Dec 12, 2011 0 Share

I am Autistic: TV Pilot Showcases ASD Families

Photo of set of "I Am Autistic"
Photo courtesy FPR Studios

A woman struggles to understand as her teenage daughter with autism screeches unintelligibly and points at a take-out menu. An adult man with Asperger syndrome shares his hope that his book will become a bestseller. An autism expert recounts stories involving misunderstandings between people with autism and law enforcement.

These are just a few of the highlights of “I Am Autistic,” a TV pilot now available for acquisition from FPR Studios, an independent production company based in West Palm Beach, Florida, run by broadcast industry veterans Jerry Trowbridge and Ray Smithers. (Although previews of the show are not yet available to the public, FPR Studios provided Autism After 16 with a private screening.)

The hour-long pilot covers a wide range of topics, including autism research, legal concerns, celebrity interviews, and a movie clip. Interwoven are portions of at-home footage of families who live with autism.

The host who weaves these segments together is Daniel Heinlein, 24, of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in high school. The opener to the pilot shows chronological pictures of Heinlein as he details his long road to an AS diagnosis.

Heinlein, the grandson of a friend of Trowbridge and Smithers, had been writing and producing ads at a Wisconsin radio station when the broadcasters asked him to do a screen test for the pilot. They immediately knew they’d found their host.

“I jumped at it,” Heinlein said. “For all my social anxiety and other stuff, I’ve done theater and have always been able to dissociate myself and talk in front of people.”

The broadcasters flew Heinlein to South Florida to film his portions of the pilot at the studio. Despite interviewing most guests with only a green screen as his backdrop, Heinlein was a natural, Smithers said. He started calling the set “my apartment.”  

Still, the broadcasters knew how to keep Heinlein on his toes, he said. Smithers purposely gave the twentysomething minimal direction before he interviewed drummer Dan Spitz from the heavy metal band Anthrax and his wife, Candi, about their twin boys with autism.

“[Smithers] just briefed me, but didn’t tell me too much,” Heinlein said. “Otherwise, I would have had every question memorized and been thinking about posing my next question instead of listening. Getting to sit on a couch and talk with a musician about autism was so totally out of left field. I would have tried to make sure everything was perfect and, if we went off that, I would not have known how to cope.”

Instead, Heinlein appears at ease on camera when he interviews guests and when he introduces families’ at-home segments.

Trowbridge and Smithers sent video cameras to more than 30 families around the country. The families, found with the help of Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, received a few recommendations for keeping their cameras steady and introducing content so viewers would understand what followed, but otherwise, they filmed independently. The resultant footage in the pilot is mesmerizing, with segments that show different aspects of the families’ daily routines—including full-blown meltdowns.

“We see people who are high-functioning and they have unique issues,” Trowbridge said. “And then we see the people who will never speak and [have profound intellectual disabilities]. There’s a great gulf between them. We realized we couldn’t sugar-coat this.”

The Show's Future

The broadcasters have big plans for the show once a television network or video distribution outlet picks it up.

Trowbridge said they see the series as having three audiences: individuals and families who know what it’s like to live with autism and who would like to learn about the latest research and resources; people who have been newly diagnosed with autism and their families, who would benefit from seeing others in their situation; and TV viewers who would stop by to learn about autism. All three audiences are likely to grow, considering the rise in autism diagnoses.

“This is a freight train coming at us,” Trowbridge said. “The increase in autism diagnoses went from 1 in 110 to 1 in 100 just in the course we have been developing this show.”

The families are keeping the video cameras they received so they can record their progress. Trowbridge and Smithers plan to air updates on the families when they have something meaningful to share.

And the broadcasters see the networking potential of the show. At the end of each at-home segment, a dedicated email address will appear on the screen that viewers can use to contact the families.

“So many of the families feel alone,” Smithers said. “You have all your friends, then all of a sudden you have an autistic child, and your friends don’t want to watch the meltdowns. They don’t want to listen to your problems.”

Future shows may deal with respite care, postsecondary transition, employment, and vaccination. Trowbridge and Smithers said they plan to be brutally honest regardless of what subject they tackle, even toileting issues.

“We have to go there. We cannot not go there,” Trowbridge said. “There is no stone we won’t turn over.”

The show’s expert advisory committee watched the pilot before the studio released it for review. Every family that participated also vetted the pilot’s content. The show will continue to seek feedback from the community to ensure it doesn’t become exploitative.

“It’s a thin line, trying to show people in a positive light and not be accused of exploiting them, but we’ll have to do our best,” Heinlein said.

Heinlein said his family plans to move to South Florida if the show gets the green light. Trowbridge and Smithers said they see him doing more on-location interviews in the future, perhaps even outside Florida. They believe Heinlein could become the public face of autism if the show takes off. Heinlein, who has overcome depression and anxiety, is ready for the responsibility.

“It feels good to do something this meaningful that will be of use to people,” he said. “I’m very excited about that.”

Heinlein, who studied sociology and music in college before following his family into the radio business, may just have to confront his quirks on occasion if he interviews any young men with Asperger syndrome.

“As hard as I have to work to get through life, I’m fortunate I don’t have the functional impairment others do,” Heinlein said. “When we introduce someone who is higher-functioning who reminds me of me, I will have to face that. It’s like when I hear my voice recorded. It doesn’t sound like me at all, but I sound like that to others. I’m ready to confront that down the line because I think it’s important to get at the entire spectrum, not just the lower end of the spectrum.”