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Review: Sedona International Film Festival Features Award Winning Film on Autism ~ IN A DIFFERENT KEY

Award Winning Film on Autism to be presented at the 2021 Sedona International Film Festival

If you search the web for autism, 495,000,000 is the count for resources with information ranging from its definition and causation to its symptomatology and treatment. Scores of commercial films (RAIN MAN, FORREST GUMP and TEMPLE GRANDIN come to mind) have been framed around real or fictional characters with related traits. Numerous documentaries (to name a few, BEAUTIFUL YOUNG MINDS; BEST KEPT SECRET; THE HUMMINGBIRD; LIFE ANIMATED), each in distinctive ways, have aimed to lift the veil on those whose lives are impacted by what may be defined (depending on the source) as either a disorder, a disability or a difference.

Notwithstanding all these efforts, questions remain: As a society, have we come to understand fully the complexity and nuances of autism or the autism spectrum? Have we, as a supposedly caring culture, advanced far enough in ensuring that appropriate steps are made to practice inclusiveness and provide sustained support for the autistic?

Enter IN A DIFFERENT KEY, a unique and illuminating documentary that embraces these matters with candor and opens wide the portals of perception regarding not only autistic behavior but also, and perhaps more crucially, our society's behavior.

The film begins with a journalist's quest to understand the ways and whys of how people react to the autistic and a mother's aspiration that her son Mickey and others with autism will have the opportunity to be accepted and belong. The journalist and mother are one and the same ~ Caren Zucker, a Peabody award-winning television news producer, who, with John Donvan, has co-produced and directed the documentary based on their eponymous New York Times best seller and 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction.

The first step of mother and son's journey is a visit to Forest, Mississippi, the home of Donald Grey Triplett, "autism's first child."

Affectionately known as Don by the citizens of this self-described progressive small town (population 5629), the 88-year-old made history when he was listed as Case 1 in a groundbreaking paper by Leo Kanner, a prominent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic. The 1943 research, entitled, Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact, established autism as a recognizable diagnosis.

The portrait of Don as a charming and friendly presence, welcomed and embraced by his neighbors, is a thread that weaves throughout the film and its texture is enhanced when Mickey and Don finally meet and find common cause in a sweet and surprising moment of camaraderie.

It's the portraits of autism between the beginning and end of Zucker's cross-country drive that belie the image of Don and his belonging as something commonplace. Don is the beneficiary of kindnesses that derive from his status as the son of the town's banker family, well-resourced and "at the top of the social hierarchy" ~ his experience hardly that of others for whom the level of acceptance and care may be more a function of their means.

It is in juxtaposing the voices and experiences of other individuals and families who are not as fortunate that the film makers render another portrait ~ one that underscores the imbalance and inequities of treatment that derive from racism, means, privilege, or ignorance.

They carve out a broad section of their story-telling to convey the rocky evolution of understanding and treatment of the condition ~ from barbaric experimentation and confinement in sanatoria and from fruitcake theories like Bruno Bettelheim's that toxic and maladjusted mothers caused autism to today's more progressive and research-based community-based programs, best exemplified by The Community School, a program operated by the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) in Phoenix.

They provide an essential counter-narrative to the romanticized misconception that to be autistic is to be a savant.

They expose the vulnerabilities and worries of families dealing with limited resources ~ for example, the heart-rending story of Jason McCarver, a single parent devoted to an autistic son who requires 24/7 care ~ or families dealing with the erratic and destructive behaviors of their children.

On the other hand, there's the uplifting and inspiring story of John Elder Robison, diagnosed as autistic at the age of 40, who has become in a transcendent way a powerful and empowering voice to "inspire people with autism to have pride in themselves, to see autism as part of their identity." His emphasis on neurodiversity (not a word of disability) ~ "the idea that some amount of neurological diversity is a normal healthy part of humanity" ~ is a splendid eye-opening encounter with truth.

And there are the voices of a cast of young people who are empowered by this film to speak on their own terms in their own cadences.

All told, IN A DIFFERENT KEY strikes chords that resonate with compassion and humanity and elevate our understanding of and connection with the autistic community. Zucker is an eloquent guide throughout this transformative journey. And the hope of the mother in her for her son's future (and I expect for the children of countless other parents) is one which we all must share.

For those Arizonans who know of Denise Resnik's vision and leadership in co-founding SARRC and tirelessly advocating on behalf of the autistic, there will be no surprise that she is credited for her "unwavering support" in the making of the film.

IN A DIFFERENT KEY, winner for Best Documentary at both the 2021 Oxford Film Festival and the Sonoma International Film Festival and featuring a sublime original score by Wynton Marsalis, is an Official Selection at the 2021 Sedona International Film Festival (June12th-20th).

Photo of Donald Grey Triplett ~ Credit to IN A DIFFERENT KEY

Sedona International Film Festival ~ ~ 928-282-1177 ~ 2030 W. State Route 89A, Suite A-3, Sedona, AZ

For additional information regarding the film or book, IN A DIFFERENT KEY, contact

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From This Author - Herbert Paine