‘What if Everything You Knew About Autism Was Wrong?’
New Documentary Asks
Inspired by the book “Underestimated: An Autism Miracle,” by J.B. and Jamie Handley, the new full-length documentary “SPELLERS,” from executive producers Jenny McCarthy-Wahlberg and Donnie Wahlberg, challenges conventional wisdom about nonspeakers with autism.
Imagine being unable to speak, wanting to speak, with everyone treating you like an infant. For your entire life.
You’re not able to ask for things you like or let your loved ones know you’re in pain. You cannot report any wrongdoings that are done to you. You can’t express your feelings.
How would you feel?
Frustrated? Lonely? Isolated? Abandoned? Trapped?
Now, what if all it took was training and a little technology — tech used every day by people like you and me to set your voice free — but the mainstream media, the public education juggernaut and those tasked with the standards of care for children with developmental disorders ignored or actively denied it?
Aydan, Jamie, Evan, Trey, Cade, Madison, Sid, Vince, Elizabeth, Elliot, Sam, GJ, Charles and Liam are 14 brilliant, caring compassionate young minds who, in the documentary “SPELLERS,” provide testimony to the fact that they are going to change your views, and the world’s views on autism — forever.
A few days ago, J.B. Handley invited me to preview and review a forthcoming documentary. The film “SPELLERS,” is about the life-changing experiences being had by non-verbal kids with autism and their families.
After your watch “SPELLERS,” you will never look at any “autistic” child — or any adult — who is non-verbal the same way again.
Years ago, I had heard about a technique parents were trying where the would hold their kids’ hands and the kids would point to symbols and in this way the parents would report what their child was saying.
The approach had been dismissed, with critics claiming that the parents, not the children, were doing the choosing. The parents, they said, so desperate to have a relationship with their child they entered into some form of delusion.
I’m no film critic, and I had a leg up on those who have never heard of the film. Handley and I have a pretty trusting relationship. I interviewed Handley and his son, Jamie, a year ago, on my podcast.
There was a specific moment in that podcast when I knew that Jamie was truly answering my questions: his previously wandering eyes focused like a laser on the keyboard, then the screen, and back and forth as he went to make sure he was not making errors in his message.
That’s when it hit home for me. I felt honored to be perhaps the very first podcast host to interview a previously non-communicative non-speaking person.
I’m warning you beforehand: “SPELLERS” is going to kick your ass.
‘SPELLERS’ is not for the faint of heart
Evening knowing what I knew from speaking with Handley and other parents involved in the care of their young adult children, I did not expect to go through the emotional ride that “SPELLERS” mandates of you.
I literally had to take it in small doses — 20 minutes at a time, to let myself process what I had just seen on the screen. Not out of disbelief — but rather out of my keen sensitivity to injustices and my penchant to fight for the downtrodden.
“SPELLERS” has some important societal lessons for all of us. The lessons are not there for the expediency of political correctness. They are there because if we continue to treat kids with autism with the presumption of intellectual disability we are denying them the opportunity to engage in their own learning experiences, in their own enrichment, in their own lives.
We condemn them to social isolation, which, even without stigma, becomes a one-way street. We condemn them to dependence. We condemn them to being underestimated.
We deny them the chance to express unhappiness, joy, and the chance to say “I love you.”
These lessons are not difficult, but they are profound. And “SPELLERS” teaches these lessons IN THEIR OWN WORDS.
1. Presume intellectual aptitude
Cade Larson said it quite well: “I think knowing we are intelligent and treating us with respect helps.”
It all starts with knowing that a non-verbal child will, with the right training, be able to provide their own thoughts. And they will be complex, far more developed than you could ever expect.
2. Give them the respect they deserve
Every autonomous, sentient mind deserves the space to have their own viewpoints heard and understood. With the presumption of intellect comes a mandate for respect.
3. Expect revealing, profound prior knowledge and synthesis
The film provides numerous examples of beautifully deep profound original thought that otherwise would not ever have been expressed. Naturally, once their minds are freed from their cages, they share their original thoughts.
4. Expect that your child is going to be grateful, loving and compassionate
Each person who has come through the training wants, more than anything else, to encourage other non-verbals to get trained and set their minds free. “It will be worth it!”
5. The Right to communicate is fundamental — and right now, in 2023, millions of children are denied
In my view, this is the most important part of the film. It all boils down to Civil Rights, and this powerful point is not rhetorical:
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability by public entities and in State and local government services, programs, activities and employment, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance.
The Civil Rights Center is responsible for enforcing Title II of the ADA as it applies to the labor- and workforce-related practices of state and local governments and other public entities.
Title II of the ADA guarantees each child the right to have access to technology as needed to communicate during schooling in their preferred manner via reasonable accommodations: A public entity must reasonably modify its policies, practices, or procedures if needed to make the public entity’s programs, services, or activities accessible for a person with a disability.
How to watch it
“SPELLERS” has been accepted into Phoenix Film Festival 2023! The film will screen three times, from March 31 to April 2. If you can join the filmmakers in Phoenix, they want to see you there!
I’ve also heard that they might hold a private online screening of the film on April 2, World Autism Awareness Day.
Handley wouldn’t confirm this, but he did say it’s critical people who want to be kept in the loop (invited) share their email here. “SPELLERS” also has a pretty active Instagram page where you can keep up to date.
Handley definitely confirmed that by the summer the film will be “available worldwide” and that he hopes families will pull their communities together to watch.
It couldn’t happen soon enough. He said it’s particularly important for nonspeakers to see what their peers are capable of. (Wait until they meet Elizabeth, the film’s finale character and a valedictorian from Rollins College.)
The “SPELLERS” website ponders, “What if everything you knew about autism was wrong?”
The movie affirms that’s true, even for me.
The film is scheduled to be released. I am asking everyone to plan a screening. Bring families together.
Originally published on James Lyons-Weiler’s Popular Rationalism Substack page.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Children’s Health Defense.