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Stories from the Spectrum

I have spent my career in the world of filmmaking – as a documentary producer, director and writer, a conference and festival director, a fiscal sponsor, and an educator. In 2013, while I was serving as executive director of Filmmakers Collaborative, a colleague and I launched the Boston International Kids Film Festival, as a way to showcase films for, by and about teens, while also bringing together novice and experienced filmmakers.

 

In 2014, we happened to receive three great short film submissions about autism: Sailboats from Australia, Merlijn and the Red Apple from the Netherlands, and A Teen’s Guide to Understanding & Communicating with People with Autism, by a high school girl in New Jersey. I had the idea to use all three as the basis for a workshop. When I mentioned this to a friend one day, she reminded me of another filmmaker in New York City who had two autistic sons, the younger of whom did clay animations. I spent a couple of months getting to know this family, met the young animator – Hugo Segal – and looked at his work. I ended up selecting three of his short films, Fight for Filth, Nacho Average Adventure, and Hugo Segal in Film, to include in a workshop, “Creativity, Film & Autism.” It was supported with a grant from the H. Eric Cushing Foundation.

 

To say that the workshop was a huge success would be an understatement. The theatre was filled to overflowing; we ended up giving out “floor passes” to everyone, so that every available surface of the theatre was filled. People laughed, shouted, applauded, and thoroughly enjoyed the films and the discussion afterwards with Hugo and Alexandra Jackman, the filmmaker from New Jersey. They were both just 15 years old at the time, and an inspiration to us all!  

 

Afterwards I was telling a colleague at Tufts University about the workshop. Tufts was a festival partner, hosting several of the workshops on campus. She said to me, “You should do something like this at Tufts!” And so my life took an unexpected turn.

 

A few months later, I got an invitation to come to Tufts as a Visiting Artist in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, for the 2015-16 academic year (now extended through 2017).  I have no instructional duties or funding, but I do have an office, a platform at a major university, access to students and reference materials, and a completely free hand to develop something related to both autism and film. 

 

I started reading up on autism and talking with everyone who had a story or a lead. I had already read Born on a Blue Day and Animals in Translation. Now I devoured a long list of other books, including The Reason I Jump; Life, Animated; Look Me in the Eye; Neurotribes, Far from the Tree; In a Different Key, and Unstrange Minds, to name just a few. I watched Wretches and Jabberers, Autism in Love, and everything I could find on the Internet (much of it sensational and negative, unfortunately).

 

I talked with parents, teachers, doctors, administrators, filmmakers, therapists, and friends – anyone who had a story or could lead me to one. I began meeting autistic people: Tufts students; a biochemist; an ultra-marathoner; a hockey player; teenagers planning a dance party; a young woman trying to figure out her gender identity; a hipster car mechanic; a “gaspie” (his term for gay Aspie); a young couple who are in love; a nonverbal man whose brothers say he teaches them to communicate – this is just a tiny sampling of the wonderful people that I have met. All of them, and their families, would love for me to tell their stories.

Image of a marathoner with autism Image of a young autistic couple in love

 

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It was a mind-boggling and sometimes heart-wrenching introduction to a world that I had known little about. I kept saying to friends, “This cannot be just one film. There are too many great stories!” Thus was born my latest project, STORIES FROM THE SPECTRUM. 

 

Through STORIES FROM THE SPECTRUM, I want to explore the reality of life for older teens and adults on the autism spectrum. I hope to make about 45 short film profiles of people whose challenges range from mild to severe. Film has the power to confer dignity upon its subjects and this is my aim: to celebrate and give voice to people who often have none.

 

I also want to show how families are navigating the changing needs of their children as they enter adulthood, and to suggest a spectrum of solutions to issues around housing, employment, and public policy. Some of the films will be used as engagement tools, stimulating conversations among legislators, employers, first responders, and others who are able to support this population. Anne Zeiser of Azure Media has joined me as impact producer for this work.

 

So far I have completed one film, The Snow Ball, about young men in a friendship-building class that plan a semi-formal ball. I am working on a second film, My Team of Brothers (working title), about a girl who is a star player on a men’s disability hockey team. I have shot part of a third film, One Step at a Time (working title), about a man who has developed a positive identity through ultra-marathoning.   

 

So far I have self-funded nearly everything. I have done my own filming or used Tufts student help when available. I have a small grant to edit the hockey story, but now I must raise the funding needed to realize this project over the next two or three years. Any leads and advice will be most welcome!

 

I have a board of advisors as well as a growing list of Boston-area university connections. My hope is to create an educational consortium where faculty and administrators doing interesting work in the autism field can meet to exchange ideas, challenges and successes.

The consortium is also a potential venue for showing the films we make for STORIES FROM THE SPECTRUM, using them as a springboard for classroom discussions. To date I have met enthusiastic people at the Boston Conservatory, Harvard Law School, Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy, MIT, Boston College, Lesley College, Wheelock College, and Northeastern University.

 

This project is a real passion for me – otherwise I would never be able to devote so much of my own time and resources!  The stories I have heard move my heart. It is my sincere hope that I can do justice to them, and bring positive and productive attention to those who have opened their lives to me, and shared their stories from the spectrum.   

 

 

Kathryn Dietz

2016

 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

 

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