“If you've met one autistic person … you've met one autistic person.” So says the tagline for writer/director Todd Drezner's 2011 documentary, “Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic.” The film explores the myriad ways in which experts, parents and caregivers alike view autism today. Is it a tragic disease, for which a cure must be sought? Or is it a gift disguised as a dilemma, as interviewee Sharisa Joy Kochmeister posits? Drezner, a proponent of neurodiversity with a column in the Huffington Post, casts a diverse group of individuals to speak about autism, and its effect on their lives. The film's title refers to Drezner's son, Sam, and his love of the lamppost circuit in Prospect Park, NY. “Loving Lampposts” combines scientific theory with personal detail, and has received numerous awards and accolades for its nuanced portrayal of autism.
AA16: First, I have to ask: How is Sam doing? Does he like school?
TD: Sam is doing very well. We were extremely lucky to get him into a school for kids on the autism spectrum, where there are eight kids in the class, three teachers, and speech and OT on site. The school has a relationship-based philosophy that is very much in line with how my wife and I try to think about autism. Sam is thriving there, and all of the staff seem to take joy in him while at the same time helping him to work on his challenges. As I said, we're very lucky.
AA16: What prompted you to make "Loving Lampposts"? What do you think is the film's core message?
TD: I had been involved in editing some documentaries and was looking to make a film of my own. At around the same time, Sam got his diagnosis. His ritual of visiting lampposts seemed to me to be a good way of getting at some of the bigger questions about autism. Although there are lots of good documentaries about autism, most of them focus on on an individual autistic person or a group of autistic people. I thought there was room for a film that explored how society thinks about autism at a time when it's more well known than ever before.
Then, too, I was aware that Sam does not have some of the most stereotypically difficult behaviors associated with autism. While the ideas of neurodiversity appealed to me, I wondered whether I could find families whose children were more challenging in some ways who also believed in neurodiversity. I was happy to find that I could.
I think the film's core message is simply that autistic people can lead meaningful and productive lives both in spite of and because of their autism. The film suggests that we put aside our obsessions with "cures" and "recovery" and focus on how best to support autistic people to reach their full potential, whatever that may be.
AA16: Was there a particular scene or storyline that surprised or touched you during the filming process? (For example, I was deeply moved when Sharisa Joy Kochmeister typed, "Autism is a gift disguised as a dilemma.")
TD: I was also very much affected by Sharisa's story. She was one of the earliest subjects I filmed, and it was very eye-opening because the difference between outside appearances and what's happening inside her is so great. Seeing such a "low functioning" person who was actually so brilliant really brought home that some of the ways we think about autism are not fully accurate. I was glad that I filmed Sharisa so early because I kept those lessons in mind as I continued shooting.
I was also blown away by Lyndon, the 60-year-old with autism, and his almost 90-year-old mother, Lila Howard. It's awe-inspiring to see how much Lila did to give Lyndon an independent life at a time that there was no support for autism. It makes you realize how lucky we are today.
AA16: "Loving Lampposts" features an incredible range of individuals with differing abilities and beliefs. How did you choose your interview subjects?
TD: That diversity was deliberate. As I said, I wanted to explore the various ways that society is thinking about autism today, and so I wanted to get as many perspectives as possible. I filmed at two autism conferences early on—one that had much more of "recovery" focus and another that was more aligned with the neurodiversity perspective. That allowed me to get some very different views of autism early on in the process.
After that, I was focused more on individual stories. I wanted to be sure to include autistic adults because I think they are too often left out of the conversation about autism. And I wanted to find children at different points on the spectrum. Some people contacted me after the film website went up; others I knew from their own writing on the Internet or elsewhere. I was lucky in that nearly everyone I approached agreed to be in the film.
AA16: Did conflicts ever arise during the filming process due to the differing perspectives on autism?
TD: I never brought together people with very different views for a single filming session (I wasn't necessarily opposed to that; it just didn't work out.) Although I interviewed people I disagreed with, I tried to bring up my disagreements respectfully. There are a lot of shouting matches on the Internet about these sorts of issues, and I wasn't interested in making the movie version of that. I wanted each person to have a chance to tell his or her own story, and I've been gratified since the film came out to see a number of people commenting that the film is respectful of all viewpoints.
The only minor issue I had was with a doctor I interviewed who was very nervous about signing the release to be in the film. Apparently, he had done interviews in the past and then found that they had been edited to make him look like he was saying something he didn't say. He ultimately signed the release and appears in the film.
AA16: What was the most difficult part of the filming process for you personally?
