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.
By Beth Broderick
Janet Grillo and I are both believers in the sisterhood. There are actually a great number of women in Hollywood who have each other’s backs, but you would be hard pressed to see evidence of this in the media. We are bombarded with images of women behaving badly toward one another … the “Housewives” hurling daggers … “Mean Girls” going for the jugular … Chelsea Handler attacking … everyone. Some of us … in fact I would venture to say that most of us are hard working professionals who know how tough it is out there, especially for women of a certain age. When one of us goes out on a limb with a project to which she is dedicated, we pony up if we can, we talk it up as we should … and by God we show up when we are asked. That is the principle anyway. We also have families, jobs, or lack thereof and a host of other struggles that can make it hard for even a true believer to live up to this standard.
When Janet first approached me about playing Jeanne in “Fly Away” I knew I could not think about it for very long. Taking the lead role in a low low budget film is huge commitment of one’s time energy and resources. There is a ton of give and very little take in the true Indie world. This is not the glossy world of a movie like “The Kids are All right” with major movie stars and a small but comfortable budget. Think separate trailers, decent wardrobe allowance, assistants to run errands and fetch the stars to set asking “Do you need anything”? Can I bring you anything…anything at all? No this is the gritty Indie world of “Can we use your clothes”?” Can you change in a tent”? Do you mind going pee in a Porta-Potty? I took a deep breath and said ‘yes of course I will do it”, because the story needed to be told, because I trusted Janet to tell it, because it is what a sister says. I got myself to the set.
Janet and her ‘dream team” of Pavlina and Sandra and the other bright talented women who took up the lead positions behind the camera and my beautiful movie daughter Ashley and I in front constituted a real sisterhood. We were all moved by the story of a single mom struggling to raise a daughter who is on the Autism spectrum. There were no divas, no raised voices the only drama involved ended up on the screen. We gave every inch of ourselves in trying to be true to it. If you have seen it I hope you can sense our bond. If you have not seen it I hope you will, because this one is straight from our hearts.
There was another woman behind the scenes with us who is a part of the larger sisterhood and also my blood. Laura Broderick was our Autism consultant and she was a great asset to the film. She is also my greatest supporter, my biggest defender and my best friend.
Laura is the executive director of two programs offering supported living services to persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She has worked with this population for nearly twenty five years. She has over a hundred employees and the clients she serves have some of the most challenging behaviors imaginable. Nearly eighty percent of the clients receiving support services from “Diverse Journeys” and “Get a Life” have been liberated from institutions. Many were locked away for most of their lives. Laura and her partners are undaunted by even the most extreme cases. When the state approached her about Larry ((not his real name) a man in his mid –thirties – long hospitalized – who had poked his own eyes out in a fit of rage, Laura did not bat hers. “No problem,” she replied. “We will get him a baseball hat and get on with his life”.
Laura and I share a bond that goes beyond sisterhood. Though she is six years my junior ours more closely resembles the relationship that many twins share. We finish each other’s sentences, read each other’s thoughts and are keenly aware of each other’s mood. What is remarkable about this is that we are not at all alike. While we share many physical attributes our appearance has been shaped by the divergent paths that our lives have taken. I have the toned and honed physique of a professional actress. Years of facials and manicures and Pilates have sculpted me into the display version of our genetic code. Laura is tall and strong … the practical version … the girl you call when you need to move a refrigerator or plant a tree. She has been carefree in the sun as her skin bears witness and her wolf-blue eyes are lined with care. This does not dim her beauty, but defines it.
Laura began this work right out of college. Her very first job was the overnight shift in a group home run by the Jay Nolan Center. This was a long time ago when we knew very little about Autism and often grouped people on the spectrum with roommates who had schizophrenia and other mental disorders. This led to a very chaotic environment with most of the emphasis on containment. We shared an apartment then and I was not at all happy to see her come through the door via the emergency room sporting a large human bite mark on her forearm. She had furniture hurled at her, took punches to every part of her body and at one point a young client standing atop a high counter grabbed her by the hair and jumped to the floor bashing her skull against the tiles. . Her hands and arms still bear the scars of scratches and bites that she sustained during this period. I was not sold on the whole idea. Laura was unfazed. She never saw the behaviors of her clients; she always saw and loved the person inside. She pursued her career with a vengeance seeking better ways to communicate with and build a life for people on the Spectrum.
While Laura was honing her expertise in this field, I was honing mine in the world of film and television. We both worked hard, logging long hours and enduring endless frustrations. I battled with the Hollywood hierarchy and she confronted the status quo of an entrenched bureaucracy. She helped me learn countless lines and visited me on set after set, easing the loneliness of life on location. I listened with intent to her concerns about Melissa’s medication or Jimmy’s penchant for running away or whether state funding would dry up. Twenty five years have gone by and we have both come a long way from 800 Park Street and our childhood home. We have lived separate lives but have never really been apart. I have fed her cats, she has walked my dogs. We have shared the heart ache of loves gone wrong, the passion of our politics and the stresses of our oft fractured family. Oh and innumerable bottles of good wine. We call ourselves the pigeon sisters, a nod to the fact that we prefer each other’s company sometimes to the point of fault. We would be worried about, but we are too busy making plans for our next Scrabble tournament.
