lines of shells toward home if she ever gets lost. But there is a sense of inevitability in their voices. All they can do is tell her again and again. All they can do is assure her of their love.

But of course, their lessons are not enough. Dory forgets. She gets lost, and the world finds her.

And now no one understands her. She is a foreigner everywhere she goes. “I suffer from short-term memory loss,” she repeats ad nauseum. The fish smile politely, then swim away out of sheer awkwardness.

Indeed, special needs can create a world of awkwardness. Strangers don’t know how to respond. They don’t want to say the wrong thing. So they back away. I’ve seen the way many kids react to Jackson. They look at him sideways, unsure of what to say or do. They are polite, but, you know, it just feels better to be with other kids. Normal kids. Kids who talk and stuff.

But that’s okay. Dory didn’t need a hundred friends. She needed one friend who would stick around. That was Marlin. When she found him and joined his cause something took. He didn’t run away, but became her new reference point. Now, he becomes an ally on her quest.

Our kids, too, need allies. Safe people. They need communities.


This is community. (Jack being hemmed in by his brothers at the river…

IMG_1755 (1)

…and his sisters at Crater Lake.)


Yes, of course, all kids need community, but those with special needs need it more. Because, duh, these are special cases. My wife and I are beyond blessed to have such a community with our church family. I don’t know how people possibly get on without one…

But, as we soon learn, even the safest faces can wound a child. In one poignant scene, Marlin loses his patience with Dory’s disability. He snaps at her to go away and forget. “It’s what you do best.” He says it in frustration, not really expecting his words to sink in. She’ll just forget them anyway, right? Except she doesn’t. His words bruise her in a deep place—somewhere in her subconscious. Somewhere below her disability.

This also rang true. Jackson, despite being essentially non-verbal (again…) is listening. Always. And I know he takes in far more than he acknowledges. This remains a sobering consideration: how many times have I lost my cool with him? How many times have I stormed out of the room when his stimms gets too loud, or just thrown down an ugly “go away, kid!” I shudder with shame at the thought. It makes me want to embrace him all the more, and to reassure him time and again that I not only love him, but I also like him. That I take immense pleasure being with him. Those feelings are far more real than any fleeting frustration I might occasionally give into. But words aren’t easily forgotten.

Back to Dory… Soon, images and clues begin to filter through the fog of her memory, providing her clues that advance her cause. The more she remembers, the closer she gets.

This development may be the film’s most subtly subversive theme: Dory’s disability really has been a disability.

It’s not a strength in disguise. Dory’s memory loss has been the obstacle that has kept her from her parents, but now it’s fading, if only a little. And what’s more? Her disadvantage has given rise to a new strength: improvisation. Since Dory hasn’t been able to remember, she acts with her gut, often to great effect.

It’s a good lesson. Sometimes a child’s special needs turn into special strengths. Sometimes. But if these needs were predominately advantageous, then a diagnosis would earn a child a cape rather than a caring, understanding community. Lest we forget, special needs are, first, needs.

In the end, Dory requires more than improvisation to find her parents. She also needs a few good memories to come back, and a few good friends to come along. That combination does it at last: Dory is found. Or rather, Dory finds.

My son’s disability, like Dory’s, is an actual obstacle. It does no good to sentimentalize it.

Something has stilled Jackson’s tongue and confused his brain. We don’t know whether it’s his autism or some form of epilepsy or something else. We’re testing it all right now. But the diagnosis never was the point. My son’s value was never rooted in his abilities in the first place. He is not “special” because of his autism or because of some viral-video-ready talent that has popped up in lieu of communication skills. No, he is special because he’s our son.

Years ago, my wife started a blog which she called “Finding Jackson.” It remains an apt title. Our son’s autism was regressive. He was in full bloom before he went into his fog. And even though he’s broken through that fog in many ways, we are still in the process of finding him. We see the helpless expression on his face every day and miss his conversation. He wants to say more. We can see it on his face. He wants to tell us what troubles him. What delights him. He wants to let us in on his jokes, his irritations, his affections. But his mind just won’t allow his body cooperate.

