This guest post is by Autism Speaks staffer Kerry Magro. Kerry, an adult who has autism, is a graduate student at Seton Hall University, and is actively involved with our college program. Autism Speaks U is an initiative designed to support college students in their awareness, advocacy and fundraising efforts.
One night was all it took. My usual routine in college was to wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, and prepare myself for any fun, if not unexpected events that may come my way that day. Tonight was the exception that changed everything. I received an email from Autism Speaks that a famous movie Director Todd Graff (Bandslam) wanted me to help him with his screenplay for an upcoming motion picture called Joyful Noise! I thought to myself, “This may be one of the greatest moments of my life!”
So as a senior in college I had the chance to tie disability advocacy and love of theatre together by helping analyze a character with Asperger’ s syndrome for Mr. Graff ‘s movie, Joyful Noise. The following week I was reading over a screenplay and giving my thoughts and analysis of the character. A few weeks later I was having lunch with Mr. Graff to discuss the character in more detail and I was invited back to help with the casting of the character Walter Hill, a young man with Asperger syndrome. Then, last Monday, almost a year and a half later after the movie was filmed and largely marketed I got to see the Premiere of the movie at Gruman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood!
How did I get this lucky? How was this happening to me? This opportunity has touched my heart in a way that I can’t even explain. Without giving away any spoilers for Joyful Noise, which is now out in wide release everywhere co-stars Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. Then there is the character I helped with Walter Hill (played by Dexter Darden). While reading the screenplay and then watching the film I couldn’t help but feel I saw a piece of myself in his character. I saw his struggle, could relate to his situation and could feel his pain. I then transcended into the whole theme of the movie which is about a Gospel Choir and this is when I fell in love. The music, the relate ability, I felt like I belonged. Like a part of me forever had changed because of the overall kindness of one man to give an adult with autism a joyful opportunity of a lifetime.
As a die-hard movie buff today I know that many people in the movie business would sometimes turn away from taking the time to present these opportunities but this wasn’t one of those times. I became a kid again; the kid that saw the kindness that could come from people. It made me learn that maybe if I wasn’t seeing the kindness in others than I had to just continue on my path to be that man, like Mr. Graff, who is looking at ways for a change for the better by presenting joyful opportunities for people like me.
The two biggest loves in my life have always been musical theater and basketball. When I was 6, my first love came to me. It started when I was going to Camp Tikvah; a special needs summer camp for learning disabled children at the JCC in Tenafly, N.J. At the end of the summer, the campers were teamed up to sing a song, usually to an audience full of parents. This was my first moment I ever got to sing with a group in front of a large audience. Our counselors would hold our hands while we would sing, encouraging us all to sing as loud and as clear as we could. When it was done I remember the tears that flowed down my eyes, being completely shocked and scared of what was happening.
You see, 2 years before at 4 and a half I was first diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, a form of autism. During this time I dealt with many different sensory difficulties in regards to sound and touch. As you can imagine, because of the cheers and the sounds coming from that audience that day made me feel so uneasy, I didn’t know what to do…
On the way though something spectacular happened… I enjoyed where I was. No matter how frustrating, I remember how much I practiced my lines before and how much fun I had doing it. This is where I got my hook. It was on that stage that day I knew that my love of what I was doing would conquer whatever my struggles may have been. My brain was telling me no but my heart was telling me yes and that was enough for me. Even though communicating this to others was difficult my parents sensed it in me to give me another shot. Next summer I surprised myself by singing my heart out (most of it was yelling but I would take it). Everything started to connect itself it seemed after that. I contribute a great deal of where I am today to my early therapy in regards to speech, social interaction, body communication, and overall confidence to these days.
In college, my drama days ended at a halt based on not being able to find a balance for my school work and theatre. I understood these limitations though. School came first. I had the opportunity to bring some elements back later though when public speaking about my life with autism. A great deal of these two areas went hand in hand for me which led me to becoming involved in disability advocacy from then till this day.
I’m always amazed by random acts of kindness in today’s society. When I was younger I felt like these moments were more consistent and more genuine. As a college graduate who is running through the gauntlet trying to find work, I bask in the opportunity of having these moments. The opportunity Todd Graff offered me now almost a year ago was kindness in one of its truest forms. I had the chance to do something I had only ever dreamed about doing which I never believed could be possible. Thanks Todd for making a dream come true!
As for the movie, it definitely is a crowd pleaser. The set pieces and musical numbers are dynamic. The acting is electric especially in regards to the chemistry between Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton on screen. In regards to the autism community, there are several autism related topics that are brought into focus that will leave very few dry eyes. All aside, by the end of the movie you’re almost guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face (and if you stay through the credits you’ll see a special thank you credit that I received too).
So, in the end, what I got from this movie was to learn that kindness, acceptance, love, and yes, joyful opportunities can make any dark corners shine bright for individuals with autism and without alike. I hope we can share this message with others.