Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"A Mother's Courage: Talking Back to Autism": a mom from Iceland travels the US getting an education for her son

A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism” (alternate title “The Sunshine Boy”, or “Solskinsdrengurinn”, 2009), directed by Fronik Por Froniksson, is a documentary in which an Icelandic mother (Margret Dagmar Ericsdottr) travels with her autistic young son and America on a quest to overcome his challenge.  Kate Winslet joins the  narration.

The film takes her to many other families, in Wisconsin, Colorado, California, and Texas.   She spends a lot of time interviewing Colorado zoologist Temple Grandin, who overcame her disability and who explains it in terms of the brain not having all the necessary wiring between its different components.
Typically autistic individuals can understand their environment and reason, but cannot communicate.  There are various ways some are gifted (visually, music and pattern recognition needed in mathematics and chess, and verbally). 
The film covers the “regression” form of autism, where a child suddenly loses his communications skills at around the third birthday.  David Crowe relates how his son Taylor, right after his third birthday, one day said at breakfast, “Daddy, my mouth can’t say the words.”  Yet, Taylor gradually overcame the disability and became employed as a graphic designer.
Much of the film takes place at a school in Austin, Texas named Halo.  Soma Mukhopadhyay explains how her son Tito learned to communicate and has written several books on physics. 
Toward the end, the film relates the process of communicating to writing music, and in fact the music score plays what sounds like a chaconne composed by one of the students, adapted for chorus.

Another expert in the film is Simon Baron-Cohen (np Sascha).   The film maintains that 1 in 150 children have some form of autism spectrum disorder, and with four times as many boys as girls. Children of engineers or computer scientists seem a little more likely to show it.

The official site (HBO, Frontier Media and First Run) is here.
The film does cover Asperger’s syndrome, but it’s apparent that there is a really continuous spectrum.  Successful education of people who seem to be severely affected is improving.
There are books about success stories, reviewed on my Books blog, such as “The Spark”, about Jake Barnett (July 4, 2013) who now is amazingly articulate as a teenager and physics student, and “Game of my Life”, about basketball player K-Mac (March 8, 2008), who appeared on Larry King Live.
CNN also produced a documentary film about an autistic female college student “Autism Is a World” in 2004.
When people who “outgrow” autism spectrum become successful, they sometimes seem aloof or insular, which can be offsetting to others during challenging or hard times and become a source of tension.  Often they may understand what is going on but not show or communicate it.
When I was a substitute teacher, I did have a couple of surprise assignments with severely disabled teens.   One was almost completely inert but in time started calling me “Santa Claus”.  In one class, teens with autism were mixed with Downs Syndrome, which is totally different.  Children with Downs Syndrome, according to the film, can sometimes learn by imitation and can be mainstreamed (a couple have actually acted parts in independent movies successfully, such as “Girl Friend” (July 16, 2012).  Kids with autism typically do not imitate and cannot easily mainstream unless they suddenly progress (as in “The Spark”).   In still another class, I was asked if I could “help in the locker room and the deep end of the swimming pool”, which I could not, because I am not a swimmer.  That assignment went bust.  

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