Review by Brian Charles Clark
4.5 stars (out of 5 possible)
Directed by Todd Drezner
Originally published on Curled Up with a Good DVD
Todd Drezner’s beautiful investigation of autism is motivated by the personal. His son is autistic and loves to look at lampposts. They walk every day they can in Central Park and the young boy gazes up at the lampposts, recognizing them as individuals in ways us mere normals simply cannot.
There is a lot of bad information about autism out there and, with grace and compassion, Drezner gives even the lamest and most discredited notions their moment in the sun. The film is divided into sections and a recurring one is called “Autism is…” The reality is, no one knows for sure. But it is certainly not caused by vaccines or mercury, and it very likely isn’t genetic, either.
More likely, as my biologist wife pointed out to me, it is a vast complex of conditions we know so little about at present that we lump them all together. This is a helpful insight in a number of ways. It gives us hope for the future, in as much as scientists are likely to discover nuances and biochemical facts that will help treat those who truly need it. It also sheds light on the present state of autism, as a cognitive and communication condition, as a scientific problem, and as a social reality.
The reality is this: humans are basically simple-minded creatures who eschew complexity whenever possible. And whatever else autism is, it is very complicated. Instead of embracing that complexity and being willing to acknowledge their state of ignorance, many parents of autistic children feel they must do something – anything – to “help” their child. In so doing, they compress and simplify what might be called the autism narrative. They draw straight lines between (perceived) condition and (apparent) cause.
The vaccine conspiracy is a case in point. It’s unfortunate that the medical journal Lancet years ago published a study drawing a causal relationship between vaccines and autism, but that study has been repeatedly disproven and, indeed, the authors of the study have long since withdrawn their conclusions. But never let science throw a curve in an otherwise serviceable narrative: many parents live their lives obsessed with the notion that they must not succumb to the social pressure to vaccinate their child against communicative diseases lest their child become more autistic or “catch” autism. Autism isn’t a communicable disease, so not vaccinating children has instead exposed thousands of kids to TB and other diseases that a couple decades were just about extinct.
Nor is there an “epidemic” of autism. Rather, several previously unrelated conditions have been, in recent decades, lumped together under a single rubric. Asperger’s Syndrome, for instance, is now considered a form of autism and thus the number of autists has, seemingly, dramatically increased.
One of the great things Drezner does in this film is interview adult autists. Lots of people are quite functional and are leading a “neuro diversity” movement. Indeed, some consider their autism a gift: they may not be able to communicate in precisely the “normal” way that non-autists do but, as we are constantly reminded by the state of the world, normal ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Hats off to Drezner for this wonderfully sensitive and compassionate look at what it means to be autistic in the 21st century. He doesn’t leap to conclusions; the film leaves the subject wide open, bravely embracing uncertainty with love.