Loving Lampposts: synopsis and director’s statement

31 Mar

Loving Lampposts, the new documentary by filmaker Todd Drezner, takes a look at autism and parts of the autism communities in America today. After my initial piece on the documentary, I read the press kit again and thought that the synopsis and director’s statements really should be up here on LeftBrainRightBrain.


As autism has exploded into the public consciousness over the last 20 years, two opposing questions have been asked about the condition: is it a devastating sickness to be cured? Or is it a variation of the human brain — just a different way to be human?

After his son’s diagnosis, filmmaker Todd Drezner visits the front lines of the autism wars. We meet the “recovery movement,” which views autism as a tragic epidemic brought on by environmental toxins. Operating outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine, these parents, doctors, and therapists search for unconventional treatments that can “reverse” autism and restore their children to normal lives.

We meet the ‘neurodiversity’ movement, which argues that autism should be accepted and autistic people supported. This group argues that the focus on treatments and cures causes the wider society to view autistic people as damaged and sick. Acceptance is the better way, but how do you practice acceptance of autism in a world where the very word can terrify parents? And we meet a too often ignored group: autistic adults. It’s these adults who show just how tricky it is to judge an autistic person’s life. Is an autistic woman who directs academic research about autism recovered? What if the same woman has trouble speaking and uses text-to-speech software to communicate? Is an autistic man who lives in his own apartment recovered? What if his mother must hire people to do his laundry and take him out in the evenings?

This wide angle view of autism makes clear what’s at stake in the autism wars. Will we live in a world dominated by autism conferences where vendors hawk vitamins and hyperbaric chambers to parents desperate for a cure? Or will we provide the support that autistic adults need to lead the best lives they can? And can these two worlds possibly co-exist?

Director’s Statement:

One afternoon in August of 2007, I was pondering possible documentary subjects as I brought my son Sam home. We had just finished walking the circuit of lampposts that Sam liked to visit in Prospect Park.

At the time, Sam’s diagnosis of autism was a few months old, and he was about to start at a special needs school in Brooklyn. His diagnosis still felt strange to my wife and me, especially because we didn’t seem to be reacting like many autism families that are depicted in the media. We didn’t feel like Sam had been “stolen” from us. He wasn’t sick. He hadn’t lost any skills. We didn’t think his life was doomed to be a tragedy. Certainly, we were concerned about how best to support Sam, but he was very much as he had always been. It was just that his differences from typical children now had a name attached to them.

My wife had been exploring the autism community on the Internet and had come across a group of autistic adults and parents of autistic children who supported “neurodiversity”–the idea that autism is both a disability and a difference, a natural variation of the human brain. This idea felt right to us, and yet I wondered: Sam did not have many of the most difficult behaviors associated with autism. Would we still believe in neurodiversity if Sam was banging his head on the wall or rocking endlessly in a corner? Was a parent’s view of autism simply a function of how difficult his child was? On that August afternoon, I realized that such questions would be a perfect subject for a documentary, and Loving Lampposts was born.

In the more than two years since, I’ve immersed myself in the world of autism at the same time that the world at large has paid more attention to autism than ever before. Never has a community been less ready for its cultural moment than the autism community. Indeed, there is disagreement about whether autism is a disease, about how to treat it, about whether it is an epidemic, about whether it can be cured, and even about what it is.

These disagreements are on full display in Loving Lampposts. And yet, at the end of the process, I can’t help but be optimistic. I’ve met parents of severely autistic children whose patience, acceptance, and support of their kids are truly inspiring. I’ve met autistic adults–whose voices are too often ignored in the autism debate–who lead rich, full lives even as they struggle with the challenges of their disability. And I’ve seen Sam progress in ways I couldn’t have imagined two years ago.

He’s still profoundly different from other children. But in making the film, I’ve seen that there may be a place in the world for Sam and those like him. I hope that audiences that view Loving Lampposts will see that, too.

Loving Lampposts can be purchased here.

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