Can “Inside Out” Help Children with Autism to Learn About Emotions?

From Shrek to The Incredibles, animated films have kept children (and plenty of adults) entertained over the years. However, the latest Pixar release, Inside Out, is being praised for much more than its entertainment value, as members of the autism community commend the ways in which it could help children with the condition to better understand their feelings.

Both children and adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) can have difficulty recognising emotions in others, and as such often don’t know how to respond appropriately. They can also often struggle with empathy, as they find it hard to imagine how another person is feeling.

Dr Sarah Cassidy, Coventry University’s Atypical Development research theme lead, explains: “Emotion recognition difficulties can make navigating social situations quite problematic for people with ASC. For example, people with ASC tend to become very interested in one or two particular hobbies or topics, and will often want to talk to other people about these. As they struggle to comprehend others’ feelings, they often don’t understand that other people may not be interested in the topic, or be able to recognise when the other person is becoming irritated or bored during a conversation.

“Some, people with ASC can also become quite anxious when socialising with others because they have difficulty predicting what people are thinking or will do next.”

So, how can an animated Pixar film help? Inside Out is all about feelings, with emotions being not only one of the main themes of the film, but also some of the main characters. The plot centres around a young girl, Riley Andersen, and the 5 key emotions that live in her conscious mind (known in the film as Headquarters). The 5 emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear – are personified as characters, and the audience sees how these emotions are affected and behave as Riley goes through a period of upheaval.

The fact that each emotion has clear characteristics – shown via gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and behaviours – could help young people with autism to better understand their own emotions, as well as those of others. They may be able to better discuss their feelings if they are able to imagine them as living beings inside of them.

Inside Out could also help those with ASC understand how several people can all have different emotions about the same thing or situation. In the real world, we can’t see what others are thinking, and so people with ASC can struggle to comprehend that not everybody thinks the same that they do. The film, however, gives us a chance to literally see into other people’s minds.

“There are not many intervention programs that help people with ASC learn about other people’s thoughts and feelings in social situations,” Dr Cassidy continues, “So it’s really interesting that this new movie could be useful in helping children with ASC learn these skills.”

For more information on the research into ASC going on at Coventry University, visit one of the following project pages:




Coventry University