New Film Reverses the Mirrors of Perception to Reveal Autism Spectrum–
And a Lot of Questions About What Constitutes “Normal”
“Well-crafted interviews and an eye for dramatic elements.”
–Daniel Engelke, Film Monthly
Neurotypical is a rare film among documentaries about autism. It relates the experiences of this neurological condition from the point of view of autistics themselves. Via the worlds of 4-year-old Violet, teenager Nicholas and middle-aged wife and mother Paula, along with provocative interviews with other autistics, the film recounts the challenges they face living among “normal” people—whom many of them call “neurotypicals.”
But the film goes further, revealing the wide spectrum of autism and the creative adaptations people use to “pass” in the normal world. It throws a searching, often comic light on what defines the “normal” mind and calls attention to the subject of neurodiversity as an urgent and multi-layered issue within the 21st-century civil rights debate. Autistics have hardly ever been heard like this. Says one, “I look at neurotypical life and I’m sorry, I really don’t want to be one of you.”
Adam Larsen’s Neurotypical has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 29, 2013, at 10 p.m.(check local listings), as part of the 26th season of the award-winning PBS series, POV (Point of View)POV (Point of View). American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV was honored with a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Neurotypical, filmed predominately in North Carolina and Virginia, opens with an innocent scene: two little girls playing at a river’s edge, kicking and splashing the water with the wonder of very young children. When it’s time to go home, one of the girls, Violet, begins to cry and resist. It’s quickly apparent that her distress goes beyond a typical childhood temper tantrum. Violet is autistic, and, at 4 years old, she is unable to communicate her desires clearly. When she’s feeling good, her energy is limitless. “She just wants to keep going, keep exploring forever,” says her father. “She’s a mystery.” Her parents look for ways to make Violet’s life happy and fulfilling. But they wrestle with questions most parents never have to ask: Will the label of autism limit their daughter’s potential? Should they begin going down the road of medicating her or not?
Shy and uncommunicative, 14-year-old Nicholas might seem the typical American teen, complete with hoodie, skateboard, guitar and video games. But he struggles with feelings of alienation that go beyond the usual teenage angst, leaving him as distant from his peers as he is from his family. He wrestles especially hard with an inability to relate to girls, the ones he considers nice no less than the ones he sees as mean. His condition has had great impact on the lives of his brother, who longs for a more predictable playmate, and his parents, who accept his idiosyncrasies yet worry about his ability to grow and live independently and happily.
Articulate and outgoing, Paula was diagnosed with autism as an adult after she read an article on the subject. Enlightened by this self-awareness, she begins to assess her life through a new lens and discovers a new community of people with whom she can relate and find meaning.
The interviews in Neurotypical add eye-opening commentary to the stories of Violet, Nicholas and Paula. In one, middle-aged autism advocate Wolf avows that romance is impossible because it involves so much innuendo and hinting–exactly the kind of non-verbal cues and body language autistics have so much trouble reading. He’s perfectly happy without physical intimacy because of his extreme sensitivity to touch. Yet Maddi, a senior in high school, desires a relationship. “Just because Temple Grandin doesn’t do it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” she deadpans, referring to perhaps the most famous individual with autism, whose autobiography was one of the first windows into the autistic experience.
Twenty-something Katie describes teaching herself how to engage in small talk because it is an important means of connecting with others in a neurotypical world. “I thought that the reason people made small talk . . . ‘It’s a nice day today’ . . . was because they had nothing interesting to think about inside their heads,” she says. “I just didn’t see the point in carrying on a conversation when . . . this person was being really rude, interrupting my thought process. I had interesting things going on up here!”
Thirty-something John, who with his long hair looks like he could be an older version of 14-year-old Nicholas, talks about his difficulties following conversations. To compensate, he’s learned two simple tricks–say someone’s name as often as possible, because “a person’s own name is their favorite word in the whole wide world,” and repeat the last three or four words of whatever the person says. “It works like magic,” John declares. “They’ll go on for hours, and they will talk about you as if you were the greatest thing next to the iPhone.” The result is that he has a reputation for being a good listener and has also succeeded on the romantic front.
Testimony like this from the other side of the neural divide raises the film’s central questions. Just what is “normal” for the human mind? Should the many and varied aspects of autism be considered signs of dysfunction or insights into a broader understanding of what it is to be human? Neurotypical is a revelatory portrait of a not-uncommon and little-understood state of being that questions the fundamentals of human perception.
“Neurotypical originated in the shared experiences of my family and the autistic community in western North Carolina,” says director Adam Larsen. “My father has worked in the field of autism for more than 20 years; my mother is an artist. Today they design and manufacture learning materials for children and adults with special needs.”
“I began to feel a growing rebellion against what I saw as society’s double standard—either a pervasive need to make people into a rendition of something ‘normal,’ or a tendency to sensationalize the extremes of autism. Documentaries at the time were either clinical, focused on cause and cure, or dramatic, looking at the ‘tragedy’ of autism or the brilliance of the savant.
“I grew determined to make a film from the viewpoint of autistics. Making Neurotypical provided a wonderful opportunity for me to explore more fully the richness of humanity and to bring the concept of neurodiversity into the mainstream.”
Neurotypical is a production of Hum-Bar, LLC in association with American Documentary | POV.
About the Filmmaker:
Adam Larsen, Director/Cinematographer/Editor
Adam Larsen is an artist, projection designer and filmmaker. He has designed video projections for nearly 100 stage productions both in the United States and abroad. As a cinematographer, he has shot numerous television pilots (from cooking shows to programs on extreme sports), independent films and commercials. He also produced, shot and edited two short films for TEACCH, North Carolina’s state autism program, and two films for the Organization for Autism Research (OAR). Larsen holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in cinematography from the North Carolina School of the Arts. Neurotypical is his first documentary.
Director/Cinematographer/Editor: Adam Larsen
Executive Producers: Ronald Sigurd Larsen, Linda Iraggi Larsen
Original Score: Michael Wall, Darren Morze
Running Time: 56:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Vice President, Programming and Production: Chris White
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
- Awards and Festivals:
- World Premiere, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, 2011
- Rooftop Films Summer Series, 2011
- DOXA Documentary Film Festival, 2011
Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and beginning its 26th season on PBS in 2013, the award-winning POV is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today’s best independent documentary filmmakers. POV has brought more than 365 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide. POV films have won every major film and broadcasting award, including 32 Emmys, 15 George Foster Peabody Awards, 10 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards® and the Prix Italia. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today’s most pressing social issues. Visit www.pbs.org/pov.
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American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
POV has the honor of receiving a 2013 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the desJardins/Blachman Fund and public television viewers. Funding for POV’s Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special support provided by The Fledgling Fund and the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.