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My Journey with Autism: From Film Lover to Filmmaker

This post is from Jonathan Carlander, a 24-year-old man with Asperger’s Syndrome who graduated from Columbia College Hollywood film school this past June with a BFA in film editing. Jonathan has been making films since he was 15 and is currently pursuing a directing career in the film industry. Jonathan recently wrote and directed his thesis film while in college about an Aspie film student and his first date with a neurotypical girl which you can watch below...This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. 

This is Jonathan's story...

For as long as I could remember, cinema was the medium that filled me with wonder and happiness. I fondly remember devouring the films of Walt Disney, George Lucas, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, all of whom, I would discover in later years, have some eccentricities and a unique way of thinking and creating, giving me hope that I could achieve success despite living with autism.

I chose to become a filmmaker when I was around the age of five. My first two attempts at making films as a kid were disastrous; I had a bad temper, poor communication skills and was working with a cast of younger kids who did not care about filmmaking the way I did. As a result of those experiences, my filmmaking activities became dormant until 2005.

My aunt had sent my mother a newspaper article about a summer film camp for kids with autism under the supervision of Joey Travolta, a filmmaker and the older brother of John Travolta. It sounded like exactly what I was looking for: experience with people who shared the same passion for filmmaking that I did. At the camp, the other kids and I acted in a short film called "Bicycle Gino's Big Adventure". One summer later, I attended the film camp again, this time co-writing and co-directing the sequel to "Bicycle Gino". Those were the best summers of my teenage years.

After graduating from Adolfo Camarillo High School, I attended Oxnard Community College where I studied film and television production, making the Dean's List along the way and winning an award at the college's film festival near the end of my time there. The last three years of my college education took place from 2011 to this past June at Columbia College Hollywood, a film school in Tarzana where I majored in film editing and worked on several student productions (including an independent feature film), making several new friends in the process and eventually directing my own thesis film about an individual with autism entitled “The Pleasing List”. The film has reached nearly 300 views on YouTube within the first week of posting it and has gotten good response from viewers, including those on the spectrum.    

I don’t mean to make my journey sound easy. It was anything but easy. There were plenty of times at film school when I felt like I didn’t belong in the world of making movies. I wasn’t super social nor was I very popular with most of the students. With some outside support (including therapy and medication) and a little self-awareness of what I am comfortable with, I overcame those feelings and with some courage, I asked fellow students if they would help me turn my thesis script into a reality. I was surprised at how willing several of the students were. Without their passion and commitment, the film would not exist.

I believe that those on the spectrum have a lot to offer society and that they can absolutely achieve whatever it is they want to accomplish, whether that’s making movies or going to college. It takes patience and drive to do these things successfully, but it is possible. If you want to be a filmmaker, for example, the best advice I can give to those starting out is to tell as good of a story as you can for as little money as possible. Tell stories that are personal and interesting to you, and those who watch it will relate to your work in big and small ways. Just never stop dreaming and do not let your autism hold you back. In fact, I would suggest that you use your autistic characteristics to make your work shine and stand out from the crowd.  If it can work for me, it can definitely work for you!

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.