“Finding Dory”: 7 Takeaways About ADHD, Working Memory and Parenting

Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to Finding Nemo, opens in theaters nationwide on June 17. The main character is Dory, a fish with short-term memory loss.

The movie has a lot for parents to chew on. Here are my seven biggest takeaways for families with learning and thinking differences in general and for ADHD and working memory issues in particular.

1. Many kids will relate to Dory’s memory issues.

Short-term memory loss is a rare condition. It’s also much more extreme than ADHD and executive functioning issues. Yet Dory’s struggles will still feel very familiar to kids with attention issues.

She’s easily distracted. She’s impulsive. She has trouble with multi-step directions. “My thoughts,” Dory murmurs at one point, “they leave my head.”

That line is likely to resonate with a lot of kids. One key difference between them and Dory: Many kids with working memory or attention issues have very good memory otherwise.

2. Dory’s mom is the kind of parent I aspire to be.

In the flashbacks in Finding Dory, Jenny is endlessly patient. She helps Dory practice strategies like rhyming, singing songs and role-playing. Jenny is realistic but positive.

“Not everything in life is easy,” she says to Dory. It’s a tough conversation that ends with her child feeling confident. Dory says: “There’s always another way.”

My only quibble with Jenny is in a scene that hints she’s trying to hide her fears about Dory’s future from Dory. Dory overhears her mom talking about this. In my experience kids always pick up on these concerns—no matter how hard parents try to hide them. That’s why I recommend talking openly and working through these concerns with your child, rather than pretending you don’t have concerns.

3. Nemo’s dad is the kind of parent I too often am.

Marlin is Nemo’s dad. He gets frustrated and snaps at people. He does this with Nemo and with Dory, who he considers part of his family. He’s overprotective and underestimates Dory’s ability to do things on her own.

In a heated moment, Marlin says something hurtful to Dory. And for a kid with memory issues, she remembers the mean thing he said all too well.

But Marlin isn’t portrayed as the villain in Finding Dory. He’s more like a mirror. Some parents (like me) may see too much of themselves in him. The good news is he comes around in the end.

4. The movie emphasizes Dory’s strengths as well as her difficulties.

Dory talks a lot about her strengths and weaknesses—and sometimes in the same breath! After Hank the octopus says he lost one of his tentacles, Dory quickly does the math and says he should be called a septapus. She adds: “I may not be good at remembering things, but I can count!” And she obviously has an excellent vocabulary and grasp of concepts to create a word like septapus.

Dory recognizes she has many strengths, not just simple math and vocabulary. Two of her biggest strengths are perseverance and problem solving. Some of the characters even find themselves repeating: “What would Dory do?”

5. The movie tries too hard to embrace Dory’s impulsivity.

Praising Dory’s out-of-the box (out-of-the-tank?) thinking is one thing. But fully embracing her often risky, impulsive actions to the point of encouraging others to model them is another. Toward the end of the movie Dory says to Hank: “The best things in life happen by chance.” I’m not so sure about that.

What felt truer to me is a comment Dory’s dad makes early in the film. As he races after his impulsive child, he begs: “Can’t we take a moment to come up with a plan?” It’s one of the many times in Finding Dory I could picture millions of parents nodding their heads. Yes, we’ve felt that way too.

6. What about Becky and Gerald?

Finding Dory is incredibly sympathetic to Dory. It feels like a punch to the gut when characters react negatively to her. And the range of reactions by minor characters will give parents lots to discuss with their kids. There are other characters whose strengths and weaknesses come through loud and clear, too. Destiny, the nearsighted whale shark, is a great example.

But there are a couple characters whose differences seem mostly just for laughs. The movie doesn’t spend much time with Becky the bird or Gerald the sea lion. But their scenes can also lead to teachable moments: Why did Marlin doubt Becky’s abilities? Why did Nemo have confidence in Becky? How can the other sea lions be better friends to Gerald?

7. Dory has great social skills.

Despite her memory issues, Dory makes friends easily. And she’s always concerned for others even if she can’t remember why. Hank, Destiny, Nemo and Marlin have all been won over by Dory. They’re rooting for her. So was I. And you will be too.

Early on in Finding Dory her parents worry about her ability to make friends. (I’m picturing millions of parents nodding their heads at that too.) But social skills, like everything else, can be taught and practiced. I loved the scene where Dory’s parents help her practice telling other kids she has memory issues.

There’s so much to love about this movie. And it reminded me in some ways of Understood’s mission to help the 1 in 5 kids with learning and thinking differences. With the right strategies, kids can thrive in school and in life—or, in Dory’s case, out in the ocean.

For more on the film, check out Finding Dory: The Connection to Learning and Thinking Differences, a video conversation I had with my colleagues on Facebook Live.

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About the author

About the author

Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.