This guest post is by John Alston, a young man on the autism spectrum who was accepted into University of North Carolina at Wilmington where he is pursuing a degree in film studies. John is applying for the Spring 2018 Making a Difference Autism Scholarship via the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference. You can read more about the organization and how to apply for our scholarship here. You can help our scholarship program continue to help these students by making a donation here (the majority of our scholarship program is ran through donors from our community such as yourself so no matter if you could donate anything, whether it be $5 anywhere up to $5,000 it would be making a difference!).
Movies unlocked my future. It may sound cliche, but without the emotional support of the visual medium of cinema, I probably would not be motivated to attend college. As a receiver of the PDD/NOS diagnosis, my experience with the autism spectrum may be different from most recipients, but it creates challenges of its own. When I was growing up, my interaction with the outside world was limited, in part because of my primitive social skills, and in part of my distinct lack of emotional connection with the acquaintances that demand a heightened response. Further complicating this situation is a lifelong sensitivity to sound, thus providing an ironic situation in which my voice projects too loudly, but a response of equal volume creates irritation and sometimes pain. This makes concerts rough sometimes, and the intense clatter of dishes being unloaded makes me leave the area.
I’m going to address the elephant in the room. It would be the easiest thing in the world to attribute a childhood of general solitude to the controversial practice of homeschooling, but that would be highly unfair. My mother took me to plenty of field-trips, enrolled me in various youth-groups and day camps, and pressed me to make friends in my “co-op” classes, some of which I’m still in contact today. But the biggest obstacle to a social life is not a lack of opportunity, it’s the lack of desire to engage. What can one person do that another cannot? Why have 100 “good” friends, when you can have a handful of “perfect” ones?
Now obviously, the logical answer is that because humans are inevitably flawed, each individual deserves the same chance at friendship, “warts and all.” But in practice, it is difficult to extend the same level of energy in the hopes that someone will bond with you, especially since his or her social dynamics may be a lot higher. To complicate these issues, I also have struggles with looking a peer directly in the eye. It is not because I am attempting to be deceitful or even because of a built-in bashfulness, but because of my autism. When I think, not only do I hear my hypothetical voice, I often see a teleprompter in my mind’s eye of the sentences I should say. If I look at anything intently, I can’t see the “words.”
I believe I have gotten better about this challenge by looking at the general shape of the individual’s head, but still, I can usually only engage in the eyes of someone else after I’ve stated my thought. But the world of movies is different. Characters don’t just form friendships right away, they have adventures, romances, and lifelong bonds, often in the time it takes for a pot to boil. They don’t have difficulty looking each other in the eye, because they rarely occupy the same physical space. An actor or actress is usually filmed looking off to the side, talking to the camera. A reverse angle of the same action is also filmed, with the conversation assembled at the editing room. The eye contact is mostly an illusion.
For once, I am experiencing the same sensation with the screen as I would want in real life. That is to say, my inability to look someone perfectly in the eye is “matched” with the other’s failure to do the same. But life is seldom like the movies.
Just as character arcs are cohesive and mostly straightforward in general narrative cinema, humans are mysterious and jumbled up, an enigma with the power to punish. I have said and experienced things that have been given the same internal structure, but with different outcomes. How does one navigate a world in which a fist-bump is “cool” to some, but “weird” to others? Under which circumstances is seeming confident “likeable” or arrogant? If the rules are constantly changing, is keeping up a bitter necessity or a weak conformity?
There are no easy answers in this world. But when I watch a movie, I don’t see characters existing to fit in. I see James Stewart confronting social injustice in Washington, I see Gary Cooper facing down a band of outlaws. I see a hobbit carrying the other up a jagged cliff, knowing this may be his last action. I see seven warriors sacrifice their time, their honor, and for some, their lives, knowing that defending a helpless village of farmers may be their final legacy.
But finally, I see myself, knowing that whatever these characters experience is a mountain compared to the anthill of my social difficulties. I don’t have to save the galaxy or destroy a giant weapon. I just have to have the courage to believe in humanity. I can certainly try.
Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and best-selling author who is also on the autism spectrum started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education. Help us continue to help students with autism go to college by making a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit here. Also, consider having Kerry, one of the only professionally accredited speakers on the spectrum in the country, speak at your next event by sending him an inquiry here.
We’d also appreciate if you could start a Facebook Fundraiser to support our nonprofit’s scholarship fund! You can learn more about how you can do just that here.