As a filmmaker and the child of two clinical psychologists, one of whom, my mother, focused on autism, I wanted to produce a short film that would show the necessity and impact of early intervention in under-represented communities. I wanted to tackle the issue effectively, as a storyteller and as a concerned citizen. After visiting the New York Child Resource Center, one of the only schools in the Bronx offering early intervention, I knew I wanted to document the infectious energy of its classrooms, but I was unsure where to go from there.
One idea I had was to follow the school administrators who found undiagnosed children and advocated for them to enroll in school. Another was to document a day in the life of a classroom of eight kids who had been diagnosed recently. Both seemed to offer a way into the story, but I worried the film would feel rushed if there were too many characters to cover, or that it would feel didactic if a lot of “explaining” was required to contextualize the story.
Through the Reach Film Fellowship, I met working filmmakers, such as Marilyn Agrelo and Yoni Brook, who encouraged me to narrow my focus as much as possible. They challenged me to follow the journey of one character and to have faith in how powerful it would be for an audience to experience early intervention alongside one compelling teacher, parent or child. During pre-production, my gut instincts began to align with their advice. During the two weeks I spent in the classroom at New York Child Resource Center, Jayden, a 2-1/2-year-old boy new to school, stood out to me. He arrived at school sleepy, but he worked incredibly hard. Although shy, Jayden enjoyed being part of the classroom. I could see his progress before my eyes and I was instantly curious about him. Perhaps if my small crew and I were transfixed by Jayden, a wider audience would be, too?
Ultimately, I spent two months filming Jayden, at home with his parents, Anne and Benny, and at school with his teachers. As I immersed myself in Jayden’s world, my crew and I were able to document the seemingly small challenges and successes of Jayden’s daily life as a recently diagnosed toddler. We saw adults working intensely with him toward basic milestones — responding to his name, making eye contact, pointing at objects he wanted, learning to say the word “bye” — and we came to identify with Jayden at the same time. The resulting footage provided the raw material for many suspenseful and compelling scenes and a natural narrative arc. In letting go of my original “big picture” goals and letting the storyteller in me win out, I ended up making a film that drives my message home better than I could have imagined.
Autism is an urgent and growing public health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently estimate that one in 110 children have the disorder, and the challenges of diagnosing and treating it are immense. Media attention and awareness have increased significantly over the past decade, but there has been virtually no coverage of autism’s impact on low-income children and families. Without awareness, there is no early diagnosis. Without diagnosis, successful treatment is nearly impossible.
— Anthony Morrison, Filmmaker