With the increasing amount of autism diagnoses and advocates around the world working together to increase autism awareness in their communities, it comes as little surprise that autism is starting to be better represented in the performing arts. While we have talked in detail in the past about autism-friendly movie screenings—the AMC movie theater chain has been at the forefront of this movement—alongside theater performances designed for audiences with autism, this week we’re taking a look at how individuals with autism are appearing more frequently on stage and screen.
But firstly, last week saw the end of John Stewart’s sixteen-year reign as the anchor of The Daily Show. While both fans and detractors of the show had been anticipating this day ever since Stewart announced his resignation, one aspect of the finale is likely to surprise even the most die hard Daily Show fans: Steward raised $2.2 million for New York Collaborates for Autism. The money came from eager fans who bought raffle tickets back in April in the hope that they would be chosen to attend the show’s final episode on August 6. This was Stewart’s second time working with the charity.
In other entertainment news, following this year’s earlier release of the harrowing documentary How to Dance in Ohio, another new autism-related film is making waves. Keep the Change is a film from a Tangerine Entertainment, written and directed by Rachel Israel, which has already won the Columbia University Film Festival’s Focus Features Best Film Award, the Alumni Award, and the Arthur J. Harris Memorial Prize.
The short film details the romance between two characters—a 30-year-old with high functioning autism and a young woman who has a language processing disability. While the film is noteworthy for its subject matter alone, what truly makes the film stand out is that all of the actors in the film are on the autistic spectrum. This is an exciting development for films about autism as they tend to be documentaries and the fiction films usually star neurotypical actors, so Israel’s film is truly a radical step forward for actors with autism.
Keep the Change is just one of a trio of recent films to star leading actors with autism. In Atlanta, brother and sister pair Jenna and Vance Kanell recently collaborated on a short film called Bumblebee, which stars 19-year-old Vance in the lead role. Vance, who was diagnosed with autism as a child, and his sister created and entered the film as part of The Disability Film Challenge in which participants write, direct, and edit a film in 48 hours. The Kanell siblings went on to win the contest.
Finally, an 18-year-old Florida teenage boy named Keaton Bicknell has recently seen his big screen dreams come to fruition with his short film The Adventures of Pelican Pete: A Bird is Born, which premiered July 12 at the San Diego International Children’s Film Festival at Comic-Con. Keaton, who was diagnosed with severe autism at age 2, first started working on the screenplay when he was only 11 and it remained his passion project throughout his teens, blending live-action material shot by Keaton with original animation.
As the above stories attest, children and young adults with autism are often just bursting with creativity and the structured environment of film provides them with a great outlet for them to see their imagination come to life.