Autism Is a WorldReviewed By Charles Tatum
Posted 10/08/08 18:44:26
Can a film change your life? Can a forty minute piece of video completely unravel everything you thought you believed? Yes, and with this review I almost retired from HollywoodBitchslap/EFilmCritic, and movie criticism in general. Read on.Sue Rubin is a twenty six year old autistic woman who cannot speak. She needs twenty-four hour care as her condition does not allow her to even dial 9-1-1 in case of an emergency. At the age of 13, Sue was diagnosed with a mental age of two years, and an IQ of 29. However, when this documentary was filmed, Sue was a junior at Whittier College majoring in history, with career plans to advocate for autistics, and newspaper writing.
What changed for Sue at age 13? "Facilitated communication" did. With the steadying of her sometimes flailing limbs, Sue is able to use a keyboard with vocal capabilities in order for her "voice" to be heard. The keyboarding took a lot of practice, but a reassessment of her condition put her IQ at 133, which allowed her normal high school years and college.
From her tiny size, protruding tongue, and yelping vocal tics, everyone assumed Sue was mentally retarded. When she was a little girl, she exhibited self abusive behaviors like biting her arms and head banging. Her parents never gave up on her, and we learn her brain was soaking up information like a sponge, even though her outward appearance did not show this.
The film focuses on Sue's reactions to losing two of her caregivers after many years. The two women are as young as Sue, and are moving on to other opportunities. They have become great friends, able to vocalize Sue's thoughts and even call her on an occasional lapse in concentration and purposeful misbehavior. Although many autistics are known for their seeming lack of emotion, there is a sadness on Sue's face as their time together gets shorter.
As you may or may not know, my oldest son is on the autistic spectrum. One of his many psychiatrists over the years has said he is not "autistic," but he is on the the "autistic spectrum." He is of normal intelligence, can have a conversation, and wants to be a rock star (this week) when he grows up; typical eleven year old stuff. But, he is prone to violent outbursts, able to clear a classroom of children, and flip desks over in a flash. This has resulted in law enforcement being called on him three times in the past year alone. He sometimes says completely inappropriate things without realizing he is hurting others with his words. He is a mess of tics, thanks to Tourette's Syndrome (which is not just whooping profanities like on "L.A. Law"). Physical touch is often painful to him, he doesn't look anyone directly in the eye, and with all his diagnoses plus asthma, his overnight bag is full of pill bottles and a lengthy medication schedule. On a tangent, it was seeing my son misdiagnosed and mismedicated a few years ago that confirmed for me that L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientology cult's belief that all psychotropic drugs are bad is erroneous, and that Hubbard and his cult are full of shit.
Watching Sue onscreen, I was filled with admiration. She has a comforting device involving spoons and running water that is similar to my son's. If he could stand under a shower all day long, he would. My son also constantly draws- not just doodling a page or two, but sketching notebooks full of cars, monsters, and his favorite band- KISS. Sue proves that way too many people think all autistics are high-functioning, like "Rain Man" or Sigourney Weaver's brilliant and completely misunderstood performance in "Snow Cake." There is a routine to many autistics, and they can be humorous, but the low function of Sue takes you off guard. You feel just as frustrated as the others in the documentary as she answers questions one letter of each word as a time. She must write entire speeches and presentations like this (they are read by others), but Sue is prone to emotional outbursts, typing nonsense on the keyboard because of her attitude, especially her fears about her departing friends.
Sue wrote the narration to the film, getting screen credit, and it is expertly read by Julianna Margulies. Gerardine Wurzburg directs unobtrusively, not pestering Sue and others with a bunch of questions. This was part of the "CNN Presents" series, and was nominated for a short subject documentary Oscar. Sure, Jenny McCarthy can write a book a week touting her autism cure, and setting up many a parent for disappointment, but Sue says it best: she can never be free of autism. It might subside, but it will always be there.
Speaking of being there, my sons moved two hours away from me last summer, which plunged me into a deep depression. Watching Sue's story, I realized that I needed to make some sacrifices in my life. Turning 40 didn't help. While others were deeply concerned with Clay Aiken's coming-out or Tina Fey's Palin impression, I found myself moving away from such trivial matters. I email my sons constantly, and get a weekly phone call from them, but it is not the same as seeing them every day or two. My ex-wife is teaching in her old hometown, and the boys are happy, but my priorities have shifted after "Autism is a World."
I could no longer watch a film and write about it, knowing I could better be using my time with my children. A second job, letters, emails, reading books, anything besides watching Paris Hilton's latest crapfest, or having to suffer through entertainment shows obsessed with celebrity culture (Pat O'Brien recently left "The Insider" for some very good, and similar, reasons). I have been reading more lately, and watching less films. Films were my life. I have seen about 5,000 over the past forty years, I stopped counting when my library's computer kept crashing every time I tried to view my vote history on IMDB. Sue Rubin showed me that being a good dad is more important than being a good film critic. Sure, I could do both, but the passion was not there anymore. My output has been hiatus-like lately, so I don't consider a vacation or leave of absence an option. Watching the badly titled but still brilliant documentary "Autism: The Musical" and reading "Born on a Blue Day" by Daniel Tammet recently also had an impact on me I can only describe as born again Christian-like.I wrote the above review almost six months ago, and I think I now know what a nervous breakdown feels like. My son is doing better, having only one outburst in the time since I saw the film (which resulted in police being called), but is happy in his new hometown and school. I recently came back to HBS a better and thicker-skinned person. Check out this film, whether you are affected by autism or not.
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