Neurotypical originated in the shared experiences of my family and the autistic community in western North Carolina. My father has worked in the field of autism for more than 20 years, initially as a therapist with the North Carolina TEACCH program. My mother is an artist who works in multiple media and across genres. Today, my parents design and manufacture ShoeboxTasks, innovative learning materials for children and adults with special needs. While I was growing up, our home was a site for “social group” gatherings—opportunities for autistic adults to socialize in a relaxed, supportive environment. I remember these childhood get-togethers vividly. I was initially impressed by what I perceived as differences in mannerisms and sensitivities in autistics. When I became a teenager, I began to notice sameness. Maybe the emotional highs and lows, the pleasures and pains of social interacting weren’t so different between “neurotypicals” and autistics after all.
Through high school and college, I continued to learn from individuals on the autism spectrum. What began to take shape was a kind of 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. A typical documentary followed a child’s journey and never gave a glimpse of autistic adulthood. I grew determined to make a film from the viewpoint of autistics, as storytellers of their own experiences.
As Neurotypical was my first film, I was mostly a one-man band. I operated the camera, sound and lights, while my father often did the interviewing. I worried about these limitations, but I came to realize that without the distractions of a crew or cumbersome equipment, a very comfortable setting and intimate rapport was being established. I had seen too many films that seemed bent on showing autistics falling apart. I was more interested in creating an environment where the subjects were my partners. I was sensitive to their preferences, arranging the equipment, the lighting and the microphones in ways that were accommodating.
Over the course of four years, between my gigs working as a video projection designer, I gathered stories from more than 30 people on the autism spectrum. These interviews featured individuals who could speak for themselves; however, autism is much bigger than this. I didn’t want to exclude those who were nonverbal or couldn’t advocate for themselves. Addressing this issue became a conceptual concern. During one of my family’s many conversations, the idea emerged to structure Neurotypical as a triptych, focusing on a child, an adolescent and an adult—each with different capacities for expressing his or her experiences. Thus, the stories of Violet, 4, absorbing the sensory world and learning ways to navigate through it; Nicholas, 14, coming to terms with his identity in society; and Paula, married with a child, embracing her diagnosis and advocating for others, became the threads around which I could weave the interviews.
Working closely with autistics of all ages and abilities has given me a profound respect and affection for this culture. 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.
—Adam Larsen, Director/Cinematographer/Editor