What is autism? I have just watched the documentary Autism: The Musical, and I am having trouble pinning down a definition without referring to a dictionary. I know it is a neurological disorder that interferes with a person's ability to communicate and socialize, and it may manifest itself many ways, as shown in the film which follows five elementary and middle school age children. The four boys and one girl have very different abilities. Henry knows much about dinosaurs and sounds like a professor telling others what he knows. Highly verbal Wyatt seems to understand everything that is going on among the people around him yet not be able to join in; he tells his mother exactly what will happen if his is mainstreamed at school. Adam can play the cello but is highly excitable and may start running in circles. Neal is non-verbal but shows great promise with a keyboard speaker. Lexi can sing songs by Joni Mitchell yet has trouble putting together a sentence of her own. Autism must be a large family of disorders to cover these five children.
Educator and drama coach Elaine Hall is the mother of Neal. She had the idea that he and other children could put together a musical performance after starting the Miracle Project, a theater program that mixes typically developing children with those with special needs. Such a program would challenge the children and show others how not to underestimate them. Filming the work must have been a given from the start, for Hall has been coaching child actors for television. Many of the parents of the children also have television and entertainment ties.
Like Mad Hot Ballroom and Young @ Heart, the cameras show much more than rehearsal and performance. Viewers meet the children and their families in their homes, some of which have had marriages torn by the pressures of raising special needs children. The upcoming musical actually seems to be an almost forgotten plot element at times, as the stories of the children dominate our attention. And that is just fine. We do see some scenes from the musical at the end, which are important but probably less so than the story of its creation. Autism: The Musical, which won numerous film festival awards, deserves being in many library DVD collections and is a good title for film discussion groups.
Autism: The Musical. Docuramafilms, 2007. ISBN 1422907996.