The Autism Society of Texas will roll out the red carpet this weekend for what Jacquie Benestante says is a peek behind the curtain of everyday life for families of people on the autism spectrum.
“Film is such a good way to really see and understand autism,” said Benestante, director of external affairs for the nonprofit. “I mean, we can sit and talk about autism all day and we can do autism acceptance and awareness, but when you see the film, you totally get it.”
This year, the Autism Film Festival is showing a series of short films and one feature, A Boy Called Po.
“There’s so many facets to having a kid with autism and it’s such a huge spectrum disorder,” she said. “But, a lot of parents have to deal with toilet training, escape and elopement, behavior and communication. And there’s just all of those things in that film. So, all of that is portrayed.”
Laurence Becker started in film innocently enough. He was an English teacher at St. Stephen’s School in Austin in the late '60s, when one of his high school students suggested making a film to break up the essay routine. In the early '80s, he was so moved by the story of Scottish artist Richard Wawro, he produced a documentary about him called With Eyes Wide Open.
Wawro was initially diagnosed as retarded – as they called it back in the 1950s – but that was later corrected to autistic. He created art, despite being legally blind. After producing the Wawro film, Becker found even more extraordinary stories of people on the autism spectrum producing art.
“I tell people I’m the aqueduct,” Becker said. “I’m not the water, I’m not the source of the water, I’m the instrument through which it flows. So, I tell their stories.”
Part of his film Fierce Love… and Art will be shown this weekend. It’s about the lives of savants, like the story of artist and poet Kimberly Dixon of Round Rock. Dixon was largely nonverbal, but expressed herself through an alternative communication device, keyboard and speaker.
“Autism is a death sentence for many parents,” Becker said. “When they get that diagnosis, their world is destroyed. They have grand hopes for their children and the word ‘autism’ just blows that apart. And so, this is saying to them, the parents, there is an alternative.”
Becker says art is just one alternative.
Another filmmaker, Maryam Farahzadi, says there’s a universal theme in her short film, one that hit home when she moved from Iran to Los Angeles for film school.
“The story of Blue is about the struggle of being different,” Farahzadi said. “And I want people to make people aware, to accept differences as an asset, rather than an unwanted nuisance.”
Benestante says some of the short films at the festival will not necessarily be about autism.
“Jamie’s Paper Train is actually just a little train and a song,” she said. “They’re kind of all over the place, but all kind of connected by autism.”
She says the festival is geared for teens and adults. Organizers are also trying to be careful about sensory issues for guests.
To make it more "sensory friendly," for example, they went through and checked sound levels for every film last week, Benestante said.
Lights will be low in the theater, but not completely dark. Also, filmgoers who find it difficult to sit still will be encouraged to get up and move around.
“We’ll just make sure they’re comfortable to, you know, go stand in the back, walk around, pace if you need to, go out in the lobby, take a break. Just be comfortable,” she said.
The festival is a fundraiser for the Autism Society to help pay for programs for kids and adults on the spectrum.
“We will help you through pre-diagnosis, all the way through the end of term,” said Joy Alexander, the Autism Society’s interim executive director. “We have an employment program through the City of Austin that we have, as well, to help adults get meaningful employment, and not just thrown into something based on a label that they have.”
She says there will be auction items and other activities, but she’s looking forward to seeing her community out and about.
“I love us all being able to get together,” Alexander said. “I’m really excited about our feature film and, of course, popcorn.”
The third annual Autism Film Festival is Sunday at the Austin Film Society Cinema.