An autistic's reflection on Disney’s Frozen

Jeffery Zare

As I begin writing this, today is a year since Disney’s Frozen was released the day before Thanksgiving. I was slow to learn what the hype was about. After months of noticing children excited about it, I finally decided to learn what this was about when one of my relatives dressed up as Elsa from Frozen for Halloween. Watching it for the first time months after it was released, I was very moved about it because I noticed many ways the movie elucidates my experience of living with autism. This Halloween showed that it is still popular as my relative was one of 4 girls in her class of 30 (presumably with about 15 girls) that dressed up as Elsa. Yet I’m also aware that there are others that are sick of hearing the songs from the movie. So I hope to be writing my thoughts while the movie is still popular. As a spoiler alert, please do not read any further if you have not watched the movie, plan to watch the movie, and do not want spoilers.

What makes Elsa different is not a disability, but her unusual magic ability to create cold. Nevertheless it is clear that the circumstance leads to a social disability. She refers to her country as “a kingdom of isolation” in her famous song. Autism similarly leads to a world of isolation. In severe cases there is a lack of communication due to speech problems. Yet even when there is no speech problem, a similar problem is created simply by the lack of reading others’ nonverbal communication and the autistic person not being able to communicate nonverbally with others. This is a serious problem since more of human communication is nonverbal than verbal.

One issue the movie reminds me of is the reaction some people have to the word disability where people prefer to use the term differently-abled rather than disabled. I reject neither term because they both have meaning. This is clearly a movie about being differently-abled as the only intrinsic difference between Elsa and any other person or any other member of the royal family is her magic ability. On the other hand, since that society like most societies did not develop a way to deal with unusual magic abilities, the presence of this unusual characteristic leads to a severe social disability. Similarly, there are those who deny autism especially in its mild forms (and I have a mild form) is a disability, claiming it is only a personality. Yet the English language like most if not all human languages developed to incorporate nonverbal communications. And thus being weak in this ability makes one weak in social intercourse. Therefore this different ability is a lack of ability and thus a disability.

One thing very personal to me about the movie was the fact that until the day she accidentally reveals her difference to the world, Elsa lives under instructions to hide what makes her different. Keeping this hidden causes her to be severely misunderstood by the people who should know her best. She suffers in sadness that she cannot have a close relationship with her sister, Anna. Yet Anna thinks it is Elsa that is shutting her out. I have facetiously commented before, “Being understood is someone else’s luxury.” Just as the trolls advised that Elsa’s gift should not be known, I have been advised by many not to tell what is different about me. About Anna thinking Elsa is rude by rejecting her, it is common for autistic people to unintentionally come off as rude. That has happened to me many times.

Yet another point the movie makes that’s relevant to autism (and to many other things as well) is that there isn’t a simple answer to the question of whether to reveal or not to reveal. Clearly Elsa suffers from the fact that people don’t know her. It is clear that it is people who mean well who reluctantly put her in her situation. Her parents do it under the advice of the trolls. Yet throughout the movie, you see that the trolls do get many things right. They are quick to figure out when Anna grows up that there is something amiss in her relationship with Prince Hans.

The movie shows that it’s too simplistic to merely see Elsa as a victim and those who isolate her as evil, or to see it the other way around with Elsa an evil witch and everyone who hurts her being mere victims who are doing their best to protect themselves. The trolls are clearly correct that her magic is a great danger. It creates climate change that would have starved most of the country if the climax of the movie did not reverse it. Yet we see Elsa is not treasonous as Hans contends, but is the great patriot who tries many times to keep the rest of the royal family as well as the country in general from any harm caused by her magic. Certainly there are many ways that an autistic person can hurt other people’s feelings. As miscommunication in general can cause problems, certainly autistic people can be the cause of problems. Yet clearly there is a difference between someone with autism unintentionally doing these things and a selfish person who does the same things because they don’t care.

A famous line from the movie that has meaning to me is “Conceal, don’t feel”. In addition to the isolation caused by hiding the condition (whether it is or is not prudent), there is the issue of how emotions are different for someone with autism. It is a misunderstanding that autistic people don’t have emotions. We’re famous for having temper tantrums as children after all! An autistic person may have a different emotional reaction to the same circumstance as someone without autism might. A schedule change is more likely to cause stress. An environment demanding multitasking (such as something as normal as a crowded room) could cause stress. Different sensory issues can cause things that don’t bother other people to be bothersome to the person with autism. I recall as a child being bothered by the sound of someone knocking on wood in another room. Then there’s the issue that someone with autism may display an emotion in a different way than someone without autism. So, as mentioned above that society develops in a way that accommodates the majority, the person with autism is taught even by well meaning people that while it’s healthy for others to express their emotions, when we expression our emotions, it’s wrong. “Don’t feel.” We may be told that expressing our emotions makes people uncomfortable. Once when expressing my troubles to someone, I was told, “Just be at peace.” That’s almost the same as “Don’t feel.”

