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Copyright 2019 Steven Eastwood and Janet Harbord


Charity Status

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Wellcome Trust

Queen Mary, University of London

Autism Research Group

Supported by


Autism through Cinema is built around the disciplines of film archaeology and film practice, engaging with autism as a tool to look through rather than to look at.



Background image:

Le Moindre Geste, Fernand Deligny (1971)

Film provides an unrivalled resource for tracking how depictions of the mind and body have changed over time.  Filmmakers working in clinics, schools and studios have created recordings of human activity informed by psychological concepts, diagnoses and identities like autism.  Our project explores how these representations and identities have mixed and interacted over time. 


Entertainment film has a longstanding fascination with bodily gesture and the meanings or motivations behind it. So too does the lesser-known area of medical film. Cinema has provided a medium through which psychological drives and motivations can be dramatically inferred in fiction film and medically interrogated in a clinical setting. Rarely have medical and entertainment film been thought about together.

How did twentieth century cinema and medical film establish orthodoxies of the body, its movements and meaning?

Cinema and psychology have linked origins.  In the early twentieth century, both filmmakers and psychological scientists developed new techniques to capture, track, and record the activity of the human mind and body. The concept of autism was first created in this period to help understand pre-conscious and atypical thought, and filmmakers worked actively to reveal these states through cinema. 


By the middle of the twentieth century, the distinct diagnosis of autism began to slowly emerge, and filmmakers increasingly worked with people diagnosed or self-identifying as autistic, creating a huge volume of visual material exploring the limits of ‘typical’ body language and expression. 

What kind of cinema

is possible if it is derived from neurodiverse

rather than neurotypical experience?

A century of medical and entertainment film has delivered a cinema centred on the human figure, inferring meaning from facial expression or body movement, and the interpretation of symptoms and symbols.


In contrast, the project uses film practice to re-think the social contract of film telling by moving away from symbolic or inferred meaning and towards the experience of embodiment, the joining together of things into networks, and an apprehension of sensations and patterns.


Working with individuals, user groups and activist groups within the autistic community, Autism Through Cinema proposes a different film grammar, one that can contribute both to art and film discourse/aesthetics, and the public understanding of autism.

The project findings are supported by an arts-led programme of public engagement to develop debate and engagement with the research.

Film as an unexplored archive of understanding​

Towards a new language of cinema

Austism in the frame

Image: Wander Lines, Fernand Deligny (1969-1979)


The project is in three phases: intensive review and discussion of existing film materials and literatures, the development of ideas and films through collaboration, and the dissemination and debate of new film forms.


How did a definition of autism evolve from early twentieth-century medical film and how does this compare to entertainment film?

Professor Janet Harbord and Research Fellow Dr Bonnie Evans will conduct film archaeology, working with a number of UK and international film archives to situate autism within a developing narrative of bodies and their intelligibility.


This research will involve gathering and identifying archive films that feature medical interest in gesture, communicability and body language. Selection will largely focus on the use of film in psychiatric contexts although some medical films of other types of treatment will be reviewed and may be relevant. These archive medical films will then be cross-referenced with selected entertainment films to draw out concepts of the communicative body.

A sequence of carefully structured workshops will expand the findings of the archival research. It will involve the insight of autistic participants with differing communication abilities, and ask: how can cinema be reconfigured through neurodiverse experience? 


Working with partner Project Artworks and collaborators Kate Adams, Sebastian Gaigg, and Damian Milton, workshop participants will dismantle orthodoxies of the body as offered by cinema and society. These sessions will consider discourses of impairment, disability, discomfort and difference, as well as autism as a condition with benefits.

What insights can persons who identify as autistic bring to representations of autism in archival and contemporary film?

How can collaborative filmmaking deepen our understanding of diverse cognitive states and expose the limitations of normative perception?

Taking up the findings of both the archive and workshop activity, Steven Eastwood will work with producer Elhum Shakerifar and the production company Hakawati to conduct participatory film practice research leading to the production of a feature film and VR artwork.

Collaborative filmmaking will be used as a tool to integrate the views and sensibilities of a vulnerable population and elucidate the potential of autism to expand our understanding of bodily communication. Autism will be explored as a condition with benefits, as well as a means to develop an alternative film language that is inclusive and derivative of the neurodiverse population. 

Autism Through Cinema will present the project’s research and collaborative process through a diverse range of creative media and discursive contexts: film, writing, VR, exhibition and events.

Film archaeology

Practical workshops

Film practice


Meet the project's collaborators from across the fields of autism and advocacy, art, speech and gesture, history, education and activism.

Read about ongoing activity surrounding the project and how you could contribute to the project.