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Filming From Experience: Student Directs Documentary About Autism

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March 21, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- When Northwestern University graduate student Phil Stuart heads for Las Vegas next month to claim the Broadcast Education Association’s “Best of Festival” award for a documentary he directed last spring, his autistic brother, Nico, 19 -- the inspiration for the half hour film -- will be cheering mightily.

Stuart won the top documentary prize for “The Hope and Heartache of Autism,” a film he directed last spring in an undergraduate television documentary class at the Medill School of Journalism. Fourteen undergraduate students worked to create the award-winning documentary in seven weeks.

Now a Medill graduate student, Stuart will accept the award April 28 in honor of his brother and with a heartfelt nod to his parents and to the five families his film follows as they struggle to create good lives for their autistic children. (Coincidentally, April is Autism Awareness Month).

The Autism Society of Illinois distributed the film to every state legislator in Springfield. Its title, “The Hope and Heartache of Autism,” refers to what Stuart calls the “inevitable heartache families experience in their quest for the right diagnosis, right school, right therapy, and right medication, and the hope they feel each time they think they may have found them.”

Parents of autistic children are forever hitting brick walls (and) are under severe stress,” he adds. Consequently, the film he directed depicts some of the frustrations families encounter and the ways in which marriages, finances and emotional health are put to the test.” Stuart’s brother, for example, is considered high functioning autistic “which meant he didn’t benefit when in classes with other autistic children,” Stuart says. Mainstreaming didn’t work either, however, in part because of hostility Nico encountered from other children. Today, Nico is in a cooking program that his family hopes will give him viable job skills.

“The Hope and Heartache of Autism” opens with footage of Noah Cummins, a handsome nine-year-old singing the national anthem before a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Through early intervention, the persistent efforts of Noah’s parents to find help for their son, and intensive one-on-one therapy, Noah progressed from being non-verbal to verbal and from being a withdrawn child to becoming more social.

“But one-on-one therapy is expensive,” says Stuart. “And although Illinois ranks ninth in per capita wealth, it ranks 47th when it comes to funding developmental disabilities programs. Things are unlikely to change (for many autistic children) unless priorities in the state change as well.”

Stuart says that his autistic brother – who does not appear in the film but to whom it is dedicated -- enjoys watching the documentary again and again. “He really connects with it. I think it makes him feel better (because it offers) an explanation for the difficulties he’s experienced in life,” Stuart says. To view the award-winning film Stuart directed and that was produced by 14 Northwestern University undergraduates, visit the Medill Web site at <http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/>.