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5 Reasons I Made a Film about Autism

This guest post is by filmmaker Marcus A. McDougald, who co-directoed "Little Hero." A documentary film about 6-year-old twins Avery and her brother Xander, who has autism. The film takes a look at autism through the eyes of a child. The documentary beautifully illustrates the sensory sensitivities that Xander experiences every day and shows how his sister Avery sees her brother and autism.  The twins' mother Jenn Medvin is the film's other co-director. She wrote a blog titled, "Twin Sees Brother with Autism as a Superhero," while the film was seeing funding on Kickstarter earlier this year. Watch the "Little Hero" trailer above.

According to LittleHeroDoc.com, the film will not be available on DVD soon. 

1. Personal Investment 

When Jenn (co-director, co-producer) approached me about collaborating on a film together last February I knew that it would be a deeply personal and fruitful experience. Having known Jenn and the kids for a few years I believe she trusted me more than any other filmmaker to walk delicately through the process of documenting their lives rather than to fictionalize or dramatize, as filmmakers can do, violating the lives of the subject in name of storytelling. I am humbled and honored to be a part of their lives as a storyteller, a friend to the family, and as a swimming buddy.

2. A child’s perspective

As an artist I find myself drawn to influences that conjure a feeling in me more than a thought. This search for emotive experiences has shaped my own creative endeavors. I believe that emotions are more universal than ideas as they are not trapped by a specific language or culture. Happy is happy. Sad is sad. Anxious well… it’s just anxious. We all feel these things at different times.

Children tend to absorb the world and their experiences more viscerally than adults because they have not fully developed the logic, language, and reasoning necessary to articulate, and often as adults do, discredit or devalue these feelings.  As a filmmaker my biggest contemporary influences have been stories of childhood through the lenses of children: “Where The Wild Things Are”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “George Washington”, and “Ratcatcher” to name a few. These films have informed my style and approach.

3. The Power of Water

I grew up living next to one form of body of water or another. Being born in Oxnard, Calif., I lived in the ocean. Today I live in Long Beach, Calif., where I surf multiple days a week and never want to exit the water. I have found a similar affinity for the water in the lives of many people on the autism spectrum. To watch Xander in the water is to see a human being fully enveloped in the restorative powers of this substance. His whole emotional makeup changes in its presence. When anxiety builds up in me, which stores in the center of my back and crawls under the surface of my skin, until I get in that water, I too am a writhing mess. Water is our medicine.

4. A Different Story 

In learning about autism I found an endless amount of information on the statistics, research, and the experiences of parents to their children. Knowing my own strengths and influences as an artist I knew that I would be better served exploring the lesser-told story: from the perspective of a child and sibling.

We started by interviewing Avery. I would go home and listen to hours of conversation, picking out the moments that Avery seemed most engaged. Then we would shape new questions that would allow us to dig a bit deeper into these areas of interest. After many hour-long interviews we found our narrative. I then began to define rules for myself that would guide the visuals with the intent to create a signature for the film.

One of the rules was to never see the face of any adult. Another was to primarily shoot the film at the height of Avery and Xander, so that we are always with them. It was important that every discipline in this film, be it the cinematography, score, or animation, approach their craft through this lens. We created a set of rules for each department. I searched for collaborators I knew could add new layers to the multi-dimensionality of this film. We were fortunate to collaborate with Carl Sondrol on the score and Russ Murphy (RUFFMERCY) on the animation.

5. Autism Sensitivities v. Artistic Sensibilities

In reading Temple Grandin’s “Thinking in Pictures” I learned about the heightened sense awareness of people on the autism spectrum.  As Temple puts it, “Observing the small details that make a big difference” or as I like to call it “finding the awe in the obvious.” This awareness seems to heighten Xander’s experiences with the pains of anxiety and the pleasures of euphoria. The difference in his reactions to the sounds of hair clippers vs. the sound of Mozart’s “Turkish March” is polarizing. 

As an artist I can appreciate his reactions to these stimuli as I find that my own experiences with this world are slightly different than the “average” person. Temple has employed her sense perception in a way that has empowered her to change the world for the better.  I try to explore my own world with a heightened awareness to my surroundings and to the senses I employ to experience the wind on my skin, the shadows on the ground, and the sound of water as it slips into the drain. For me this is the poetry of life. The haiku if you will. Xander is connecting differently and more intimately with his surroundings than the average person and this is what makes him our “Little Hero.”

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.