TD: Even though I was making a film that was very personal to me, I was usually able to focus on the filmmaking challenges rather than the personal issues. So I worried about raising the money to complete the film, about how to combine the many different voices into a coherent film, and about who would see the film when it was finished. Because I filmed a wide array of people rather than focusing on a small group for a long period of time, I was able to avoid becoming too emotionally invested in any particular story. I think that was helpful, and certainly there is plenty of stress in making a documentary without also worrying too much about how your subjects are doing every day.
AA16: In your Director's statement, you mentioned seeing Sam progress in ways you couldn't have imagined two years ago. Can you give us an example?
TD: There are quite a few since it's now been more than two years since I wrote that. One example is how Sam uses pretend play. He never used to do any pretend play, but now he does it fairly elaborately. He acts out complicated games of "school," where he is the teacher and his toys are the students. He uses this kind of play to review and process his feelings about what's happening at his real school, and that's also a skill he didn't have previously. We've always assumed that his emotional life was as complicated as any other child's, but he wasn't always able to express it. He's made real progress in being able to show the rest of the world how he's feeling.
AA16: “Loving Lampposts” has received numerous prestigious awards, accolades and positive reviews. What's been your experience of the success of the film? Has it changed your life in a significant way?
TD: Of course, when you make a documentary like this, which is arguing for a particular point of view, you hope that it will resonate with audiences. So it's been very gratifying to hear from many people that the film strikes a chord with them. I've received many messages from parents telling me that the film has helped them to feel better about their own parenting decisions or has helped them decide to make a change. I've also heard from a few autistic adults thanking me for making the film. I feel like the film has made a difference to people, and I really can't ask for more than that.
AA16: What do you consider the most challenging issue facing individuals with autism today?
TD: That's a very hard question to answer because, as we both know, no two autistic people are alike. I think many autistic people, particularly adults, struggle to get the services they need. There's a huge focus on children, which is understandable, but services largely end when people turn 21. That's going to be more and more of an issue as children who were diagnosed in the late 80s/early 90s get older. Beyond that, I think our society is still struggling to come to terms with autism. I think it's important that we come to realize that while autism is a serious disability, it is possible to live a meaningful life with autism. So much of the dialogue about autism is about making it go away. That's not helpful to autistic people. The sooner we can move beyond that, the better things will be for all people with autism.
AA16: In a recent Huffington Post column, you made a great point about the fact that many so-called “autistic” behaviors are considered inappropriate, yet we perceive them as such because we don't understand them. If you had to hazard a guess, why do you think Sam visits his lampposts and loves them as he does?
TD: Sam values consistency, as many autistic people do, and I think that was at least part of the appeal of the lampposts (although he still likes lampposts, we've stopped doing the circuit of lampposts that is described in the film). They are always in the same place, looking the same, and doing exactly what Sam wants them to do. In fact, one of the cameramen who worked on the film suggested that lampposts were for Sam a less challenging version of adults. He likes adults, but like any person, they can sometimes be unpredictable. Lampposts are not. I don't know if that theory is true, but it seems plausible. Other than that, I've come to appreciate the aesthetics of lampposts—they really are nice to look at—and I assume Sam likes them as well.
AA16: What are you working on now?
TD: Good question. In part, I've had some opportunities to speak at film festivals and at more autism specific conferences. This has been good promotion for the film, and more importantly for the ideals of the film.
Beyond that, I'm trying to find a topic for a new documentary. It's a bit of a challenge. Making a documentary about autism was an obvious and personal choice, and there's not another topic as obvious as that for me. I'm mulling over some ideas and will hopefully get started on a new film soon.
AA16: As a dad, what are you most proud of about Sam?
TD: I don't think I'm hugely different in this area than the parent of any other child. I am proud to see Sam become more independent, to learn more about the world, and to better negotiate his place in it. It's harder for him than other kids and the progress may be slower, but I'm no less proud of him for doing it.
AA16: Again, thank you, Todd! As the sister of a young man with autism, “Loving Lamposts” was a deeply moving experience for me. It had me remembering details from my childhood that I'd forgotten, like seeing D.A.N newsletters on the coffee table. In remembering those things, I realize that I grew up with one view of autism, and that I—and my family—have moved to a different place now. Thanks to your film, I can see how much my parents and I have grown and changed because of my brother, Willie. We have come through so much together; Willie has had some difficult behavioral challenges and still engages in self-injurious behavior. Yet there have always been those shining moments wherein we can see Willie. And what we see is incredible. His small victories are my victories, too, and I'm so proud to be his sister.
TD: Thanks. I'm glad to hear the film meant so much to you.