Another issue the movie shows that shouldn’t be oversimplified is the question of whether someone with a disability should be in a mainstream environment or removed and put in a special environment. Certainly Elsa’s separation from mainstream royal society caused negative emotions. These emotions exacerbated her problem. They exacerbated the danger she was to society. Yet it’s not as simple as saying the answer was to never have made any changes in response to her accidental freezing of Anna’s face. Not making changes would have caused Elsa to face the allegations of being an evil witch at an earlier age. With less maturity, there could have been some other disaster. The famous “Let it Go” song shows that finding the special environment of not interacting with her family or her country enabled the use of Elsa’s talents as well as helped her with the negative emotions she had lived with ever since the trolls advised her parents. Yet we see at the climax of the movie that when circumstances change, it is best for Elsa and the kingdom for Elsa to be mainstreamed. For autism or any other special need, I think one needs to consider pros and cons on the question of whether mainstreaming is best and choose according to the specific circumstances.

Clearly in the movie there is a stigma about magical ability that is itself a problem. Elsa’s manifestation of her ability on her coronation day is met by cries of sorcery. That possible reaction was probably part of the reason Elsa had been advised to conceal her ability for years. Yet we see that making her conceal it lead to her negative emotions that made things more dangerous. Had society not had this prejudice, might Elsa been advised differently and then avoided the disasters we see in the movie? As magic is not real, the movie serves to help us imagine a what if scenario – what if magic were rare and real? Since autism and other special needs are real, the movie shows a parallel situation to what is real. Similarly with autism or any other special need, there is the stigma among many just of a label. The stigma leads people to advise us to conceal – advice that I showed earlier leads to isolation and negative emotions, etc.

There is the whole issue of romantic love that the movie puts twists on. Western society has evolved recently to embrace the idea that romantic love is for everyone. This is problematic when a smaller proportion of people with autism get involved with that. Sometimes this is because they don’t want to. Sometimes this is because it’s not prudent for them to live the commitments romantic love entails such as being available to the beloved and the children that result. Sometimes it’s because they want it but don’t know how. Sometimes it’s because they want it, but most people are uncomfortable dating people with special needs. I found it refreshing that the movie builds you up to see a repeat of Snow White where romantic love is more powerful than bad magic, but instead you see another type of love (in this case the love between sisters) does the job instead. I’ve experienced environments where I stand out and fall through the cracks for not being in a romantic relationship like most other people. Environments like that inevitably are environments where autistic people are second class citizens.

On the other hand, while I am adamant that Western society is in error in expecting the vast majority of people to fall in love, I still think that many autistic people could be falling in love if they had the right support that they don’t have. I was therefore amused that while Anna isn’t saved from her magically frozen heart by Kristoff, it is clear by the end of the movie that they are falling in love even though the trolls warned her that Kristoff is socially impaired. While I identified emotionally more with Elsa because the movie reveals so much of her feelings, in being socially impaired the character of Kristoff seems to me to be most like someone with autism. If he falls in love despite that, that’s something positive.

I also found deep the scene where the grown up Anna follows Kristoff to the trolls. When they arrive, it appears that Kristoff is talking to rocks. Olaf invited Anna to flea because this would be a clear case of mental insanity, and flight would be the response. Yet Anna doesn’t flea because a not completely deleted memory of the trolls tells her there may be something more to the scene. While autism is technically not mental illness, it often appears to be and its presence increases the risk of mental illness. In some cases mental illness is dangerous to others. Yet it is a prejudice to assume this. This causes unnecessary isolation to people with mental illness and those with similar conditions (as autism is a condition similar to mental illness). This isolation would bury some of the talents of such people who are different. Anna’s life was saved by the fact that she looked beyond the obvious. Had she run away, she would never have learned from the trolls how to unfreeze her heart.

Autistic people are more likely to misread social situations, but certainly people without autism make such mistakes too. Reflecting on the mistakes people without autism make could help them understand living with autism where the mistakes are more likely to happen. Thus I was glad the movie shows the big mistake Anna makes in misreading Hans. She thinks she is so similar to Hans. Since the movie is a musical, the movie results in songs that we hear many times after seeing the movie. All you have to do it listen to “Love is an Open Door” carefully to hear that Hans only claims to be similar to Anna after Anna reveals something about herself.

The movie also shows that the pain and isolation that can come from living with special needs affects not just the person but the family and those close to them. The movie says much about Anna suffering similar isolation as Elsa feels.

Another similarity between the movie and autism is the fact that Elsa isn’t just different but also very talented. Not all autistics have unusual talents, but it is common for autistic people to be talented due to focusing on their areas of interest. If Elsa were real and were alive today, the problem of global warming would be solved. Elsa’s not real, but autistic people are, and we have many talents that will bless the world. Many of my co-workers are happy for the computer programs I’ve written to deal with challenges.

I close with further reflection on the climax and resolution. Elsa’s act of love does not destroy her magic talents but enables her to avoid danger. From that point on her different ability ceases to be a disability. Here’s where the analogy doesn’t exactly match autism. A more understanding, loving environment can lessen some of the difficulties of autism. Yet autism is incurable in most if not all cases, and it doesn’t work to think that if the person with autism and the caretakers would just try hard enough or try the right remedy, the problem will go away. Nevertheless the scene does show hope that with a change in attitude towards people who are different, great things will happen.

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