I think Louis Theroux is an amazing documentarian and once we got handed my son’s diagnosis, I couldn’t wait to watch this. This documentary focuses on a school in New Jersey built solely for educating Autistic children and that’s incredible. I was really curious to see how the parents of these children went about life, love and, in some cases, loss.
As far as a documentary goes, this film, and its main man, follow all the rules and doesn’t waste time away from the main characters. It’s only an hour long and it moves quickly and naturally through the various stories. I felt connected to the parents and a few of the kids and I’m definitely hoping for a “where are they know?” follow-up in a couple years. Again, the focus here is on the families and their school and doesn’t spend any time with lab coats, academic researchers or vaccination debates. It assumes you know what autism is and the responsibilities that often show up with it.
I lived in Philadelphia just long enough to inherit a legit dislike of New Jersey though, admittedly, the state has never done me any wrong. I almost couldn’t believe it was true that there is a state-funded school built exclusively to teach children with autism AND they try their damnedest not to turn any child away. My current state would never pay for that, the idea would’ve been sent straight to the private sector where lobbyists and parents of “normal” kids would decide its fate. The staff at DLC Warren seem alert and passionate and genuinely interested in the children. There’s a hallway in the building that emulates a classic Main Street complete with grocery store and bank, allowing children to work on their social interactions and everyday tasks. Of course, this opens up the debate around blended classrooms but it’s awesome to think that this school might provide certain parents with a legitimate alternative within their public school system.
Finally, I wanted to see and hear the parents. How have their lives been impacted by their child’s special needs? What is their current emotional state? How was it parenting “normal” children while raising one or more that needed extra, very special attention. I very much respect and appreciate a couple of the parents that admit to hardship, confess that sometimes things just suck and yes, that they wonder how life would be different if they were raising a neuro-typical child. To me, it’s those admissions that make their praises and positives more genuine and relatable. At one point during an aggressive physical outburst by her child, one parent requests that the crew keep filming because people need to see her reality. Another couple admits they don’t think they’ll ever get to take a vacation again and that there are never many smiles in their house.
I WANTED MY SON TO BE A DOCTOR OR LAWYER ONE DAY. NOW I WILL BE HAPPY IF HE CAN BE A DISHWASHER.
One part that strikes particularly close to home is a mother talking about how hard it had been emotionally to raise a severely autistic kid and said something to the effect of “imagine waiting until your child was 5 until you heard them say ‘mom’.” Just like all children with developmental delays are different, so is each case of autism. Both apraxia and autism have no known causes or cures and occasionally they will be diagnosed in tandem. Parents of children with either have to confront realities that don’t align with their previous hopes and dreams. “I wanted my son to be a doctor or lawyer one day. Now I will be happy if he can be a dishwasher,” confides a father in the film.
I definitely recommended watching this film, the worst thing that can happen is that you learn a few things about the lives of autistic children and best case is that you better understand your own place in the life of a special needs child.
At the time of writing, the film was available to stream on Netflix (US).