The trials and tribulations of autistic children are examined in Autism: the Musical.

Putting a human face on autism

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More than anything, people are afraid of something different. Despite all the trappings of political correctness, there are too many people who find mocking the disabled--people with Down Syndrome or autism--comedy gold. Looking at the autistic spectrum through pop culture's lens, autistic kids are excessive geniuses or completely isolated social misfits. Society has de-valued them as people, thinking most of them idiot man-children who need to be helped along in everything they do.

A parent in the middle of Autism: the Musical, leading up to the musical, rails against this sentiment. She screams out in anger during a discussion of civil rights and the case for the disabled, reacting violently to the idea of how society views these children.

"My daughter is in eighth grade and she's learning to wash dishes!" she yells. "[The school districts] don't care! They say she can't fucking learn!"

This is the sentiment that Autism: the Musical tries to deal with by showing these young children can learn, can play and are capable--maybe not as well as everyone, but they don't need to be locked up in an institutional setting.

In the film, there are a cast of characters from all across the autistic spectrum. Neal, the child of the musical's director, is completely without speech and has excessively repetitious motions. One girl, Lexi, whose beautiful singing talent is showcased, needs to spend her time in life skills training and can barely communicate outside of echoing whatever people say. Wyatt, a boy with autism who doesn't seem to be too bad initially. He doesn't want to take special education classes--remarking that "100 per cent of the people in [his] class are retards"--but doesn't have the necessary cognitive abilities to be mainstreamed. In tears, he talks about the other kids and how they live in their own fantasy world, then admits that living in his own little fantasy world is better than being alone. He's one of the most tragic figures in the film, as he's caught in a sort of limbo of self-awareness that seems to eat away at his self-confidence.

While the musical is an important part of the film, it allows us mainly to see the interaction between the children in an environment. It's a long process and director Elaine Hall has to deal with all the drama that comes with producing a play and a little bit more due to the special nature of the kids. She needs to deal with aggressive tantrums from her own son, Neal. Children will close themselves off and refuse to make eye contact as they attempt to communicate what they want the play to be about and she treats these children like actual children, complimenting them and acting motherly towards them. She's one of the most loving figures in the entire film; a single mother who loves her son, even though he can barely communicate with her. Despite all of this, the lines that crease her face tell a story of late nights and more stress than most parents have to deal with.

The wear on every one of the mother's faces are evident. Each of these parents talk about the tragedy that can befall a parent with autism. The mothers obsess about over their sons' condition while the fathers withdraw in worry, confusion and outright fear. While this is a female-dominated film, the filmmaker attempts to include fathers whenever possible. Former Playboy Playmate Roseanne Katon's husband, the director of a relief agency, cheated on her allegedly due to a depression over having an autistic son. Musician Stephen Shills identifies with his son's condition, talking about his son's obsession over dinosaurs and how he pushes people away with it and his own obsession over the guitar.

Autism: the Musical isn't so much about the musical, as it is trying to paint a human face on children with autism. With the rapidly expanding diagnosis of autism, there's a need to take a hard look at our own prejudices against the so-called disabled. Films like this allow us to see autistic kids not as the uncontrollable brats but instead in a far more heartening light.

Autism: the Musical screens Mon., Mar. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Engineered Air Theatre and Thu., Mar. 20 at 7 p.m. in Murray Fraser Hall 160 as part of the Movies That Matter series.