Our lives have intersected at nearly every turn and that is why it was so gratifying for us to work together on “Fly Away”. It was the first and most likely only time our professional paths have crossed. Laura helped us to make the film ever more authentic and we in turn produced a portrait of what so many families with children on the Spectrum endure. This is the cause of Laura’s life and in that way the story of it too.
The movie was very well reviewed. We received the kind of notices that are a film makers dream. I was deeply grateful for the appreciation from audiences and critics that our little movie managed to reach. It is lovely to have our hard work rewarded, but in my sister’s world there is no applause, no camera to record the long days and nights her dedication requires.
Fly Away is a very personal story for Janet, but also for me. It is an opportunity for me to offer a window into a world that Laura lives in unobserved. A world I was reluctant to enter. A world I would not have chosen for her and yet this world that has offered me a life time of lessons. I now understand the joy of celebrating the small moments of endearment and achievement in her client’s lives. I have learned through Laura’s eyes to see difficult behaviors as simply pieces of the puzzle, simple facts of a life like having red hair or being good at bowling. I look forward to reports about these lives as I do those of my own friends, because her clients are a part of my world now too. When two of her mostly non-verbal clients ask to be chaperoned on a date and walk the mall giggling hand in hand it is a testament. Every small advance for one of these people is the answer to a parent’s reverent prayer. When a young man formerly locked away begins his own recycling business it is a victory for us all. These stories are a powerful reminder that while I might make the movies, it is Laura and her colleagues who quietly and without fanfare make the real magic happen.
Thank you Laura and … Bravo!
John Ratzenberger, a long-time friend of Autism Speaks, who famously played Cliff Clavin on the NBC hit sitcom Cheers, is supporting the autism community in a big way! John has been featured in all 12 Pixar movies and lends his voice to the character of Mack in Disney•Pixar’s upcoming summer feature, CARS 2.
Hi everyone – John Ratzenberger here. My friends Bob & Suzanne Wright, co-founders of Autism Speaks, asked me to do a quick blog post to let everyone know about a special event I’m hosting with them for the autism community in a couple of weeks time.
I’m excited to announce that we’re going to host an Autism Speaks screening of Pixar’s highly anticipated summer blockbuster, “Cars 2″ in 3D, here in New York City on June 11. That’s a full two weeks before the movie is out in theaters!
The screening will be ‘autism friendly’; meaning that the sound will be a little lower and the lights will be up a little higher. There’ll also be a ‘quiet room’ for you to go to during the film if needed. Most importantly, the theater will be full of people who understand autism: it’ll be a judgment-free zone. The idea is to bring people together to see the movie in a way that celebrates individuals with autism and their families. It’s an Autism Speaks exclusive event, meaning the general public won’t be allowed in: it’s just us.
Tickets are only $20, but that admits one adult and two children, and also gets you a soda and popcorn! We need to charge this fee to pay for the theater, but we hope you agree that it’s a great deal!
What: Special advance screening of Disney•Pixar’s “Cars 2” in 3D!
Where: New York City’s famous Ziegfeld Theater, 141 West 54th Street
(Btwn 6th & 7th Ave)
When: June11, 2011, 8.30 a.m. Doors, 9:30 a.m. Doors Close,
Program and Screening: 9:45 a.m.
How much: $20 for one adult and two children (small popcorn and drink included!)
Note: Due to the advanced nature of the screening, recording devices will not be permitted into the theater. Unfortunately, this includes iPads. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.
Click here to purchase tickets.
It promises to be a fantastic morning! Hope to see you there!
A powerful film directed by Emmy Award® winner Janet Grillo, FLY AWAY narrates the story of Jeanne and her autistic teenage daughter, Mandy. Jeanne has cared for Mandy since the day she was born, growing closer every day to a child who is charmingly offbeat one moment and nearly impossible to manage the next. In the dog park, Jeanne encounters Tom, an easygoing and accepting neighbor who sparks a romantic interest, but she finds juggling Mandy’s care and her own career leaves little room for a new man. As the pressures of work and her child’s needs increase, she must decide whether or not to enroll Mandy in a therapeutic residential facility. Over the course of a few weeks, Jeanne is confronted with the most difficult decision a parent can make: to let go, allowing her child to grow, but also grow apart; or to hold on tight and fall together.
In this clip, ‘Mandy’s World,’ actress Ashley Rickards describes how she found her way inside of the nervous system of a person with autism. And inhabited the role of MANDY, the teenage daughter who is severely impacted.
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.
Over the past few years, the prevalence rates of autism have become staggering, with 1 in 110 children being diagnosed with autism. There have been several movies and documentaries which have placed autism at the forefront. These movies have spread awareness and helped to inform the masses. Here is a list of some movies that have a common theme of autism. Thanks to The Internet Movie Database, we have synopses of each for you. Follow the links to learn more about these films and documentaries. Which of these movies have you watched? What did you think?
