Question: What could be a greater honor or thrill for an autism mom than arranging for my actress daughter on the spectrum to speak at the United Nations on World Autism Awareness Day?
Answer: I’d say nothing, but Samantha has already surprised me so much that it’s entirely possible she’ll surprise me again!
Here’s how it happened: last year I had registered to be an audience member at the UN with Aubrie Therrien, Executive Artistic Director, of EPIC Players, our newly-formed neurodiverse theater company with Samantha as one of its inaugural members. As various experts talked about autism in their countries, and a few adults with autism spoke about their experiences (one young woman even sang) Aubrie and I vowed: “Next year we come back with Samantha and EPIC Players.”
How did I manage to make that wish come true? Answer: Luck and timing. Thanks to the wildly successful release of Keep the Change in March, a rave review in The New York Times, and the UN theme of Empowering Women and Girls with Autism, selling the idea was easy. What could be more empowering than a young woman on the spectrum co-starring in a film that won the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival as Best Narrative Feature, Best New Director and earned her a Best Actress nomination? Add EPIC Players, a neurodiverse theater company—which was formed to create greater professional opportunities for actors with autism—and you have a truly uplifting story of empowerment.
This year my actress daughter Samantha Elisofon, director Rachel Israel, and Aubrie Therrien, Executive Artistic Director EPIC Players, appeared together at the United Nation’s Panel called Keep the Change – Women with Autism in Film (Part II). Yes, there was a Part I which featured another film Please Stand By, starring (SIGH!), well-known neurotypical actress, Dakota Fanning, playing the character of Wendy, a woman on the spectrum.
While I’m grateful for the increasing focus on autism in the entertainment industry, seeing the movie clip from “Women with Autism in Film- Part I” really upset me. I have always loved Dakota Fanning as actress and have admired all of her performances in film—except for this one. I’m sure Ms. Fanning had the best of intentions and believed that her performance would help raise awareness for the rights of people with disabilities. The problem is—and I’m sure most autism families would agree even after watching a short clip—that Ms. Fanning’s portrayal of Wendy does not feel believable or authentic to those of us intimately involved with autism.
Nevertheless, I was happy to see that Please Stand By shared the stage with The Miracle Project, a theater company in Los Angeles working with actors on the autism spectrum. Two of their cast members on the spectrum were also brave enough to be present and speak alongside the film’s actress, producer, writer and director. Bravo for Miracle Project member Damonique Brown, who is joining the cast of Atypical.
Unfortunately, I must confide to my readers that I disagreed with most of what the neurotypical film panel said. While it’s true that movies like Please Stand By “wouldn’t be here without the writer,” I’d like to argue that the writer would not have chosen to write a screenplay about autism if this disability had not become a popular topic for the media in the past few years. The writer clearly did NOT have a deep or lasting connection with the autism world (or at least he did not reveal it to the audience). Sadly, in my view, Please Stand By doesn’t “make a difference” in the way autistic women are understood or accepted in society. Not really. Instead the film reinforces the lack of opportunities for people with autism by casting a well-known, Hollywood blonde. Did they even audition any actresses with autism? I doubt it. Furthermore, I know no person with autism who speaks like the character of Wendy: in a staccato stream of word bullets. I’m SO weary of these (misleading and demeaning) caricatures and stereotypes that continue to marginalize people on the spectrum. Enough of pretend autism, it’s time for the film industry to get real and make a greater effort toward authentic casting.
Speaking of authentic, enter Keep the Change. Samantha, Aubrie, Rachel (newborn Solomon) and their moderator, Heidi Landis, a psychotherapist licensed in Creative Arts Therapy, (who actually appears as herself in the movie). At the UN, Rachel talked about the genesis of the movie and how she came to know and befriend members of the cast. She made it clear that Keep the Change was NOT a documentary and that the actors were “fictionalized versions” of themselves. Samantha explained a few of the similarities between herself and her character: “tendency to be literal and rigid as well as exuberant and full of energy.” Samantha also admitted that she enjoyed using Sarah’s phrases like “easy peasy” and “yummy in the tummy” in her real life. As for differences, Samantha told the audience that she would never “talk about sex like Sarah”, which she called “TMI.” Unlike Sarah, Samantha knows the difference between a condo and a condom and has never been on a gluten free diet.
As for the connection between Keep the Change and EPIC Players, Aubrie mentioned that other cast members in addition to Samantha were featured in the movie. EPIC Players’ mission is to ensure that talented actors with autism become trained professionals, so that Keep the Change is not “a one shot wonder.” She reported that EPIC Players who came to see the movie found it inspiring to see themselves on screen, to envision that they could be like Samantha or even make a movie like Rachel. Her final message to the audience was “stop telling girls with autism that they can’t. They can.” And Samantha’s final message? “Keep persevering, put yourself out there. Never give up.”
Too bad the Please Stand By panelists didn’t stand by long enough to hear what the panel of people dealing with autism in the real world had to say. They departed immediately after their presentation and never took the time to listen to our group. They also spoke for double the time our group was allotted, as time was running short by the time Part II was introduced. But Keep the Change and EPIC Players had the last word. Not only did my daughter have a seat at an international table–broadcast on the UN Web to an audience of 100,000—but she also had a chance to have her voice heard, and in her own words.
Afterward, a mother and her very pretty eight year-old daughter with autism approached us “You’re a wonderful inspiration,” the mom told us. The little girl hugged Samantha. “I want to be an autism ambassador too!”