So what does a special needs parent do? We heap love on him right here. Right where he’s at. And then, we do what Dory’s parents taught her: We “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” We keep trying to find him, because I promise you, he’s trying to find us.




63 replies
  1. Noble Johnson
    Noble Johnson says:

    Very enlightening. I am richer for having heard your perspective and I will be even richer when I can fit that perspective more fully into the way I see things. I’ve always admired and respected the parents of special needs children, at least those who deal with the situation constructively, but you’ve painted a better picture of it than I have seen or understood in the past. We all have special children, and that’s enough to be grateful for. But as parents, what is most dear to us is that our kids know with the fullest confidence that we do hold them dear and special. I am confident that all your children have that confidence in you. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Mandi Walker Stephens
    Mandi Walker Stephens says:

    I love the way this movie brought light to the struggles and the passion that parents of children with special needs have with their children. My daughter, Adrian has Autism and hers was regressive as well. She has found her speech again and does very well but it hasn’t been easy for her or us. I put a similar post on my Facebook page about just how much a movie about a forgetful fish touched my heart in such a special way and I have gotten a great response from people who now see that movie from a new point of view. I will be praying for your family and praying that you find Jackson.

  3. Philippa Lowe
    Philippa Lowe says:

    Jason, what a beautiful blog, thank you. My son has a close friend whom he hems in. Tries to be a safe person for. It’s a big ask for his 11 years and he has quietly, simply, stepped up and stepped in. He amazes me with the daily grace he offers his friend, whilst too often forgetting to offer the same grace back to himself when he, like you, gets frustrated and loses his cool and wonders, “Why doesn’t he just remember not to do that?!” when he sees his mate hurt emotionally again by a cycle he forgets brings hurt.
    This blog will also be an encouragement to his friend’s mum – will pass it on.
    P.S: I love how you refer to wrestling with God. As a relatively new Christian myself (oh ho, so not expecting THAT at 40 something years of age ;-)) I refer to my early getting to know God stage as a cage-fight.

    • jason
      jason says:

      A cage fight… Nice! To be sure, you will still wrestle with Him from time to time, but hopefully that it won’t be as violent as it was before 🙂

      Thank you for the comment, Pilippa. Your son is doing a fine thing not only for his friend, but for his friend’s family. Believe me, as a parent, it brings immense joy to see other children reach out to our special needs kids. You’re doing something right. Blessings!

  4. Robyn R. Dadig
    Robyn R. Dadig says:

    I worked for 2 years with a wonderful challenging variety of special needs children and adults at an Easter Seal camp in another state . I began to forget that some were non-verbal, because they communicated in so many other ways – sounds, gestures, expressions, body language. I met parents that blew me away with their patience and caring. I cannot imagine the heart pain you had as you watched this bright beautiful child withdraw into himself, Thank you for sharing your challenges. May the fog continue to break and lift. On a hopeful note, Parade magazine ran an article entitled Movie Magic on Feb 28th. It covers a visual effects studio called Exceptional Minds, that’s also a non-profit vocational training program (3 years) for young adults with autism – primarily those with visual and pattern thinking.

  5. Audry Padoa
    Audry Padoa says:

    What a nice comparison… we went to see Finding Dory last night and my highly functional, autistic son, aged 6, wanted to leave straight away after the movie ended and I wanted to watch the last bit. He put up a real fight and shouted at me… practically begging me to leave now…! He is newly diagnosed and I still struggle to make sense of everything. Who knows what went through his mind watching this, but so totally agree with you… hoping that the love and patience we instill within them, will have a way of staying with them. He is very normal with so many things. .. and when you least expect it, something comes up and flare up so many emotions…. at least I now know where it comes from….. sending love and hugs. Xxx

    • jason
      jason says:

      “At least I now know where it comes from.” I totally get that. It’s hard knowing, but it’s even harder NOT knowing. I have friends with high functioning ASD kids, and I know the struggle is, as they say, real. But in the end, no matter where our kids fall in the spectrum, if we pour love into them, I believe they’ll feel it. They’ll know it.

