Netflix’ The Mitchells vs. the Machines made a splash. With a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, people love the wacky and heartfelt comedy. When I explored people’s thoughts online, I noticed that some of the biggest fans of the Mitchells were in the autism community.
Which makes total sense to me. If you know how to look for it, you’ll notice that several of the Mitchells show signs of autism. Since I have an autistic person in my family, and I’ve read a bit on the subject, it was easy to spot.
Here’s the trailer:
Autism and the Mitchells
While Aaron seems most obviously autistic, many people thought that Katie (the daughter) and her dad also seem autistic. One interviewer asked the director about this.
I was sort of like Aaron as a child and I’m sort of like Katie as an adult… and I don’t know what I have or what’s going on, but I do think that if people read that, great!Director Michael Rianda discussing whether his characters could be neurodivergent. He also voices Aaron.
Before we talk about why it matters, let’s establish the facts.
Aaron, the younger brother, is almost a textbook autistic character.
Most prominently, he has an intense interest in dinosaurs. In fact, he systematically goes through the phone book to call people to see who wants to talk about dinosaurs with him. He wears dinosaur shirts in the movie and has a dinosaur-themed room.
Also, he often speaks in a monotone. He doesn’t seem to know how to modulate his voice. Some autistic people do this.
Aaron is a fidgety kid. Once, he wiggles his fingers. At one point, he puts his seatbelt in his mouth. Another time, he bites his hand while stressed. In fact, one Reddit user pointed out that he bites his shirt so often that the collar looks stretched out. Most typical kids his age don’t do that.
Aaron takes things literally too. When his dad says “Take some notes, kids,” Aaron takes out a notepad. While Mr. Mitchell flails around in a bad attempt to show off, Aaron asks for clarification.
Aaron tries to tell a minor lie while comforting Katie. Many autistic people are bad at lying. Katie sees right through him and he admits the truth.
From the beginning, Katie says she doesn’t fit in. Her classmates laugh at her. Film is her passion, and she has an intense interest in making short films starring her dog and her brother.
Katie often fidgets with the strings of her hoodie. With an autistic person in my family, that’s something I’m quite used to seeing. The strings also go in her mouth. That’s not something I’m used to seeing. However, some autistic people do that.
(Side note: You may have noticed Katie’s LGBTQ+ pin. That’s no accident. A scene near the end mentions her dating a girl, which is another reason to like the movie.)
Rick (Mr. Mitchell)
“We don’t think like normal people,” Rick Mitchell announces during one scene.
Mr. Mitchell struggles with social skills. A lot. I think he’s alexithymic. (Many, but not all, autistic people are.) For those not in the know, alexithymia refers to trouble understanding and expressing feelings. Rick loves his daughter, but he doesn’t know how to show it. He struggles to connect with Katie.
Also, Mr. Mitchell struggles with social imagination. This means guessing how others would react to his behavior. If you saw the preview, you’ll recall the part when he cancels Katie’s plane ticket to college. He genuinely thinks she’ll be excited to miss orientation week for a road trip.
And then there’s the part when he asks two robots “Shouldn’t you two be, uh… dead?” Nice tact, sir.
Why This Matters
Regardless of autism, the Mitchells respect each other for who they are. (Well, besides the strained relationship between Katie and her dad.) They don’t begrudge each other their quirks. Nor do they try to change each other.
This type of love and acceptance isn’t as common with autistic characters. This is what makes the Mitchells special with regard to autism.
And it’s just what autistic people need.
Aaron loves dinosaurs. When it comes to autistic or autistic-coded characters, many movies treat their intense interests like a bad thing.
During one part of the movie, Katie discusses the pluses and minuses of family relationships:
Sometimes you have to listen to long monologues about triceratops migration. But it’s worth it to get a friend for life.
That’s the closest she ever gets to saying anything negative about him. (She says similar things about her parents too.) Katie loves Aaron the way he is. And while she says this, we see clips of her and Aaron having fun.
Katie uses her brother’s love of dinosaurs to bond with him. Their secret handshake is the “raptor bash.” She knows this makes him happy and she wants to share in his happiness.
Also, she sees that this is how he connects to the world. For example, a major plot point in the story is she’s leaving for college. When Aaron quietly asks what velociraptors do when one leaves the pack, she doesn’t brush him off. She knows he’s trying to understand the world and cope with his big sister leaving. So she reassures him.
