Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Autism: The Musical

by Drew Martin

A couple of nights ago I watched Autism: The Musical (2007) directed by Tricia Regan. The documentary follows Elaine Hall, her adopted autistic son and a true cast of characters through the rehearsing and staging of a musical with autistic tweens. They are tweens because they are between being kids and young adults and are also somewhere between being brilliant and challenged.

All the people in the movie are impressive, especially Hall who tirelessly navigates her son's world and, if that was not enough to exhaust most single parents, takes on a dozen more autistic kids and interacts with their loving but worried parents to put on a show.

The kids are unique. Henry Stills, the son of Kristen Stills, one of the movie's producers, and Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills & Nash) and is an Asperger keen on paleontology. One of the most touching scenes is when his super-articulate friend Wyatt tells him that he is very smart. Henry sincerely responds that he had always wanted someone to say that to him. Such moments make the film special because they catch you off guard. You see the kids doing things that simply are not normal. They run around wildly or have a tantrum or contort themselves and you assume these actions are the manifestations of what is happening inside them but then they pause for a moment say something incredibly lucid that makes you to realize there is a very calm and intelligent person inside.

At a therapist, Neal (Hall's son) seems uncomfortable and fidgets. He is nonverbal so they are trying out a texting machine he can use to express himself with written words. His first stunning sentence is that he wishes his mother would be a better listener.

Wyatt speaks like a person twice his age, asking himself why he and others go into their own worlds. He yearns to be around people and to interact with them but explains that sometimes he is alone and therefore retreats to a closed-off place. He also has an issue with bullies and clearly sees his dilemma of being placed in a school program with others like him. He complains his class is "100% retarded."

The parents' concerns are also expressed. The father of the only girl the documentary focuses on, Lexi, says the one thing he has nightmares about is what will happen to her when he and his wife are gone, suggesting she is the perfect potential victim for sexual abuse because she does not have the capacity to report such a violation.

He and the father of a musically inclined boy named Adam independently discuss the friction there is with their respective wives. Lexi's father walks out on her mother during the film, Adam's father had an affair prior to the filming. From the outside, the transgressions would appear to be escapism due to the inability to accept their lot but they are both very clear what happens: the mother becomes so obsessed and consumed with her child's autism that there is nothing left for anyone else. If the apple does not fall far from the tree, the parents have to face and overcome their own quirks and limitations to do the best they can. Stephen Stills is the first to admit that he was very much like Henry when he was a boy.

One of the most interesting comments by the parents is from Lexi's father. He keeps trying to solve the impossible riddle of parenting a disadvantaged child and how to plan for her future. He thinks it over and over but the solution is never right. His wife, by contrast, in an earlier part of the film blurts out that she could take her own life.

The film shows troubled moments and starts with the alarming fact that in 1980, autism was a relatively rare disorder, diagnosed in one in 10,000 children in the United States. Now it is one in 150.

What you discover by the end of film, however, is that there is so much joy in the lives you witness and that you could love each of these kids as much as the parents if they were in your own home.

Pictured below: Adam, Neal and Elaine Hall, Lexi, Henry & Wyatt.