  6. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Thank you for sharing. I loved the article. I also have a son that it seems we are trying to “find” . It seems like we are constantly learning new things about him. He has struggled in school so much he had to repeat kindergarten. He has epilepsy and deletion of DNA on his 13th chromosome. We are suspecting some other things that he will be tested on next month. I will be praying for you and your family. God Bless you.

  7. Jeffrey Jarvis
    Jeffrey Jarvis says:

    You are quite a wordsmith, Jason. Thanks for sharing your love for Jackson in such a wonderful way. I appreciate you and your family!

  8. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Hit the nail on the head in our house too…
    Our son with a Autism and intellectual disability, has also experienced a similar journey. Hopefully it helps the community understand, just a little compassion and kindness to those with differing skill sets just need a friend and acceptance. 💖

  9. Brian L
    Brian L says:

    I got full custody of my son in September 2013. He had extreme behavior problems in school and is in a behavioral school. My area does not want to deal with it, so I am thinking of home schooling. I feel like he is punished for things he can’t control sometimes. I was resistant to getting him tested. He was diagnosed on the spectrum last year. The schools and some psychologists and even close friends start veering away. I am fed up personally. I had him put on disability because of the laws. If he hurts someone we both can be charged with battery. He is harmless, unless you get in his world and something is changed. I quit my job two years ago, because the stress was unbearable. I fear every time he goes to school all day until he gets home. I allow him to play with kids more now and don’t always supervise. I became this drill sergeant, constantly keeping structure. I had to spank him a lot for awhile when I first got him. That is rare now. I felt like a child abuser. I cried every time because I did not know if he could control it. I explained every time he got spanked and why? After about three months there was finally break throughs and he was behaving. There are so many challenges and I am burnt out. I got to a point where I couldn’t keep the rigid structure all the time and he would regress. I had to learn the hard way there are some things he will never get and understand. I just know when to stop on something and when to keep pushing. That is what all of us have to do and is the hardest thing to do, because we want our children to be more successful and happier in life than ourselves. I do not think of the future, just the present. We can’t worry about things we cannot control, so if you want to be constantly depressed then worry about their future. There are no magic pills or potions. There is no known cause or cure. It was first recognized as a condition in the fifties and even with all this science and research. We as parents are still at square one, because every child on the spectrum is an individual, with similar traits, but way different abilities cognitively and physically. Just like everybody else. A case worker I had for Christian was right! Home schooling is the best option because the schools hands are tied. They will not get the social benefits, but will achieve greater academic benefits. That is my opinion, if one has that option. I have a Masters in Secondary Education and the schools can hardly educate children who are not special needs. He is behind and I feel like it is my fault. I feel like he deserves better. I even feel like giving up at times, like maybe there is a wealthy knowledgeable family that can fix this and I just cannot. I know in my heart no one will ever love him like me and I know I am best for him, but still have those doubts. The repetition is tedious and pain staking, but does pay off. I will pray all the parents who read this will listen and accept the reality there will be things they cannot do, your heart will tell you, but focus on what they can do. It makes everything a little easier. Amen.

    • jason
      jason says:

      Thanks for reading, Brian. I’m sure it’s so much more difficult trying to do this task alone. Hang in there, and keep loving your son.

