4/19/2011

Autism Awareness Month: Autism in Documentaries

As everyone in the autism community knows all too well, April is Autism Awareness month and a good time to release autism documentaries.






One, Wretches and Jabberers, is getting heavy promotion from the Autism Society and being shown in select AMC theaters across the country. It's a feel-good story with a hidden agenda; it's produced by Douglas Biklen, who promotes the debunked facilitated communication method. One of the stars, Tracy Thresher, is listed as having worked as a "lead trainer" at Biklen's Institute on Communication and Inclusion. In the documentary, the fact that the two gentlemen use facilitated communication is not mentioned, although the help of their facilitators is obvious. 

It's a major release and getting national media attention. It's gotten attention from The New York Times, in which the reviewer notes that the documentary is "maddeningly vague about how the two men made their initial breakthroughs." In another review, Miriam Rinn writes that "Larry and Tracy land in a different place, have their problems adjusting, meet some people with autism who use facilitated communication, and deliver the same message at a conference. Wurzburg never mentions that FC is controversial, that many scientists believe it’s a fraud, or that some have found it useful. She does capture the warmth between the two men, however, which is touching, and their occasional delight." Michelle Healy in USA Today calls the documentary "Part advocacy film, part road trip/buddy movie" and briefly touches on the controversy, quoting two FC critics, James Todd and Howard Shane, before letting Biklen have the last word. Although Healy notes that Drs. Todd and Shane only viewed the trailer, Dr. Todd has extensive experience in the FC world and with many of the key players; he writes in our last piece on FC:



 "I have met and interacted on multiple occasions with several of the people in the movie, including the main characters. These experiences include having lunch sitting next to Larry Bissonnette, as well as many hours of FC "training" featuring Tracy Thresher, Harvey Lavoy (Thresher's facilitator), Larry Bissonnette, Pascal Cheng (Bissonnette's facilitator), Chammi Rajapatirana, and mother (also his facilitator).
My observations are consistent with your suspicions. I have seen nothing in anything they did to suggest that the typed communications are genuine. What I saw was facilitators controlling the typing." 


Not only is it getting attention in the national media, it's getting a lot of attention from the online autism community, most of it positive, and most of it without any focus on the underlying issue of facilitated communication. 







Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Another documentary getting attention, and just now airing on PBS's NewsHour, is Autism Now. So far, two sections of the six-part series have aired, and three are available online, along with extended interviews with Drs. Tim Buie and Irva Hertz-Piccotto. The first part raises the issue of vaccines as a causative factor while acknowledging that studies do not confirm that link. The second part examines what's behind the increase in prevalence. Richard Roy Grinker goes up against Irva Hertz-Picotto; Ginker supporting the idea that we're counting better, and Hertz-Picotto arguing that the numbers have risen and that environmental factors are at play, triggering a genetic susceptibility. In part three, Robert MacNeil explores causes for autism, focusing in on researchers whose emphasis are on environmental factors while acknowledging genetic risks.




Another documentary, released March 29 on DVD, is Loving Lampposts. The director, Todd Drezner, has recently written three posts at Huffington Post, "Learning to Embrace Autism," "Reconsidering the Nature of Autism," and "Autism: The Most Popular Disability" to create awareness of his documentary. This film is well-crafted and for folks familiar with the autism community, many of the more well-known autistic adults and activist parents are featured in the film, as are Richard Roy Grinker, Paul Offit, and Simon Baron-Cohen. Much like Kathleen's and my Autism Blogs Directory, this documentary is all inclusive, with most points of view represented. Parents who think vaccines are to blame, who use all manner of biomedical and alternative treatments, to parents who support a neurodiverse perspective are represented and treated respectfully, as is a father-daughter duo who have been a part of the facilitated communication movement since its inception in America.


Of the three choices, the PBS series is the only one available for free to all; it's airing in fifteen minute segments that are going live online the day before the segments air. From the three sections available so far, it's definitely a mixed bag. Section two offers the more positive portrayal of autism, but the truth is that so far the most severely disabled by autism have not been represented, and the complaint that autistic adults are not included in this is so far a valid complaint. 


Wretches and Jabberers can be watched in chunks on youtube, and a fair amount of it can be viewed that way, but for most of us, viewing the entire film is simply not possible yet.


Loving Lampposts is available for around $20 on DVD, and it is the least problematic of the three, at least from my perspective. Parents who favor AoA are going to appreciate the PBS series over Loving Lampposts. Wretches and Jabberers is likely to be most appreciated across the community, as it attempts to provide a feel-good story of two men against the odds. If you ignore the whole debunked facilitated communication and the realization that Biklen is using them to further his own agenda, that is, and most folks, because FC is never named in the video itself, and because most people don't know what to look for and are ready to believe, will.

4 comments:

Sirenity said...

Thank you very much, Kim, for such a thorough look at these films/documentaries. I love that you find value in movies/books/films/blogs/articles and so forth, even when you strongly disagree with a main principle within it.
I <3 your blog :)

sharon said...

I got my copy of Loving Lampposts yesterday and have to say it was everything I hoped. Very balanced, respectful, compassionate (Todd's son is adorable). I really enjoyed it and will be lending my copy out to all and sundry.

As for the MacNeil series. I just don't know. It feels like it's trying to be objective but there does feel like a lean in a certain direction. When professionals keep mentioning dietry considerations I get a bit sqirmy.

Jen said...

I am expecting my copy of Loving Lampposts soon and am really excited. I think it will be incredibly interesting to see both sides laid out like that and I hope it generates some real discussion (NOT fighting, discussion...unrealistic?). Thanks for your blog. Sometimes I feel like I am the only person who doesn't do the "woo" and that I am somehow doing my daughter a disservice b/c I haven't tried "everything". It's nice to find someone who pretty much sees things the way I do.

Life in the House That Asperger Built said...

Good job, Kim.