Labelling a human being “autistic,” “on the spectrum,” or as “having autism” sets even the most sensitive speaker (or writer) skiing down a slippery slope. Unfortunately, the autism diagnosis is complex and still poorly understood by many. Adding terms like “high functioning,” and “lower functioning” can be considered offensive, especially since many so-called “low functioning” or non-verbal individuals can be quite intelligent, but unable to express themselves in the usual ways. The crux of the problem is that there is no verbal short-hand that is either “politically correct” or vividly descriptive. Various terms for different autism folks and their friends can be acceptable—or not—depending on who is asked.
In a recent article in The Mighty, an autistic author (using her preferred term), makes the argument that people who describe her as “high-functioning” are actually doing her a disservice. The author claims that her sensitivities and meltdowns are sometimes as bad or worse than a so-called “lower functioning” individual with autism. In her view, the “high/low label demeans both “ends” of the spectrum.
As the mother of a 27 year-old daughter who prefers to say she “has autism” or is “on the spectrum,” (rather than use the word autistic), I feel the author’s pain and frustration over language that is starkly inadequate to describe the complexity of the autism spectrum. My daughter Samantha co-starred in Keep the Change, a romantic comedy which won the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and earned her a Best Actress Nomination. Despite rave reviews and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, almost every film critic referred to the leading actors, Samantha Elisofon and Brandon Polansky, as “untrained,” “unprofessional” or “non-professional” actors with autism, while heaping praise on the movie.
For the past year, I’ve been wondering whether any of these reviewers ever stopped to think that describing my daughter and her co-star with the adjectives “unprofessional” and “untrained” was not only insulting, but also factually incorrect. My daughter and her co-star DID receive training, and they made their debuts in Keep the Change. Would critics describe debuting actors with dyslexia, ADHD or bulimia as “un-professional”? I don’t think so! How can a movie earn accolades around the world, while stigmatizing the lead actors as “untrained” and “unprofessional?” Surely, “a landmark film”, as hailed by The New York Times, should be crediting the actors (autistic or not) for their talents and successful debuts. Every professional actor must have a first performance. Just because the actors are autistic doesn’t mean they aren’t acting, and depicting their characters artfully as well as authentically. To my knowledge, no neurotypical actor making his or her film debut—especially a successful one—has ever been described as “un” or “non” professional.
For the record, Brandon Polansky had a year of acting lessons before the short version of Keep the Change was shot in 2013. Samantha learned on the job filming the short, and then spent the next four years with director Rachel Israel improvising and rehearsing for the full-length feature. In my view, Samantha’s one-on one, on-the job training with a sensitive and gifted director probably helped my daughter become MORE professional (and authentically expressive) than most theater majors in colleges or grad school taking drama classes. In addition, Samantha started voice lessons at age 10 after we learned that she has perfect pitch. Those lessons continue through to the present day. That’s PLENTY of training (17 years), and certainly more than many neurotypical children receive.
After winning the Tribeca Film Festival, I was so thrilled and grateful for all of the positive reviews of Keep the Change, along with the admiration and warm embrace of audiences everywhere, that I kept quiet. Wasn’t it enough for me that MY daughter was blessed to be cast in this low-budget film that surpassed most everyone’s expectations? Yes—for a while. But after seeing the words “autistic,” “untrained,” “non-professional” and—worst of all—”unprofessional,” over and over, my blood began to boil. I’m sure most of these film critics are well-meaning. But somehow, when writers talk about individuals with the A-word label, the adjectives that follow are DE-meaning.
Samantha is a talented actress and singer who happens to have autism. She was chosen to play the leading role of Sarah in Keep the Change, AFTER 100 neurotypical (probably so-called “professional”) actresses auditioned for the part. The assumption is that her autism label defined her performance more than her talent. Audiences everywhere asked Samantha how she was similar to/or different from her character of Sarah in the movie, and she LOVED answering that question. At least she was credited with inhabiting a character that brought tears and laughter to people all over the world.
If we are going to have a neuro-inclusive world that respects and includes people with disabilities, talent and motivation must be recognized and reflected in our language. We need new descriptive words that are not reductionist and stigmatizing. Reviewers need to get over the idea that actors on the spectrum are any less professional than their neurotypical peers. Why can’t a developmentally challenged actor make a professional debut?
At the premiere of Keep the Change at the JCC, Marlee Matlin shared that after she received her award for her amazing performance in Children of a Lesser God, some reviewers said she was a type cast and didn’t deserve the award because she was deaf!
My daughter Samantha is every bit the professional. She’s been in 3 movies, 1 commercial, and she performs on stage regularly. She even receives a small salary for her participation. Samantha has head shots, goes on auditions, and she has spoken at the UN. It’s time for the world to acknowledge the talent and hard work that goes into (yes!) professional performances by people with developmental disabilities.