How I gained life skills and a way to connect through film.
Brian Tuck, Contributor
Emma Harris, Illustrator
On a cold October morning in 2002, my parents, Kerrie and Geoff Tuck, entered an office at the Coastal Health building on Esplanade. This was their fourth or fifth visit to the child psychologist after a few observation sessions, and they felt a slew of competing emotions. Looking the couple in the eye, the doctor confirmed what they were prepared to hear – that I, their son, was autistic, albeit mildly. They took it in stride. The confirmation was not devastating, but they were worried. Like most people, they had no clue what the implications of my diagnosis would be, and they felt a mounting uncertainty.
Autism is one of the most common developmental disorders. In fact, one in 66 children are diagnosed in Canada each year. Yet, despite being so prevalent, it is also one of the most misunderstood disorders – thanks to Hollywood portrayals, people tend to think that all autistic people are like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man.
As an elementary school student, I had a lot of typical interests for someone my age. I liked reading, playing on the playground and watching movies. But in Grade 1 there was a shift – I started to get pulled out of class, and taken to see a woman named Phyllis. At the time I didn’t think too much of it. Her office was like a classroom except that there were books, games and posters with emotions on them, and there was nothing about curricular learning. I actually thought that it was kind of cool because, like a lot of kids my age, there were times when I wouldn’t want to be in class. With Phyllis I would talk about movies and books, and she would talk about social situations, comparing them to scenes from the books and movies. I loved that I could talk about the things that I really liked and she would be there to listen.
As I got older, I started to see doctors outside of school, and began to question what was going on. It wasn’t until I was 12, about to graduate from elementary school, that my parents sat me down to tell me I had a mild case of autism. It explained a lot but I also felt a little discouraged. I worried about how it would impact my life.
Each diagnosis is different, falling somewhere along a spectrum from mild to severe. Despite presenting challenges, there are new ways of treating autism. The effort to create more awareness about the disorder is part of changing the commonly held narrative, which is often a factor that prevents those with autism from leading a normal life within society.
When I entered high school, I told a lot of my old classmates and friends that I had autism. They reassured me that that didn’t matter, because they still thought that I was a fun person to be around. It brought a sense of relief to know that there were people who didn’t care about my diagnosis – that there were people who would be my friends no matter what.
But like a lot of people in high school, I was also subjected to bullying. I was relentlessly called “dumb-ass,” or “retard,” by a particular classmate. It got to a point where I no longer wanted to go to school. Despite trying my best to ignore the bullying, I eventually broke down and told my parents about my troubles. They were devastated – it was hard to hear that I was suffering. Telling them helped a little, but not a lot. Eventually I went to the school counsellor, who advised me to keep my parents and friends informed, and not to bottle up my feelings. It was this advice that really got me through high school. Reaching out and making connections saved me, but it was also during this time that I turned once again to the one thing I had loved since I was a kid: movies.
One of the hallmarks of the disorder in all patients is a focused interest in a particular topic or an affinity. It may be harder for people with autism, but Owen Suskind, the subject of the documentary <i>Life, Animated<i>, proves that it’s not impossible. After being diagnosed with regressive autism at the age of three, doctors told Suskind’s parents that he may never talk again. Suskind defied the odds, regained his speech and motor skills, and today he works and lives on his own.
Suskind is not an anomaly. Like Suskind, Jacob Barnett was also diagnosed with regressive autism. But he not only defied the odds, he crushed them. At 10 years old he was a college student, at 13 a published physicist, at 15 he obtained a master’s degree and today he is a PhD student.
In Suskind’s case it’s Disney movies, while for Barnett it’s math and science. It’s through these affinities that both Suskind and Barnett were able to regain their speech, and integrate themselves within society.
One of the misconceptions of autism is that people who have it always want to be alone. While it’s true that I enjoy my alone time, it does not mean that I don’t want to engage with other people. I simply have a harder time when trying to engage in conversations. This is where my affinity comes in. Like Suskind, my affinity is movies, and I’ve learned to use it to help connect with other people. I can name almost any film, the year it was released, the plot, the actors and the crew members, but beyond being just a cool party trick, my affinity has helped me understand social situations.
Dr. Richard Stock of the Applied Behaviour Analysis program at Capilano University, explained that people with autism can use affinities not only to connect with others, but to provide motivation in their lives. “I know this one person who loves movies, but didn’t have any motivation to get out of the house,” said Stock. “But that changed when he met another person who shared his love of film, and now he meets with this person every month to see a movie.”
While people with autism can have special accommodations in elementary school and high school, many do not require, or do not want them in post-secondary. According to Nathan
Anderson, head of the Accessibility Services, the ones who want or need accommodations usually have a second disorder like ADHD, depression or anxiety. He explained that it is because of the affected frontal lobe that they are even more stimulated and have a harder time focusing in very large group gatherings like exams.
Everyone has their quirks, and those of us with autism just perceive things differently. Today I am a general studies student hoping to get into the film program. I still have some difficulty catching sarcasm, and I don’t react in the way one normally would in a certain situations, but movies have given me something to hold onto. Whether it’s learning to deal with tough topics like life and death, or how to be a good friend, films like The Lion King and Toy Story have been especially integral to my development. My parents have seen me come a long way. “There are a few things that remain, but most of your tendencies have subsided or not as obvious or they once were,” noted my mother, Kerrie. In the end, those tendencies make me… well, me.