A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism (2009)
The Sunshine Boy is a moving, compassionate portrayal of a mother’s desperate quest to understand the perplexing condition that controls her son. A journey through different countries, where every stop-over opens a new path into the depths of autism – and places her son in a strikingly different perspective as it reaches the end. Read more.
Soon after moving in, Beth, a brainy, beautiful writer damaged from a past relationship encounters Adam, the handsome, but odd, fellow in the downstairs apartment whose awkwardness is perplexing. Beth and Adam’s ultimate connection leads to a tricky relationship that exemplifies something universal: truly reaching another person means bravely stretching into uncomfortable territory and the resulting shake-up can be liberating. Read more.
Autism: The Musical (2007)
Director Tricia’s Regan’s riveting documentary follows five different families, participating in The Miracle Project (a theatre program created specifically for children with special needs) as their kids write and perform their own musical production. The film is as much about the parents of autistic kids as it is about the kids themselves. How does one communicate with a child who won’t speak? What do you do when your kid only sleeps two hours per night? How do you cope with a world that has little use or compassion for kids that are so different? These are only a few of the questions that the parents must deal with, questions illustrated by a series of almost painfully honest and blunt encounters. Perhaps the most surprising of the kids profiled is Neal, the son of Elaine Hall, who founded the Miracle Project. Profoundly autistic, he hardly speaks, and is prone to violent tantrums, but when he is finally fitted with a keyboard voice box, a sweet, intelligent personality is revealed. A complete triumph! Read more.
The Black Balloon (2008)
Thomas is turning 16. His dad’s in the army and they’ve just moved to a town in New South Wales; his mom is pregnant; his older brother, Charlie, who’s autistic, has his own adolescent sexual issues. Thomas finds Charlie an embarrassment in public, so when Thomas is attracted to Jackie, a girl in his swim class, Charlie presents any number of obstacles when she drops by their house, when the three of them go for a walk, and during a family birthday dinner. Can Thomas find a way enter the world of teen romance and still be his brother’s keeper, or is Charlie’s disability going to prove more than Thomas can handle? Read more.
God’s Ears (2007)
Alexia, working in the sex industry, her perspective on men soured by her job, can’t seem to find her way out. When she encounters Noah in a restaurant, he can barely look at her, not because she’s beautiful, and she is, but because it’s simply just too painful to gaze upon a face, any face. His autism, though seen as a handicap by others, is the condition that causes him to “see” Alexia not as a sex object, but as she wishes to see herself–as good and worthy to be loved just as she is. He captures her attention and her heart. It would seem an unlikely meeting, but Worth creatively draws the parallels of human loneliness and longing that bring these two people together in an unforgettably touching story of the heart. Read more.
Mozart and the Whale (2005)
A dramatic-comedy, inspired by the lives of two people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, whose emotional dysfunctions threaten to sabotage their budding romance. Donald is a good-natured but hapless taxi driver with a love of birds and a superhuman knack for numbers. Like many people with AS, he likes patterns and routines. But when the beautiful but complicated Isabel joins the autism support group he leads, his life – and his heart – are turned upside down. Read more.
Temple Grandin (2010)
Biopic of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who overcame the limitations imposed on her by her condition to become an expert in the field of animal husbandry. She developed an interest in cattle early in life while spending time at her Aunt and Uncle’s ranch. She did not speak until age four and had difficulty right through high school, mostly in dealing with people. Her mother was very supportive as were some of her teachers. She is noted for creating her ‘hug box’, widely recognized today as a way of relieving stress and her humane design for the treatment of cattle in processing plants, even winning an award from PETA. Today, she is a professor at Colorado State University. Read more.
Walking in the Dark : Finding the Light in Autism (2010)
In the documentary, “Walking In The Dark: Finding The Light In Autism” hope is restored. The primary purpose of this documentary is to serve as an educational tool to help parents seek those unanswered questions, find ways to network and to get involved. And, through meeting the families, find hope. You will come into their lives, their homes, and see how they live day to day. See how they cope, how they search for the best therapies and medical attention they can find for their children. And, most of all, through the eyes of their children, see the hope. Read more.
Congratulations to everyone who was involved in the creation and production of HBO’s “Temple Grandin,” which received 15 Emmy nominations.
The nominations for the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards were revealed this morning, and HBO’s biopic Temple Grandin cleaned up with 15 nominations, including one for Claire Danes’s portrayal of Grandin, two supporting-actress nods for Julia Ormond as Temple’s mother and Catherine O’Hara as Temple’s aunt, supporting-actor recognition for David Strathairn as a sympathetic teacher, and nominations for writing, directing, and best made-for-TV movie.
What an honor it is for Temple to have her remarkable life story honored in this fashion; we are confident that our friends in the autism community will join us in echoing that sentiment. The movie is currently airing on HBO and HBO On-Demand – check it out and share your thoughts.
More from the Autism Speaks Blog about the film
Tune In – “Temple Grandin” on HBO (You can view the movie trailer here.)