The World of the Developmentally Disabled in Film

In a fast-moving news world, can we slow down, stop, and watch a film series about people with developmental disabilities? That’s a question I asked myself this weekend.  Although I saw several noteworthy films, I missed many at the Sprout Film Festival, an annual three-day festival, held every spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. I urge you to look for this festival touring in your area.

What I saw made a compelling case for removing the stigma against people with a wide range of disabilities, including Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, autism, and Asperger syndrome.  The program encompassed more than 50 independent shorts, documentaries, narratives, animations, paintings, and photographs from 16 different countries. People with developmental disabilities, their siblings, and caregivers watched the films with a diverse audience.

Wretches & Jabberers

Not to be missed is Wretches & Jabberers, directed by Gerardine Wurzberg, a cinematic tour de force, shot beautifully, telling the story of Larry Bisonette and Tracy Thresher, two Vermont men with autism, who take the trip of their lifetime, visiting Sri Lanka, Japan, and Finland.

SPOILER ALERT: The film is traveling around the United States. If you are interested in seeing it, you might want to stop here.


Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonette, Courtesy of Ralph Alswang Photography

They set out to transform worldwide stigma against autism, and bond with others who have autism in what they dub the “World Intelligence Magnified Tour.” With their new-found friends, they visit shrines,  meet with a Buddhist monk, and go in a sauna in Finland. Luminously shot, the movie captures how hard it is for people with autism to communicate. Providing accommodations helps them experience  purpose and meaning in the world.  Larry types out the words: that it is “killingly hard to say how I feel.” In Sri Lanka, Chammi Rajapatirana writes: “We live as outcasts in Sri Lanka.” Tracy states his intent compellingly: to move “disability to a positive place.” At home, Tracy is a powerful advocate, yet he is homeless, lives out of a backpack, and sometimes ends up in a shelter for a night or two each week. Naoki Higashida, in Tokyo, tells them that even though he has written ten books on a keypad, he is not allowed to go to school, and that he feels “trapped inside like a caged animal.”

Naoki Higashida, with his mother, Miki, Courtesy of Douglas Biklen

Typing on mobile keyboards for several years has opened a new world for Larry, Tracy, Naoki, Chammi, Henna, and Antti. The words of the adults and children look poetic as they are tapped out. The musical score adds complexity to the film.  (An unanswered question was how they learn to use a keyboard to communicate.)

The movie goes far in questioning the stupidity of societies that have marginalized individuals with autism, shining a light on their different way of communicating, as well as inspiration and purpose when society makes accommodations for them.

Siblings of the Developmentally Disabled

A Saturday afternoon series took up the hurdles that siblings face when they have a brother or sister with developmental disabilities. These issues are rarely shown to people outside of the world of families living with developmentally disabled children or adults . The Third Parent, directed by Christina Frenzel, and Finding Fred, directed by Geoffrey Kappenberg, in which two brothers once separated by the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded, are reunited were especially riveting. Discussions between sibling-caregivers, the audience, and individuals benefiting from Sprout’s yearlong programs, created an ambience that I’d like to see more of: it broke down barriers and isolation common in the outside world.

There was so much more to this weekend. It is a shame that these films are not shown more widely to audiences that are more diverse—and that my life is too complicated to review more here today. I’ve cut the Wretches & Jabberers review short, deferring to Steve Silberman, blogger at Neurotribes, and far more facile with autism topics than me, who plans to review the film soon. Keep an eye out for his review.

Film series like these should be shown to policymakers before they pull the rug out from under  programs for these vulnerable groups. Doctors, health plans, and reformers should be certain that their outcome measures work as well in the real world, when determining effectiveness of interventions for any person living with developmental disabilities.

The Sprout Film Festival is touring. Some films are available on Sprout’s website and YouTube channel.


This entry was posted in Asperger syndrome, Developmentally disabled, Down syndrome, film, traumatic brain injury. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The World of the Developmentally Disabled in Film

  1. HARRY BOLLES says:

    I see you can get the Soundtrack for Wretches and Jabberers at iTunes, but not yet the film itself.

  2. frances kalfus says:

    Thank you, Laura, for taking the time not only to go to this important film series, but to take the time to write about some of the films. I had never heard of the Sprout Film Festival before, and I hope it comes to the SF Bay Area. I will look out for it. It is so important to enlighten each of us on the subjects of autism, Aspergers syndrome, etc., and it sounds like these films do just that. I appreciate your bringing these to my attention. Keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks for this round-up of important films. I just finally got a chance to watch “Temple Grandin” this past weekend and am still processing the amazing and positive message of that woman’s accomplishments.

  4. Sawyer says:

    Thank you, Laura, for taking the time to partake in this festival and to blog about it. As proud mom to a 13-year-old with Down Syndrome I am particularly aware of the discomfort the average person seems to feel – and show – when confronted with any kind of “differentness.” How sad it is that our society is like that, and how extremely stressful for those of us who are thinking ahead of what will confront our beloved children once us, the parents, aren’t around any more to take care of them.

  5. Laura Newman says:

    Sawyer, nice to read your post. I’d like to continue this discussion fairly soon here, but the rest of May is very hectic. Please send me an email at patientpov “at” gmail “dot” com.

    Thanks, Laura

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