Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My review of the movie Life Animated

Last week, I finally got to see the film Life Animated  which is about a young man with autism who found a way to connect with the world through Disney movies.  I've always wanted to see this film after hearing from a friend who told me how good the movie was.    To give you a brief synopsis the film centers around Owen Suskind who was diagnosed with autism at age three.  His parents noticed that around age three he started to lose speech and was withdrawing in his own world.  Once his parents received Owen's diagnosis, they tried all they can to connect with him and to get him  to speak.  Unfortunately progress was slow at first until they realized one day when they were watching a Disney movie with him that he was using these films to connect with the world.  They realized this gradually through scripts and insights he provides such as explaining that his brother doesn't want to grow up like Mowgli and Peter Pan.  The film chronicles Owens life as he comes of age and transitions out of school age services into adulthood and independent living as well as how he utilizes the power of Disney to navigate and deal with this transition.  The  film interweaves animation into the film that chronicles pivotal moments of the film.

I personally loved Life Animated and found it relatable as someone on the autism spectrum.  I loved how the synopsis of the film mainly centers around Owen and how he views the world. Too often most movies and television shows are filmed from the perspective of parents and professionals giving an "outside looking in" perspective on autism.  Often these type of third person films portray autism in a negative light and how often the child is a burden on the family.  Although Owen's parents and brother were interviewed and talked about how they "lost Owen" in the beginning, the film mainly puts Owen's perspective and insights in how he sees the world over those of his parents and brother as well as others who work with him.   

The second thing I liked about the film is the positive message of embracing Owen's interest in Disney and how he uses it in a empowering way instead of  faulting him for not having interests that are  considered age appropriate according to the norms of typical society.  For Owen,  his interest in Disney allowed him to not only connect with his parents but allowed him to start a Disney club at school in which he has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills and ultimately leads him to have a girlfriend.   As someone who is a big fan of Disney and other animated cartoon characters,  I can relate to Owen in some degree even though his interest in Disney films is more all- encompassing and intense.     An example in which the film resonates with my experience is when Owen was getting ready to move into his own place. He was  starting to feel anxious and asked his dad if he can watch scenes from Dumbo to help calm himself  down.  Like Owen, I have  utilize my love of childlike cartoon characters like Hello Kitty and Frozen  to help me deal with my transition to a four year college as well as my current transition into the world of employment and the demands of the adult world.   This is the part I wish more autism experts understood in how unusual and childlike interests like Disney serve a purpose of comfort and predictability in people like me and Owen.  Too often, most autism interventions aim at eliminating these interests rather than embracing them.  Life Animated  does a good job showing how the power of special interests can be channeled in a way that allows individuals with autism to connect to the world and how it can be utilized in therapeutic interventions.  

Another way I can relate to Owen in Life Animated is his anxiety about  growing up.   I liked how the film portrays Owen when he comes of age and demonstrates from a first person perspective of what it's like to transition to adulthood.   My transitions from high school to community college, from community college to a four year University and now onto employment brings a lot of  fear and uncertainty about the future.  To see Owen going through a similar thing makes me feel like I am not the only one in my feelings.  There are not a lot of realistic first person portrayals about transitioning from the comfort and structured nature of school services to the unstructured nature of adulthood.   As someone living with autism,  I felt that Life Animated  accurately portrayed this rite of passage and gave me the validation that I longed for.  

Overall on a scale on 1 to 10, I would rate this documentary a high 10.  It is a neurodiverse friendly film which has the rare occurence of telling a story utilizing an "inside looking out" perspective that embraces the autistic way of thinking.  Whether if you have experience dealing with autism or not,  I would recommend everyone to see this film as some of the film's central message would resonate with everyone about growing up.

Here is the link to the trailer of Life Animated


Monday, August 15, 2016

Why making friends is hard when you have autism

For most neurotypical people, the nature of friendships is a rewarding experience.  Friends are usually the main people that fulfill the social need of humans.  Most people take the skill of making and keeping friends for granted.  However, imagine living a life in which making and keeping friends doesn’t come easy.  This is what my life is like every day. Since I was really little I always had a hard time making and keeping friends.  Although I went to various social skills groups and classes as well as being taught social skills in behavioral therapy to address these concerns, this will be a continuous challenge for me.    The social complexities and cues of friendship are hard to decode.  For example,  I sometimes don’t know if someone genuinely wants to hang with me or not is the hardest part of meeting new people and establishing potential friendships.  Another hurdle of why establishing friendships are hard is the fact that I have no control over the behaviors of other people.  I can only control my behaviors and what I put into the friendship, but I have no control over the actions and thoughts of others.    In the past, friends would flake out on me or change plans at the last minute which would cause me stress.   As an autistic person, any sudden changes puts me on edge and when my friends cancel out on me it throws me off.  A third challenge that making and keeping friends has for me is the concept of group outings or get-togethers.  Most young adults in their 20’s enjoy group outings such as parties and going to the bar etc.  For me, I don’t enjoy such things because of the sensory overload that accompanies me whenever I am in a room full of people.    The last challenge of making friends when you are on the spectrum is difficulty finding quality friends that meet my emotional and companionate needs as well as being sensitive to my needs as an autistic person.   I am not looking for a play companion who only does fun stuff and sticks by me for only the good times, but want friends who I can talk about my problems and challenges and is also reliable and sympathetic to my challenges.  For this reason I prefer to hang out with older and more mature people since they are more likely to meet the above criteria.   Unfortunately more often than not, it is very hard to find my ideal friend especially when living in a big and spread out metropolis like Los Angeles.   All these factors combined and the amount of effort it takes for me to maintain friendships makes this fundamental social interaction increasingly tough for me.  This is why I don’t have too many friends in my life because of the amount of maintenance and energy it takes out of me.

It can be a frustrating thing for both the autistic person and their parents and other support people for the lack of friends because of missed social opportunities.   Over the years I have developed two beliefs that have helped me feel better about my difficulties.  I will now give you these two pieces of advice.  The first piece of advice I would offer is to not stress so much about not having a lot of friends.  Instead, you should focus on having quality friends who will meet your needs and respect you for who you are.  I am grateful to find at least two good friends who accept me for who I am and are okay with my autism and its unique characteristics and limitations.  One of them is also on the spectrum herself and shares the same desire to spread autism acceptance as well as advocate for better services and accommodations for people on the spectrum in the greater society.  It is long term friendships in which one can share vulnerabilities and intimate thoughts that will matter in the long run .  Another piece of advice that I learned to adopt is focusing on having a support network or finding other people in your life besides your friends to provide emotional support if you are having trouble finding the right type of friends or your friends are not emotionally available.  For instance, I am very fortunate to have a loving family, a behavior therapist and a mentor to provide emotional support when I am going through a hard time.   The point of this blog post is to share my experience of making friendships as someone living on the spectrum and hopefully this might help others on the spectrum that are in the same boat.