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‘Finding Dory’ puts spotlight on children with special needs

Pixar’s recent film “Finding Dory” will have resonance for parents who have children with special needs. The animated film is the sequel to the 2003 blockbuster “Finding Nemo.” It tells the tale of a blue tang fish named Dory who suffers from short-term memory loss. She cannot remember names, faces or even her way back home.

“Finding Dory” is about how the title character overcomes challenges. The filmmakers use flashbacks to show that Dory’s memory lapses are something she was born with and learns to manage. In the first film, her short-term memory loss was presented as a quirk. However, in the sequel audiences realize that Dory actually has special needs.

Her protective parents begin trying to figure out how their daughter can function in the larger world. For example, they create rhymes to help her remember important safety rules of swimming in the ocean and build seashell trails to guide her home. They also worry whether Dory will be fine on her own.

The systems that Dory’s parents put in place mirror the support that parents try to provide their special needs children. They may establish special needs trusts, seek specialized education or arrange for caregiver services to make their child’s life as comfortable as possible. Just as the support provided by Dory’s parents is specific to her, special needs children often require customized care.

Mitch Prinstein, clinical psychology director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, told USA Today that he noticed parallels between the film’s depiction and the ways in which caregivers interact with kids who have developmental disabilities. He said the high-profile exposure Pixar has given to disabilities in the film opens up a discussion about the way mental disorders are viewed.

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