  10. Kirsten R. Becker
    Kirsten R. Becker says:

    I lost my 8 year old son with autism to an elopement/wandering incident in 2006. It is still an open case, because we have never found him. Autism Anchoring Dogs is what came out of that tragedy. We train and place giant breed Anchoring Service Dogs with families struggling with a child that wanders or elopes. These dogs secure and save the lives of children that impacted by a sensory overload flight or fight response, by bracing and stopping children up to 175lbs who run off, away from safety. These Anchoring Service Dogs end the isolation and insecurity of the parents and family members who are in lock down in their own homes to afraid for their son or daughter’s ability to keep safe out in their communities. It is what we can do to help provide a means of gentle governing until our children can do this for themselves. It is my commitment to each and every parent of a wanderer, runner, or occasional eloping child — we will help keep your child safe. K

    • jason
      jason says:

      I’m so sorry, Kirsten. Thank you for turning this into a positive. Thank you for looking out for our children. That’s a beautiful thing you’ve done.

  11. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Just went today to see Finding Dory with my son Mason who is 4 years old. He is high functioning and I was sick to my stomach before we got to the theater thinking… Is the movie going to be to loud , would he sit and watching it in the dark. He was wonderful…. Sat through the whole movie.
    I found myself identifying with Dory’s parents but then when Dory kept saying Sorry that hit home. My son says it all the time when he does something wrong …. Which is great but he uses it when he can see frustration or body language on me. Now we say is it a little problem or big problem and go from there.

    • jason
      jason says:

      Yeah, that constant apologizing thing hit me, too. Jackson doesn’t apologize, but you can tell he feels bad sometimes when he knows he’s upset someone. It’s hard to see, because you know he can’t help it. Thanks for reading, Tracy.

  12. Katie
    Katie says:

    Thank you for this perspective. I have yet to see it but know dory well from Nemo. My son is special needs and everything you have written rings so true. I’m so proud of Pixar for presenting such a character. I can’t wait to take him to see it

  13. Abigail
    Abigail says:

    I watched Finding Dory and the first thing I said after the movie was over was “I am so happy that this movie was centered and based around a fish with a special need. It’s a way for them to feel included and for other kids to realize how to treat a “Dory”.. the exact same way.” I have no connection to this community but I know the love for your son is strong and immense and present and I am so glad the movie made those feelings accurate. I’m not really sure what I should say but I did want to acknowledge this blog and let you know that you and your family are strong and I pray that GOD leads you to the paths and directions that you should go. Thank you for this insight. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  14. Tana Rowland
    Tana Rowland says:

    I’m bawling right now. My Jaxon was diagnosed with regressive autism at 2. Was speaking in sentences and potty trained. He got his two year old vaccines and within a week stopped speaking completely, looking at me or anyone, he lost all his expressions. He lost everything. We’ve been in a class for a year now together that focuses on children with Autism. They diagnosed him in 30 minutes and couldn’t tell me how or why this happened, they still can’t. It’s so hard and something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Having to explain to everyone why your child stopped talking and spins in circles waving his arms around or why he’s almost four and doesn’t talk yet or why he screams on the top of his lungs out of nowhere in the store (always related to sensory). People mean really well but they can’t help but judge. They’re only human. I feel so alone so stories like yours really lift my spirits! This is a very hard journey but a much much more rewarding one. My Jaxons kisses and hugs mean so much more and his progress is like a piece of heaven. I’m never going to stop finding Jaxon! Thank u!

    • jason
      jason says:

      Hang in there, Tana. It’s a hard journey, yes, but there will be plenty of sweet times as well. “Just keep swimming,” and you will find new inroads to communicating with your boy. Blessings to you and Jaxon.

  15. Cristy
    Cristy says:

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. My husband and I, who are also parents of a child with autism, related to the movie also, and you put it into words so elequently. God Bless you all!!

    • jason
      jason says:

      Thank you, Lorraine, but he’s not LOST lost. We see so much of his personality, even without the verbal part. He’s a beautiful boy, and we love the interactions we do have with him, even while we hope and pray for more down the road.

