Q: What do people with autism want out of life?

         A:  Love and acceptance.

      What people on the spectrum want is what EVERYONE wants: a fighting chance to succeed in life.  All parents hope their kids grow up and are able to leave the family nest—including those of us with sons and daughters on the spectrum.  In 2015 there are laws in America which are supposed to protect the rights of people with disabilities from discrimination, just as today’s laws protect people regardless of race, gender, religion or ethnicity. (In fact, this year we are supposed to be celebrating the 15th anniversary of laws guaranteeing equal opportunities to adults with disabilities).  How well—or poorly—these laws work is up for debate.  Right NOW what I care about are all the young adults on the autistic spectrum—especially my daughter  Sarah—who are wasting away on the sidelines of life because most of them lack the social and communication skills which are essential to demanding and defending their rights.
     Talking about neurodiversity—a newly minted word in our lexicon—is cheap and relatively easy.  Actually educating neurotypical people (yet another recent addition to our politically correct vocabulary) and making our society more accepting and inclusive of people with autism is far more difficult and time consuming.  So what’s the answer?
     If education is the first step, then reading books by brilliant and articulate people on the spectrum, like Temple Grandin and John Robison, makes for a great start. But sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  For example, take the short film, Keep the Change, a story about young adults on the spectrum trying to find love and emotional connection.  Keep the Change, (co-starring my daughter), is a 15 minute crash course on how people with autism struggle to communicate and find love.  The characters’ facial expressions and gestures—their non-verbal communications—often tell the audience far more about their feelings than when David’s jokes  fall flat, or Sarah talks about herself too much to neurotypical peers at a nightclub.

     What’s the biggest difference between a neurotypical couple and two people with autism out on a date?  After watching Nagua Keep the Change many times, it’s clear that the couple with autism can’t avoid speaking their true feelings, no matter how awkward or untimely their conversation might be. In some ways Sarah and David retain the best of childhood qualities—honesty to a fault.  Whereas a neurotypical couple today might be texting other people, or speaking a small fraction of what’s in their hearts, David and Sarah say EXACTLY what they think.  Dissembling or holding back information just isn’t part of their game plan or wiring.

     Ironically, the movie begins with David, an upper-class charmer, who’s trying to hide his high-functioning autism.  Forced to attend Connections, a support group for people on the spectrum, David falls in love with Sarah, a sheltered young woman, who challenges his identity as normal.  Challenging the concept of “normal” is part of the film’s beauty.  Emotional honesty can be uncomfortable, but wouldn’t the world be a much better place if more people told the truth?
     The answer is a resounding yes, judging by the large crowd and thunderous applause at this week’s screening of Keep the Change at the JCC in Manhattan.  The screening was held to raise money to expand the film into a full length feature at the end of the summer. So far, Keep the Change has been very well- received by neurotypical audiences as well as those with autism. Not only has the film been featured in a number of film festivals, it also won “Best Film” at Columbia University’s 2013 Film Festival.  Film director Rachel Israel hosted this week’s screening as “An Evening of Inclusion” with an interview and q/a session with the cast. My daughter and the other cast members all expressed their gratitude for the opportunity through their performances to be seen and heard—for a moment anyway—not as misunderstood outsiders, but as actors “like Meryl Streep or George Clooney,” one cast member explained.

            I’d like to see these special actors have another chance to be in the spotlight instead of on the sidelines. If you agree, then I hope you’ll join me in supporting Rachel Israel, her cast and crew, by donating to the feature length version of Keep the Change.  Please go to http://www.seedandspark.com/studio/keep-change and follow the instructions below.  You might help change the lives of people with autism by giving them a platform to show how love and truth connect ALL people in the world.  Wouldn’t that be a change worth keeping?        

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