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My kids and I loved Finding Nemo, so when I found out that there was going to be a Sensory Friendly viewing of Finding Dory, my husband and I jumped at the opportunity to go see it with our two boys, one of whom has autism. The movie was definitely meant for kids, but what impressed us the most about the movie was the message it very subtly wove throughout the plot. You see, we knew from the outset that Dory was a very special fish with a memory problem, but we never knew any more than that in Finding Nemo. And I’ll just go ahead and tell you now, so you know, HUGE SPOILER ALERT. I cannot even try to capture what happened in the movie without spoiling the ending, so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading right here.
In Finding Dory, we find out that Dory had parents, and she lost them, but she gradually regains her memory of them throughout the movie as tiny hints get picked up by Dory. Why does this happen? Because although Dory has problems with her memory, her parents never gave up on her. Each time she forgot the next words to a song, the rules to a game, or how to get back home, her parents were very patient, very kind, and very persistent with setting up routines to help her remember. Dory would apologize for forgetting, and her parents would tell her it was okay, and they’d show her all over again. In essence, that is where the song “just keep swimming” came from.
As Dory goes through each obstacle to find her parents, the strategies her parents taught her to become quite evident. At one point in the movie, Dory mentions a memory strategy to help her find her way through the pipes by saying, “I’ll just keep repeating it to myself. That’ll help me remember.” And yet, even though she still gets lost, her kindness had enabled her to make friends with the unlikeliest of sea animals, including a pair of whales. In fact, the thing that makes these animals special is not just that they would normally eat fish like Dory and didn’t, but that they each had their own quirks that made them different from the other animals in their species. In fact, this theme of Dory finding other very special creatures began in the original movie, Finding Nemo.
Going back to the beginning, who does Dory meet first after losing her parents? She meets Marlin, who has a son named Nemo with a small fin. Although Nemo’s fin is small, he is still able to swim and contribute to helping others. Remember when he saves a net full of fish by getting them to swim downward? And then she meets Hank, an octopus with only seven legs. Even with a missing leg, Hank is clever and resourceful helps Dory find her way around the rehabilitation center. And then there’s Destiny, the near-sighted whale, and Bailey, who has a head injury affecting his ability to use echolocation. And Marlin and Nemo meet Becky, a loon who doesn’t speak and looks unkempt, but knows how to get them from one place to another. In fact, Marlin learns a valuable lesson when he doesn’t trust Becky to take them to the right place–although she looked out of sorts, she was actually very good at understanding directions and how to get them to the right place. His lack of trust in her abilities left him stranded with Nemo as they watched Becky fly off to their intended destination. The message here is that looks can be deceiving. A missing leg, lack of communication, or whatever the disability might be does not mean that a person (or animal) cannot do great things.
Going back to Dory and her parents–Dory’s parents never gave up on her and never failed to include her in everyday activities. Yes, they provided her with little tricks and tips to help her get through it, but they showed so much pride in her learning how to do just what she was able to do and they kept pushing for more. Dory remembers her mother liked the purple shells the most, and her parents always lined up the shells to lead to the doorway of their home. Those shells eventually lead Dory back to her parents, who have made several shell pathways leading to their home. When they meet again, years later, they recognize Dory without her saying anything to them and they are proud of her for finding her way. Yes, it took her years to find them, but they always knew she would.
What’s the lesson here? Well, it’s the kind of faith in children with disabilities that Dory’s parents exhibited that we need while teaching. With the right strategies, enough repetition, and sincere fortitude, our children will learn anything we teach them, even if they have a disability. It doesn’t matter if it’s a physical disability, a developmental disability, an intellectual disability, or a behavioral disability. When we put the right strategies in our toolbox, so to speak, and we employ them kindly and with patience, our children will work for us. They make take some time to come around to trusting us (like Hank did in the movie), but eventually, they’ll warm up and take our lead. Just like Dory, students will find their way as long as we believe in them and show them the way. The biggest lesson we have to learn from Finding Dory is what “just keep swimming” really means. And when it comes to disabilities, we just need to remember that a disability just means they are differently-abled, and if we just keep trying, we can unlock the true potential in every child.