  16. Sherry Rentschler
    Sherry Rentschler says:

    Dear Mr. Hague,

    I am touched beyond words. This is one of the most sensitive and beautifully written articles on regressive autism that I’ve read in years. What’s more you don’t run away from it, excuse it, demean it with platitudes and clichés. I am beyond breathless at the sheer honesty.

    The cohesive way you tie it to Dory is also incredible. Your talent is showing, Mr. H. And I am captured by the strength of your words which I am sure is what lies just beneath the surface of your son. I am confident that he will find his way and that your signposts will be his line of seashells.

    I feel a bit in left field because I have no children, and don’t work with autistic kids. But I always contribute to the cause and I have friends who have mild autism. I stop and wonder sometimes what would happen if they suddenly went silent? And the sadness that swallows me over just a friend is so palpable. But I’m sure I don’t know what a parent feels and yet after reading this article, I am also sure I do have a bit more clue than before.

    Bless you and thank you. Keep the faith, Mr. Hague and thank you for helping us to keep it too.
    Sherry Rentschler

    • jason
      jason says:

      Thank you so much, Sherry, for the kind words. I’ve found platitudes and cliche’s to be counterproductive in the long run. Honesty works better for all of us. There are plenty of good times to go along with the hard times, so I like to tell both stories.

  17. Hema
    Hema says:

    Hi Jason!
    Thank you so much for sharing this.
    I have not yet watched the movie but your thoughts brought tears.
    I have a 17year old son who has Autism & he is non-verbal as well. He uses sign language to communicate.
    He too regressed at 18 months.
    We too have the team – a team consisting of my husband,(dad), a wonderful sister for Abhi & family & friends & church.
    Thanks again for sharing. Your blog touched me very close to home.
    Praying for your sweet boy Jackson & your amazing family.
    I also work with children on the Autism spectrum & it is a God given ministry for me. The kids teach me so much than I teach them.
    God bless you!
    Hema Hopper

  18. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN. My son is 26 now and I couldn’t agree with you more. I understand completely. Thank you for writing what you did.

  19. Amy Goldstein
    Amy Goldstein says:

    WOW, your writing is beautiful and better yet so is your family. This is so well stated. I often talk about my school being a “family” our own community of sorts. I am a principal of a public school that serves primarily students on the Autism Spectrum (ages 3-9 years). This truly touched me in oh so many ways. I knew I always loved the students in my program and yes, this movie as well…seeing it through your eyes is truly profound. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your family’s journey with us. All the best!

  20. Maryglenn Huffman
    Maryglenn Huffman says:

    Thank you for putting what you took from the movie into words that many struggle to express. Your son is lucky to have such an interested and interactive father. My grandson, who on the spectrum, and his sister don’t have an interested father and lost their “Pops”, who was involved almost 4 years ago, but their mother, their aunt, and I as well as their daycare providers and teachers do all that we can to stay involved. Keegan, my grandboy , is verbal but sometimes falls back into what we call “Keegan language” but we gently remind him that we aren’t good at that language but we are good at English and he talks so that we can understand. This is a true blessing. Another blessing is his autism. Yes, it is a blessing because it forces me, and all of our family, to think differently! We can;t stay in that proverbial “box, but must step out into the unknown to continue to be the best “village” possible for Keegan and his wonderful and sister who is not on the spectrum.

  21. Emily
    Emily says:

    Thank you for your wonderful insights. My husband & I read it & we have several of the same feelings about our daughter. (We also have several family pictures where our other daughter & our son flank Maddie to get her to stay in a picture!) She too is a regressive autistic. We watched our daughter, who was talking & alert, just disappear! She comes back to us a bit every day with therapy & we encourage her progress with love! Don’t give up hope because I truly believe they are in there & can be reached! She sat through Finding Dory & loved it! It is not often that we can go to a movie as a family! I just didn’t think about this view until I read this.

    • jason
      jason says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Emily. You’re right. They’re in there… And isn’t the sibling flanking phenomenon fun to watch? I love it.

