If you have a chance to see "Autism: The Musical," the documentary directed by Tricia Regan that chronicles the debut of a Los Angeles theater group for children with autism, you should grab it. Even if it means going by yourself (as I did on Thanksgiving night) because your spouse has to stay home with the kids. Here are three reasons I'm glad I did:
1) The film is a moving and nuanced depiction of the huge range of kids who fall onto the autism spectrum and the challenging reality of their daily lives.
Among the participants who write, plan and produce a full-length musical in five months are Lexi, a 14-year-old with a beautifully sweet singing voice who constantly repeats questions people ask her but has trouble coming up with answers; Henry, an extremely talkative 10-year-old with encyclopedic recall of reptile facts whose awkward behavior puts off peers; and Neal, a nonverbal 12-year-old who sometimes acts out aggressively when feeling anxious.
The movie shows the kids at school, at home, and in chaotic rehearsals that eventually lead to a well-orchestrated and emotional opening night. In one remarkable moment, an often ebullient boy named Wyatt describes his frustration with theater group friends who withdraw from others and then suddenly realizes that he sometimes does the same thing, asking, "Why do I go into my own world?"
2) The movie demonstrates the life-changing impact that having a child with autism has on parents—for better and for worse.
Neal's mother, Elaine, started the theater group she named "The Miracle Project" after discovering that music and movement were effective ways to engage her son. Divorced after several years of Neal's sleepless nights and frequent tantrums, Elaine later finds a new love who embraces her son. During the filming, one couple bickers, one separates and another despairs that they can't afford an expensive legal battle to get appropriate educational services for their child. They all struggle to understand their kids and help them lead fulfilling lives—and they worry intensely about what will happen to them after they themselves die. As Lexi's mother, who has suffered from depression but beams through her tears on opening night, says: "Living with her has had a profound effect on who I've become."
3) The film illustrates both the tremendous potential of kids with autism and the relentless nature of the disorder.
In the end, The Miracle Project's musical really was no miracle at all. No one was cured; no one's life was transformed. (Be sure to stay for the biographical end notes, which drive home the point that the ongoing challenges these kids face certainly will continue.) But the experience had value for everyone involved. These kids showed themselves and their community how much they can accomplish when people take the time to accept them for who they are, celebrate their strengths and devote resources to help them overcome (or at least compensate for) their weaknesses. As the kids sing in the musical's opening song, "Take a chance. Get to know the real me." The real miracle would be for this to happen all the time.
Background notes: "Autism: The Musical" has been showing at film festivals across North America and has picked up two audience awards so far. HBO will show the movie in April and it will be out on DVD after that. (For Autism Bulletin's Boston-area readers, the documentary is playing through Nov. 29 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass. Then it's on to Anchorage, Alaska for a film festival screening December 3. Check the film's website for more updates.)
Carol Gerwin is a Boston-based editor and writer who is married to Autism Bulletin blogger Michael Goldberg.