Seen any docs about autism lately? No? Me neither, until recently, and that’s a shame.

Look at it this way — Crises tend to have a primary medium of expression. Social media was a driving information source for the Arab Spring. The first Iraq War was sometimes called “The CNN War.” The AIDS epidemic found voice in ACT UP, the activists who marched, plastered walls, leafleted and shouted from the roof tops.

In fact, if AIDS was just breaking out in the United States now, I bet there’d be a wealth of documentaries coming out every year on the subject, imploring us to pay attention and do something about it. But at the epidemic’s peak, in the 1980s, documentary filmmaking tools of distribution and production were relatively limited.

An image from Refrigerator Mothers (POV 2002). From the 1950’s through the 1970’s the medical establishment mistakenly believed it had found the root cause of autism: poor mothering.

I’d contend that the current autism crisis, and I don’t think I’m overstating that here, could be the first national emergency that gets the full documentary treatment. And we should be watching them. The number of documentaries about autism keeps increasing, unfortunately, for good reason. The number of children diagnosed with autism is going through the roof.

In the early 1980s, about 1 out of 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today, that number has skyrocketed to about 1 in 100, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sure, perhaps you could explain away the spike as a new diagnostic approach by doctors, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that it’s a big number.

Autism covers a range of neurological conditions that are often associated with a person having difficulty connecting and communicating with others, withdrawal and repetitive movement. The cause of autism is a very sensitive issue, with the medical community generally saying it doesn’t know the source, and a very vocal minority of parents who are saying it’s because of vaccines. There appears to be a genetic root, in fact. There was a study released just last week that verifies this, and there could be environmental causes — increased use of antibiotics or mercury — but it’s still a tragic mystery, in much the same way AIDS was in the 1980s.

This recent scientific finding could be a real game changer. Either way, it’s all happening right now, and so we “neurotypicals,” the term sometimes used by people affected by autism to refer to the rest of us, should be more aware.

April is Autism Awareness month, and that’s what prompted me to face this issue. Despite the number of autism docs that come out each year, I hadn’t seen a one, unless you count POV’s Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, a documentary about a British school for emotionally disturbed children. Why had I sidestepped the others?

I didn’t think that they were really meant for me. I figured these were niche docs that catered to families affected by autism.

I didn’t want my heart to be broken by something I couldn’t help.

I didn’t want to be put in the unseemly position of watching these children in a voyeuristic fashion.

There’s so much mystery and contention about the cause of autism, I didn’t want to be subjected to documentaries with strident agendas.

In other words, I shut down. If my reaction is at all common, and I think it is, then the symptoms of autism, strangely, coincide with the way the neurotypical public responds to documentaries about autism.

I finally broke through this barrier recently by watching a report by Robert MacNeil, from PBS NewsHour. MacNeil has a grandson who has autism, and the veteran reporter says that this is the first time he’s ever done a story on his own personal life in his 50-year career. I found the segment riveting because MacNeil is a compelling guide to this world.

I have admittedly blind faith in the integrity of MacNeil, and to see him struggling with connecting to his grandson is poignant. And then to watch this kid, Nick, and his mother, Alison, struggling with the symptoms of autism is indeed heartbreaking. But it was also eye opening.

I then watched Autism: The Musical, a 2007 documentary about a teacher and parent of an autistic son, who creates a theater program in Los Angeles for autistic kids. The narrative of the film tells the story of the musical production that the kids put together, but that’s really just the framework to introduce us to several children and their families. The film is a touching depiction of these sweet, endearing children and their complicated parents, who are flawed yet valiant heroes. The moms are especially frank, and I almost felt embarrassed at how deeply the film pries into their lives.

Now, if I encounter someone affected by autism (so far, I only know a couple people peripherally), I will be more sensitive and aware of what they are going through. And knowledge is power, as they say. And only through understanding can we practice true compassion.

But I’ll get off my soapbox and instead leave you with a list of documentaries, many of which you can watch online for free, about autism. Although I can highly recommend Autism: The Musical, I can’t speak to the quality of the following films. I also warn viewers that some of these appear to be of a homespun quality, and could have agendas (as I mention above). If you know more about autism than I do, I welcome your input about these films. Let us know what you think are the best — and why.

A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism (2009)
As the title suggests, this is the story, narrated by actor Kate Winslet, of a mother of an autistic son, who wrestles with his pessimistic prognosis.

Normal People Scare Me (2006)
This is a collection of first-person accounts by people with autism. It was co-directed by Taylor Cross, a young filmmaker with high functioning autism.

Wretches and Jabberers (2011)
Two men with autism go on a journey to help change the way people think about their disability.

Autism Every Day (2006)
This film, sponsored by the organization Autism Speaks, is a portrayal of the mothers of autistic children. The stresses of parenting an autistic child are beyond what most “neurotypicals” can understand. But we can try.

Refrigerator Mothers (2003)
Refrigerator Mothers, which aired on POV, gets its name from the misdiagnosis of mothers of autistic kids, blaming them for being detached, and cold, parents. Update: Watch the film at

Her Name is Sabine (2007)
Sandrine Bonnaire, the fantastic French actor, tells the story of her autistic sister, through home videos and new footage that depicts a once-bright child turned miserable through her condition and questionable treatment.

Loving Lampposts (2010)
Filmmaker Todd Drezner, whose son is autistic, takes on some of the bigger issues surrounding the diagnosis, including the controversial “treatments.” You can watch the film at

George (1998)
Another filmmaker, Henry Corra, made this documentary about his son who has high-functioning autism. Corra asks the question about what is normal in a doc that was way ahead of its time.

Beautiful Son (2007)
This documentary confronts the issue of treatment for autism as it portrays a couple’s struggle with their son’s autism, and their frustrations with the medical community.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen