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By Phillip A. Pell
May 21, 2008

It’s fashionable to add “the Musical” to the end of things these days.
From “Cannibal: the Musical” to “My Hammer, My Friend: the Musical” the
tag line is intended to convey a snide, ironic sneer about the subject
matter; a blase disregard for what otherwise could be considered a
subject ill-suited to the frivolous treatment musical theater normally
conveys.  From the title alone it would be very easy to write off
“Autism: the Musical” as just another offensive example in this same,
tired vein.  This hasty rush to judgment could not be farther from the

The film starts out with a set of statistics from the Centers for
Disease Control.  In 1980 fewer than 1 in 10,000 children was diagnosed
with autism.  Now it’s 1 in 150.  The filmmakers apparently want to lead
the viewer to the conclusion that autism is on the rise at more than
epidemic proportions however it is just as easy to draw the conclusion
that we’re getting better at understanding who is autistic and
diagnosing disorders farther up the autism spectrum.  Watching the film
you’ll probably recognize the mannerisms of “that weird kid” you avoided
or bullied in grade school.  You just wrote him off as a spaz or a nerd.
You probably gave him a wedgie or kicked him down the stairs.  From the
first frames of this film it’s hard to avoid the realization that this
is a film less about a bunch of autistic kids making a musical than it
is a less-than-subtle indictment of society, schools, medical
institutions, parents and you personally.  The autistic kids are a red
herring; an obvious attention-grabber that sets you up for the kick to
the gut realizations that come later.

Another red herring is the drama coach at the center of the Miracle
Project.  On the surface, Elaine Hall, a.k.a. “Coach E”, is just another
liberal, Jewish, bleeding-heart with a grant who for selfish reasons
wants to put a bunch of autistic kids on stage in a musical.  “Where the
hell did they dig up this aging hippie?” you may be wondering.  “Why
would you want to teach a bunch of kids with a neurological inability to
adapt to social norms how to act?”  Then it hits you.  When you’re
following all the social norms you’re just acting but you have the
advantage of having read the same script as everyone else.  Hmm… Maybe
this left-wing crusader is onto something.  Kick to the gut number one.

The filmmakers spend a lot of time focusing on the mothers.  Invariably
they are tired, depressed, angry and self-flagellating with guilt and
remorse over what they may have done to cause or contribute to their
child’s autism.  On screen they appear as neurotic caricatures of
themselves, bursting into tears at all they’ve lost.  The red herring
mothers are a distraction that expertly misdirects you away from just
how incredibly normal all of these kids are when you get past the
stimming and repetition.  They want to be accepted and respected.  They
want to be cherished and challenged just like any other kid their age.
When Coach E works with two of the boys in a paired scene exercise and
one says to the other, “I think you’re really smart and I like learning
about reptiles from you” it is a shock when you realize that he doesn’t
seem to have ever gotten a word of encouragement like that before in his
life.  Autism itself is a red herring, distracting parents from the more
subtle aspects of their children.  The filmmakers set you up for a hard
realization, pointing out the insidious nature of a mother’s
unconditional love for her child and how hard it is to see her child
suffer and have nothing to lash out at to defend her young.  At some
point in the film you realize that you are just as much a caricature as
the weeping mother on the screen.  Another kick to the gut.

On the surface it would be easy to write off this film as bland,
predictable pablum, obvious and hackneyed; A cliche.  But that’s just a
red herring and if you can look past that veneer you’re in for a real
drop-kick of self-realization.  I highly recommend “Autism: the Musical”
to anyone that has ever known, met, walked past, been in school with,
bullied, ignored or loved someone with autism.

Elisa on March 9th, 2009 at 12:57 pm 

I love the film. I am mother of autistic

Sarah on October 1st, 2009 at 9:22 am 

I just watched this last night. As a mom with a son who has Asperger’s, I found this stunning. The aspect of the moms becoming singularly focused on their children was troubling and a revelation. Thanks for this review – I think you have really captured why the film “works”.

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