Did you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?” asks Riley in the opening line of the movie, Inside Out. Well, this new Pixar movie gives audiences a visually stunning peek. The story revolves around a young girl named Riley, who is uprooted from her comfortable Minnesota home when she moves to the busy and chaotic San Francisco. Her emotions—Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and most important, Joy—disagree on how to handle this dramatic change. Their disagreements start to stir up trouble in Headquarters, the central living and working place for the five emotions, and the audience is invited to watch as Riley and her emotions navigate and interact with a rapidly changing world. Although animated, Inside Out is a good depiction of how our minds react in social situations and create, process, and alter memories. This is in large part due to director Pete Docter’s work with neurologists and psychologists who wanted to understand how the brain influences personalities. Altogether, these features provide Inside Out with natural potential for teaching social thinking in individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
Using movie time to teach social thinking is not necessarily a new concept. In her book, Movie Time Social Learning, Anna Vagin, PhD, discusses how young children with social learning differences frequently watch television and movies without noticing much about the interactions on the screen. In this scenario, watching movies is essentially “downtime.” However, when we combine this recreational activity with carefully selected children’s movies (which will start, stop, and rewind as desired), we can teach children with social challenges to dissect social relationships, thoughts, and feelings in a therapy or classroom setting, or at home. Using this program, children gain the opportunity to view and replay onscreen interactions to practice thinking and talking about how people relate to each other or why they are thinking a certain way.
Throughout Inside Out, students could be guided through a progressive series of tasks, from the simpler job of figuring out and recognizing the basic five emotions of anger, sadness, disgust, fear, and joy and how the characters are thinking, feeling, and planning; to a more complex exploration of how relationships develop and change over time, and how the student’s own emotions connect to the film. For emerging social thinkers, the characters themselves are great visual representations of the five basic emotions. The movie is full of visual literal interpretations, including “train of thought,” “brain freeze,” and “things that get stuck in your head.” Intermediate mind readers may discuss one of the movie’s core lessons: it is okay and possible to experience two emotions at once. With support, they may also reflect upon what crying does for us and how it can make you feel better versus continuing to feel sad. Advanced social thinkers may enjoy taking a look into the heads of Riley’s parents, where they’ll have an opportunity to experience the difference between the male and female perspective involving a situation with Riley’s behavior. Many subtle scenes can be used as discussion points for advanced social thinkers, including short versus long term memory, the creation of memories, abstract thought, perspective taking, recall and use memories, how facts and opinions look similar, and many, many more.
As Inside Out’s credits begin to roll, it leaves viewers with an extra dash of perspective-taking by visiting the minds (and emotions) of characters who interacted with Riley throughout the film. Here, Pixar does a delightful job of summing up a human universal and a central theme of the film: for every feeling there is a thought, for every thought there is an action, and for every action there is a social reaction.