What we can learn about Autism from Edward Scissorhands

Published on 26 June 2020 at 21:41

Stories about autistic people are often written by those who are part of our community, those who are not and many who are endlessly perplexed with our behaviour.

What is Autism

We must first define the concept of Autism before we see how it relates to our story. The Oxford Dictionary defines Autism as “a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterised by great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.” (AsIam website 2020).

I think it’s very important for autistic people to tell their stories. A man once asked me if being autistic meant I had a lower IQ, which is one of many misconceptions about Autism. This occurred after he berated me while trying to have a conversation. Autism isn’t an intellectual disability so I think it’s important to open up conversation about Autism.

Learning about Autism

There are lots of ways people can learn more about Autism. One is by talking to Autistic people, another is by visiting AsIAm which has lots of information and resources. A way I find interesting is to look at Tim Burton’s 1991 classic Edward Scissorhands. Here we learn the story of a reclusive man born very different from everyone else (apart from the Scissorhands). Looking at this film is an enjoyable way to learn about Autism.

  1. Movement and speech

Edward moves in a very robotic way, never moving his arms and hardly ever smiling. He’s psychically clumsy. He speaks in a monotone and there is very little inflection in his voice. These are things a lot of autistic people can relate to. I didn’t speak until I was 4, I pointed when I wanted something. I did speech therapy and eventually spoke. It’s important to note that not all autistic people will speak and it isn’t the only form of legitimate communication. I used to be a lot more psychically clumsy, falling over my own feet and that is something that has improved with time.

  1. Context Blindness

In one scene, Edward is blind to his behaviour in some social contexts, with a psychologist stating “The years spent in isolation have not equipped him with the tools necessary to judge right from wrong. He’s had no context, he’s been completely without guidance.”

The difficulty for autistic people in situations is that we have had no previous experience or guidance dealing with them. This can present itself in hundreds of thousands of ways, in daily occurrences and interactions that can take place, making it especially difficult to know how to act. When I started college I initially had a hard time making friends because I was context blind to the experience - where do I begin, who do I ask to hang out with? What is appropriate to say given a situation? I was fortunate that I found my way after trial and error.


  1. Naivety

In the movie when Kim asks Edward why he broke into Jim’s house he said, “because you asked me to.” Edward is in love with Kim but very few people would put themselves in danger like that without any thought of the consequences. This example shows autistic people’s naivety in certain situations. In my teenage years I went into certain situations with a level of naivety that caused me humiliation. I would say something and not know how strange it was to other people.


  1. Lack of understanding relating to people

People always look at Edward when they’re speaking expecting a specific reaction based on their previous experience. Edward is quite non-expressive and doesn’t understand how to relate to people well. In his first interaction with the family he barely speaks and only replies in singular words. At the barbeque, Edward is quiet, which is contrasted when Jack comes in and is very confident in his dealing with the other neighbours. Jack makes a joke and everyone around him laughs at the joke, whereas Edward doesn’t understand it at all and has a blank face. This is a very relatable experience for many autistic people because we often don’t get the subtleties involved in a lot of jokes.


  1. Literal understanding of things

At the barbeque we see a misunderstood interaction, which is a more frequent experience for those on the spectrum.

“Okay everybody, grab your plates. Soup’s on!

Ed: I thought this was a shish kebab?


Ed: I thought this was a shish kebab?

Yeah, it is a shish kebab. It was a figure of speech, Ed. You gotta learn not to take things so literally”


  1. Special Interests

Throughout the movie we see examples of Edwards' love of Topiary, the art of cutting hedges. Topiary feeds into his skills as a hairdresser and paper cutting. The first thing we see him create is a dinosaur, which is curious, as it is a common special interest among Autistic people. This makes Edward the most skilled gardener and hairdresser in the neighbourhood. An intense love and passion for something is what many autistic people can relate to, something they could talk about for hours on end. Despite this passion and immense talent, Edward cannot get a bank loan necessary to start a salon, echoing the real life struggles autistic people face in acquiring gainful employment. I struggled to gain employment after I finished college in 2016. I have had difficulties with interviews, due to the amount of vague questions and the body language involved.

  1. Meltdowns

After Kim asks Edward to help a break-in attempt at Jimmy’s house, resulting in Edward’s arrest, we see him become very visibly upset at the sight of Jimmy. He walks through the neighbourhood, destroying his topiary masterpieces. A meltdown for an autistic person is a state of extreme emotional distress that causes them to react in unexpected ways. They’re often experienced as a surge of emotion that can manifest in the form of lashing out.

  1. Honesty is the best policy

We see Edward exhibit the quality of brutal honesty. This is an all too common quality among autistic people. At a family breakfast after telling of his visit to Mrs Monroe’s anticipated salon he exclaims “and then she showed me the back room where she took all of her clothes off.” The family look perplexed as to what they just heard. This kind of unflinching honesty and the response is something I and many on the spectrum are very familiar with experiencing.

In the beginning of the movie Edward is alone in a corner but in the end, we see him return to his home. Unable to deal with the complexities of living around other people, he retreats back to the familiar, as many autistic people have done. The noticeable difference is that he goes outside in his garden more, so while he was unable to deal with the outside world, being in it changed him. When I watched this movie, I related to many of the experiences of this character as an autistic person, and those experiences and characteristics are something that can be learned from.


Add comment


Mark Dunne
3 years ago

Really interesting analysis. I must watch ESH again. Very intuitive. Thanks for sharing.

Brian Dooley
3 years ago

Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate it 😄

3 years ago

It is very interesting that the movie "Edward Scissorhands" presents an autistic character without being about autism - which I think is fantastic. This is a very good article, imo, because it presents the autistic arena clearly and opens more questions. Thank you for sharing!

OTOH, this article was linked to me from another site and I don't think it has the connotation they thought.

Brian Dooley
3 years ago

My point on the other site and here is that: if you're going to make an movie that's explicitly about autism or the life of a well known Autistic person. You should have an autistic actor play the part. Tim Burton didn't know he was Autistic when he made this, he based it on his experiences. It's a non-canon depiction of an autistic person because Edward Scissorhands is based on Tim Burton himself. My point was that genuinely good depictions can only come from real experience and that was the case here. The movie was only good because it was made by an autistic person. I'd be happy to answer your questions.

Kate snow
3 years ago

I was literally just watching this film thinking how it is like a motif for autism

3 years ago

I have a son on the spectrum, and this article sums it up quite nicely. The honesty still gets me, even after 20 years. He has lied, don't get me wrong, but he has a really hard time not telling the truth eventually. And being literal is a definite quality of his. I have to explain often if I'm joking or it is a figure of speech. With time he has learned to pick up on things. He really struggles with keeping a job and he struggled in school. Such important parts of life and so difficult for him.
Thank you for sharing your insight. While this is just a movie, it really opens up the opportunity for conversation and allows others to learn more about ASD and open their hearts and minds.