Autistics must communicate and this film shows how. Or does it? Academy Award winner Gerardine Wurzburg (“Educating Peter”) will take you by surprise with this upbeat and educational film about autistics who are breaking through.
The film follows Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette as they tour the world meeting with other autistics and communicating through the emerging technique of “facilitated communication” (FC).
The message of the film, and that of Tracy, Larry, Chandima, Naoki and Antti is that autism’s most hurtful aspect is its isolation. If sufferers can communicate they can live. If they cannot communicate, or are not allowed to communicate, they cannot live.
Although the main theme is the international tour of Tracy and Larry to visit fellow autistics in Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland the underlying message is the difference FC has made in their lives.
All five of the autism sufferers are accompanied by a therapist/counselor and allowed to type message into a computer keyboard as a means of communication. The resulting letters, which can take a long time to write, are then read by their accompanying therapist.
One of the most pronounced behaviors of autistics is their distaste for touching others or for being touched themselves. Since FC is shown almost from the start of the film the first thing we see is the therapist gently touching the arm of the autistic in a sort of ephemeral encouragement as the autistic types the keys on the keyboard.
In other segments, when the autistics meet each other, it is all they can do to bear touching each other. In spite of the joyous nature of the event, a victory over isolation and misunderstanding, they still can hardly bear to even touch hands, let alone shake hands.
Therefore, the touching of the counselor stands out, as well as the subsequent typing (the typing could take forever but is condensed by the blessed power of video time warp). The upshot is that autistics can communicate with each other and the world, ushering us into a new age of enlightenment for this segment of the severely mentally impaired.
Or is it?
The fact is, there is opinion that FC does not work, but that the patient’s typing is the product of subtle guidance from the counselor.
According to Richard Mills, a long time autism researcher, FC was first introduced in Australia in the 1970s and gained popularity in the 1990s. Using FC, patients appeared to have remarkably enhanced “speaking” abilities through the keyboard as the hand, arm or wrist was gently touched and supported. Scientific study shows autistics communicate better visually than verbally and therefore supports this.
However, the ability of the sufferers to pick out the right keys may be the result of subtle, even unintended, direction from the facilitators. They may not be aware they are helping the autistic but simply want the sufferer to succeed so strongly that they unconsciously guide the person’s hand.
Similarly, responses to unconscious cues were seen in the early 1900s in the “Clever Hans” case. Clever Hans was a horse that appeared to add and “talk” in response to its owner. Careful examination of the movements of the owner eventually disclosed that the owner was guiding Hans, even though the owner, himself, was sometimes unaware he was giving those signals.
The movie features original music by composer J. Ralph (“The Cove,” “Man on Wire”) with a soundtrack featuring original songs produced in collaboration with Bonnie Bramlett, Judy Collins, Scarlett Johannson, Carly Simon, Stephen Stills, Bob Weir and dozen others. The soundtrack is great and is available on the “Wretches and Jabberers” album.
This could be a controversial film. It is an unabashed advertisement for FC, showing only the upside and none of the downside. There is no comment on possible futures for autistics who are forced to watch someone else communicate for them.
It is a feel good film that offers hope where there was little or none before but it would be a better documentary if it presented a bit of the opposing argument.
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Directed by: Gerardine Wurzburg
Release Date: April 15, 2011
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 94 minutes