Katie isn’t the only one who embraces Aaron’s interests. In fact, it’s Linda who first suggests that they stop by a dinosaur-themed place on the road trip. The whole family is happy to stop and let Aaron have some fun. One autistic person mentioned how nice this was; many autism stories portray families as “being dragged along to [a] cringy place for the sake of the annoying, hyper-obsessed little boy.”
No one treats Aaron like he’s an irritant. They love him the way he is, dinosaurs and all.
Autistic Feelings Allowed
Both in movies and in real life, autistic people’s feelings are often treated as unimportant. How often have you seen stories of parents talking about how bad their autistic kids are? How often have you seen movies about autism making autistic people the butt of a joke?
This isn’t how it goes with Aaron. Yes, it’s a comedy, and we laugh at all the characters sometimes. In Aaron’s case, the joke isn’t on him. A few times, there are funny moments where he acts embarrassed about cute girls who like dinosaurs. However, this isn’t portrayed as weird in an unlikable way. Instead, it’s an over-the-top but relatable running joke about the awkwardness of youth.
Aaron’s feelings matter to his family. When he cries after a scary event, Katie stops to comfort him. She hates seeing him cry and promises to fix it.
While I don’t want to spoil too much, I’ll mention another scene I liked. At one point, Aaron gets separated from his family and begins to cry for his mom. When she sees this, she goes into full-blown mama bear mode.
While sometimes a crying autistic child is portrayed as a nuisance, this doesn’t happen for the Mitchells. Instead, his family hurries to his side. He’s a valued family member, so his feelings are valued too.
Katie and Rick
Aaron is pretty clearly autistic. With Katie and Rick, it isn’t clear. You could definitely interpret it that way. And that interpretation wouldn’t really be wrong.
Katie and Rick don’t get along. I think the movie does a good job of exploring this. It shows both of their points of view. Sometimes, both of them are wrong. While Katie might sometimes see her dad as a villain, the movie takes time to show that he’s trying. He has his issues, but that doesn’t make him an awful dad.
Best of all, the solution isn’t about becoming less “weird.” Instead, they stay weird the whole movie. In fact, a huge part of how they connect is learning to appreciate each other’s weirdness.
If society were better at that, I think life would be easier for many autistic people.
Should You Watch It?
I think most people would enjoy The Mitchells vs. the Machines, with or without ties to autism. I’ve already watched it twice, once on my own, then again with my sister Katie. (She likes sharing a name with her favorite character.) We laughed, chatted, and had a good time. I tried to rope my dad into joining us, but he insisted on doing chores like a boring person.
This is one of my new favorite movies. It’s silly, heartfelt, and nuanced enough to enjoy at any age.
However, you shouldn’t watch it if:
- You are sensitive to flashing lights.
- Scenes with strongly implied vomiting bother you. (Don’t eat questionable diner food, folks.)
- You plan to show it to a small child who can’t handle some scary scenes.
- You hate fun.
I recommend this movie to basically everyone. If you’ve ever felt “weird,” if you’re neurodivergent, or if you know a neurodivergent person, it may be extra special to you. I hope you enjoy the movie as much as I do.
4 thoughts on “The Mitchells vs the Machines and Autism”
I saw the film over the weekend hoping that my 6- and 3-year-old boys would watch with me. They didn’t. Although my 6-year-old has autism, an autism connection wasn’t immediately apparent to me. I just thought “nerds,” not unlike the ones I went to school with and was pals with. Aaron’s reaction to the bad dinosaur park wasn’t unlike one I would’ve had. The autism spectrum is broad and we can read a lot into every movie. It’s not Ben Affleck’s autistic assassin forensic accountant in “The Accountant” or that exceptional autistic surgeon on TV’s “The Good Doctor.” “The Mitchells vs the Machines” is a fun movie for everyone.
I agree that the spectrum is diverse! There are characters with formal diagnoses in various stories who don’t remind me of Red at all. I do hope we’ll see more media with relatable autistic characters in it, especially media where characters say the word “autism.” Even so, it’s nice to see something that celebrates nerds in a fun way.
A saw a lot of my son and me (both autistic) in all the characters (even the mother). We have a similar quirky family and after the movie my son (6y) said that he loved the Mitchells because they are as weird as his own family. I agree with everything you wrote: the autistic community needs to be represented in a refreshing, non-negative way.
That’s great! It’s so important for autistic and other neurodivergent kids to grow up seeing characters like them in books and onscreen. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie and I hope we will get to see many more like it in the future.