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Highlighting the Stories of Individuals with Autism in Film

This guest post is by Nathan Stump an award winning student film maker. Nathan with the help of student filmmaker Jonatas da Silva are two weeks out from shooting their senior thesis film. For more information about their film “King of the Road,” you can visit their website here, and find their project on Twitter and Facebook.

We like telling stories. We’re always looking for inspiration or a scenario that we can turn into our next project. As we considered what sort of story to tell for our senior project, we settled on the subject of autism. After months of rewrites and creative meetings and with the help of many experts, we’re ready to bring the story to life. Our main character is an adolescent boy growing up in the 1970s, Kanner Arend (a nod to Dr. Leo Kanner who first made diagnoses on the autism spectrum). It begins as Kanner is being transferred to the care of his estranged father by a social worker, a sort of “last stop” for the boy before being turned over for treatment at a psychiatric facility.

As student filmmakers, the stories we could tell are endless. Some students use their talents to tell dramatic tales, others prefer punchline-filled comedy bits. But for us, telling true stories, showing the reality of a situation is what we’re passionate about. For our senior thesis film, we decided to tell the story of a boy diagnosed with autism. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to accurately and properly depict this character, but we set out to study autism spectrum disorder in order to tell the story of Kanner Arend. Our mission: To make a film that shows that Kanner and others who live life on the spectrum are not problems to be fixed or dealt with, but rather people to live life with.

As we developed the concept for “King of the Road,” we reached out to educators, parents and doctors who work with children on the autism spectrum. We have been incredibly impressed and at times humbled by the support we received as we wrote our screenplay and developed the characters to tell our story. We want to say “thank you” to the autism community for the experiences you’ve afforded us, the lessons you’ve taught us and the story you’ve allowed us to tell.

We had opportunities to observe interactions in therapy rooms, classrooms and people’s homes. We interviewed parents to get a better idea of the kind of relationships they built with their children. These parents do so much out of love, rather than as attempts to fix what those outside may perceive as a problem. There was understanding and the want for relationships even if the kids sometimes didn’t know how to build them. It was very challenging for us to create a story out of these experiences because each case was so unique, making it overwhelming to turn their stories into that of just one character for our film.

Through it all, we saw how much parents and others sacrifice, how hard they work to ensure their kids have as normal a life as possible. We wanted to show this same kind of normalcy in the midst of uncertainty in our film. It’s a very unique story because in a sense, it is dealing with autism, but it’s also set in the 1970s when autism spectrum disorder wasn’t well known or understood. This carries over to today because although we know a lot more about autism now, there are unfortunately still a lot of the same stereotypes in play.

We set out to create a film that embodies the struggle that parents and children with autism go through. We want people with ASD to feel rightly represented, for their story to be told and perhaps most importantly, we want those without firsthand experience to get a glimpse of the hardships as well as the joy and learning that can come out of relationships with those on the spectrum.

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.