  22. Bethany Moreno
    Bethany Moreno says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You have made me look at things in a totally different perspective. I have a wonderful step daughter that is autistic. I know God blessed me with her for many many reasons. And reading your thoughts regarding finding Dory gives me that extra strength to keep finding those extra ways to figure out our Emma! She is verbal and a joy to be around. However she is our mystery girl. We would love to know what really goes through her mind. She is 11 still in a little girls mind. You can’t help but love and adore her! She is very lucky though to have a mommy that has her in lots of socials programs and therapies to help get her where she needs to be!

  23. Nellie Moore
    Nellie Moore says:

    Thank you for your very touching review of this movie. I am an autistic women, diagnosed at age 53 in December of 2013. My daughter and I recently brought our granddaughter and great grandson to see this movie and not more than a few minutes in I recognized myself and was deeply touched. I’ll be purchasing this movie as soon as it is available on DVD.

  24. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    When the scene panned out, and you could see all of the lines of shells leading to their house, I lost it.

  25. Terri Schuldt
    Terri Schuldt says:

    Jason this was beautifully written. Please consider Facilitated Communication. My daughter and 30 other kids in Jacksonville, Florida are expressing their inner thoughts and feelings and going to church together. If you want to know more I’d be happy to connect you.

  26. Miranda
    Miranda says:

    Wow! This was so incredibly written that I was tearing up while reading it. As I watched this without my ASD son, I felt the same throughout the movie. He’s only 2 1/2 but is nonverbal but very intelligent. I feel the stares when going to a new place and someone says hi or what is that your playing with and just stares at him waiting for a response. We also get a bunch of stares when he starts yelling out an “ah” sound because that is the only sound we get out of him. No matter what is asked of him he will make that sound. I don’t let other people’s opinion affect me but it makes me dread the future as he gets older and some people will not understand his language barrier. Your son’s story leads me to hope for one day hearing his voice say “hi momma or I love you or even the dreaded no.” Even if that day doesn’t come, I’ll think of this article to remind me of how special our children are and hope that more people can understand so they don’t keep pushing them away. Always remember “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle!”

    • jason
      jason says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Miranda. I do think God gives us things that are too big for us to handle by ourselves. When parenting our special kids, we need His wisdom, and we need the support of a loving community. It’s when we try to go it alone that we get swallowed up. I hope and pray you will hear your son’s voice one day.

  27. Jennifer Yanez
    Jennifer Yanez says:

    Thank you for posting this, it brought tears to my eyes, also having an autistic son. I wanted to know if you looked into a couple of things that has been helping my friend’s daughter be more verbal. One is Magnesium L Threonate, also called Magtein, I get mine from Vitacost and use their brand. Dr. Perlmutter has written an excellent write up on how this type of magnesium powers the brain. Another product is called Liver Life by Bioray, and you can look into the results from their study online, one shows that there have been excellent results in speech and language communication. I’m sure there are more quality supplements out there. For my son, we found that natural antibiotics such as quality oregano oil and grapefruit seed extract worked wonders in helping him come out of a lot of his shell. We’re still working on social skills. Message me if you want any more info, and all the best to you and your family.

  28. Orietta Fombellida
    Orietta Fombellida says:

    Thank you for sharing this heartwarming story. I too am a parent of a child with Autism. My son is verbal, but like yours, he also needs to be found. He is a wanderer with alot of creativity and a huge heart, verbal but at the same time has trouble coping and expressing himself emotionally. You have a beautiful family and your son is very blessed to have all of you loving and supporting him.

  29. jason
    jason says:

    We love you, too, Kathy. And yes, there are lots of those bewildering places. I don’t know how people manage without a community like we have. We are blessed.

  30. Martin Greaves
    Martin Greaves says:

    Brilliantly written, with a Dad as insightful as yourself your son and the rest of your family will find a way. Best Wishes


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