An Inside Look from ‘Fly Away’ Actress Ashley Rickards
“When you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
This was what Janet Grillo told me at one of our initial meetings. Growing up with horses and other animals, my family and I had a pet therapy program in which we worked with kids and teens with autism, the physically handicapped and the elderly. But it was from that experience, that I knew just how wide the spectrum of autism runs. Whether it be high functioning or more severe, as is the case with my character Mandy, it is all very challenging for each individual afflicted with autism to interpret this world. Discovering Mandy’s world, for me, was a journey. One with many physical changes I chose to ensue upon myself so that the truth and honesty of this film could help the public understand and improve the world for those diagnosed with autism. I feel as though my work on this film is not finished, that it is now also my job to ensure this film assists in making a change in how the world helps our kids and loved ones afflicted with autism thrive.
I found that for Mandy, the world was a very strange place to live in. For her most everything was overwhelming to her senses. It’s difficult to conceptualize how heightened the world around Mandy was. It would be as if you, a neuro-typical, had your eyes dilated while looking into the sun, your body waxed, and a hearing aid in your ear turned up too loud. Now, not every minute of every day was like this for Mandy. It depended upon the repetition of the morning and the ease of transitions throughout the day. As stress would build up inside of her due to unforeseen events, be it a visitor stopping by or a different time of day to eat breakfast, her senses would heighten to almost painful levels. At that point things as miniscule as the texture of a fabric could induce an uncontrollable tantrum. Though it is not as if she wouldn’t try to remain calm. Pressure plays a big role in easing anxiety, at least for Mandy. There was a sort of physical manifestation of anxiety that would embody an itch in her joints, or a tingling under her nail bed. The symptoms such as hand flapping, toe walking, and overall stiffness were an attempt to create a calming pressure on the afflicted areas so the anxiety, or itchiness would subside. Trying to communicate this discomfort to avoid even the start of this seemed nearly impossible for Mandy. It was as if she spoke a language that nobody else spoke, or even recognized as a language. Attempt after attempt would be made to alert those around her or ask for what she needs but no matter how clearly she felt she was explaining it; she would not be understood fluently.
For me, when I was putting Mandy together as a person, I knew there where going to be drastic differences in our physical appearances. Her sensory issues alone would inhibit her from ever shaving. Let alone the fact that there was no time for her mother to help her with such a task, the sensation of a razor, the sharp edges, the blindingly silver color and the sound it makes when it brushes your skin, would have been utterly overwhelming and painful for her to endure. Due to this I chose to not shave any hair on my body and let my eyebrows grow out as Mandy would. Then, if you look at Mandy’s diet you would see that all the foods she is able to tolerate are not healthy. They were high in fat, sugar and carbohydrates. Thus I felt as though Mandy would not be as physically fit as any actress in Los Angeles. So I put on a little over 20 lbs for the role. During this process I ate what Mandy would eat— Mac n cheese, ice cream, cereal and juice. All of which are consistent foods, and left Mandy with grounded feeling. Something she was very grateful for and on most days, was her only chance at relative peace.
The bond between Mandy and her mother is beyond close. Jeanne loved her daughter as Mandy. She saw what others might not have and that love, faith and sacrifice enabled Mandy to not give up, to try every day to be a bit better than the last. At the first school Mandy was at she was being grouped with other children with widely varying degrees of autism, disabilities and physical handicaps. She was not able to receive the personalized attention that she needed. The approach of the first school was more of a Behavioral Modification (which works on the ‘outside’ to modify the ‘inside’ of autism) versus Relational Intervention (which finds the inside of the child and from the inside out modifies the ‘outside’). Mandy needed an individual approach and a happy medium between the two styles of intervention. Warrington hall offered a personalized plan to help each individual child succeed in their own way. Unfortunately there is not enough awareness of what these schools really are or that they even exist. For the most part, they are not institutions and they can be incredibly beneficial. With 1 in 100 children in this country afflicted with autism, there simply are not enough of these schools in this country, not enough government aid and not enough understanding as a whole.
I was incredibly blessed to be a part of this movie. The whole team, Janet, Beth, Pav, and Sandra were beyond amazing and it is they who made this movie the fantastic piece of cinema it is. That being said, I am just one actress in LA who became Mandy for a few hours a day during our shoot. At the end of each day, I could leave Mandy behind and go home, as Ashley. I can’t imagine the day in and day out battle that someone who is actually autistic faces. But it is my hope that this film opens up a conversation, a change. That as a community we find ways to provide more tools and more aid to those families who are affected by autism.
Here is the theatrical trailor
FLY AWAY’s narration of teenager with autism is relatable for many families. The Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit was created to serve as a guide to assist families on the journey from adolescence to adulthood. For more information, visit here.
“FLY AWAY is now available nationally on DVD for sale/rental/streaming, or on VOD.” For info contact http://www.flyawaymovie.com, 10% of proceeds benefit Autism Speaks.
New Video DVD: http://www.newvideo.com/flatiron-film-company/fly-away/
TimeWarner Video on Demand:http://goo.gl/aykS2