This guest Q&A is with Lara Stolman who is the filmmaker behind the new award-winning feature documentary Swim Team currently making its rounds on the film festival circuit. Swim Team chronicles the rise of a New Jersey based competitive swim team of teenagers on the autism spectrum.
Hi Lara! Tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in our autism community?
I am the mother of a son on the autism spectrum so I’ve been involved for a while. Since my son eloped and wandered as a young child, my husband and I felt it was really important that our son learn to swim. While I was looking for the right program for him, I found Coach Mike and Maria McQuay, parents of a son with autism themselves, who were founding a competitive swim team for kids on the spectrum,
the Jersey Hammerheads. They were willing to teach children who didn’t know how to swim yet and for the more skilled swimmers, they wanted to coach them to dominate the competition. They appealed to me as a parent but also as a filmmaker and I immediately felt that what they were doing was a story that needed to be heard.
What would you say makes ‘Swim Team’ different compared to other autism documentaries currently out there in the community?
To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of other films out there currently. But I had seen some media before I started making my film in 2013 and I did think a lot of what I saw was frankly depressing. When I met Coach Mike and Maria, I was struck by how positive and hopeful they were for their team’s success and I was incredibly inspired by this. As a parent of a child on the spectrum, we’re often told no, our child can’t do things. But Mike and Maria were all about saying YES and that struck a deep chord for me. I think the film ultimately reflects that and I think that’s what makes it unique.
I know countless self-advocates on the spectrum such as myself who are trying to have their life shared via a documentary. What would be some suggestions you’d have for people such as myself on getting a project like that off the ground?
Networking is really the best way to move a project along. Go to conferences, apply for grants and pitching opportunities and attend screenings and meet the filmmakers. That’s how we met!
Would you recommend swimming for individuals with autism? If so, are there any programs currently out there that can help our families?
I’m not an expert but certainly for the families and individuals in my film, swimming is beneficial. All the parents of the kids on the Jersey Hammerheads swim team told me how much their children loved the water. It would be great to see more scientific inquiry into the benefits of water and swimming for individuals on the spectrum. In terms of programs, I love the Autism Speaks Swimming and Water Safety Scholarship Fund to support organizations that teach swimming to individuals on the spectrum and would encourage organizations to apply.
What are some of your hopes for the teens in your film for the future?
I hope they continue to swim with the Jersey Hammerheads, because the team has impacted their lives so positively so far and I hope they continue to follow their passions in school and work. I also hope they get the community support they need.
What’s next for you? Anything fun coming up?
We have our next screening at the inaugural Monmouth Film Festival in Red Bank, NJ on Saturday, December 17 at 1:15pm. More information and tickets are available here: http://www.monmouthfilmfestival.org/swimteam. Next, I will be working on our national screening campaign bringing Swim Team to communities all over the country. The film is a great jumping off point to discuss transition issues for young adults on the spectrum such as education, employment, housing, legal matters etc. And organizations can use the film as a fundraising or friendraising event. If you’re interested in hosting a screening, please visit our website at www.swimteamthefilm.com and click on HOST AN EVENT.
*Editor’s note: Special shout out to all the amazing advocates in our community who helped in the making of this film including our dear friend Peter Bell, President & CEO of Eden Autism Services.*