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Guest Post: Autism Stories Are Women’s Stories, Too

Guest Post: Autism Stories Are Women's Stories, Too

After decades of struggle, there’s finally emerging awareness
of the value of women sharing our experiences, insights and wisdom through
filmmaking. But like many others, I know better than to wait for corporate
entertainment to hand me a golden ticket. The thrilling opportunity of low-budget, independent filmmaking is you don’t need one. What you do need is a
story that shares a truth, and the passionate drive to tell it. With the indie
feature film “Jack of the Red Hearts,” I’ve had an opportunity to do
just that.

“Jack of the Red Hearts” tells the story of a
teenage con artist, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who convinces the desperate mother of a child with severe autism, played by Famke Janssen, to hire her as a live-in caregiver for her daughter (newcomer Taylor Richardson).

The script is written by Jennifer Deaton, the
aunt of a niece with autism. I’m the mother of a child with it, too. Through this fictional
story — this fantasy — we share a reality: what it means to live with and
love a child with profound challenges. The impact it has on siblings, on a
marriage. How that challenge can crash us into our lowest depths, and how that love
can raise us to our highest selves — often in rapid alternation.

Most films and TV shows portray the small
percentage of people with autism who are intellectually gifted, misleading the
general public to think of most as “quirky geniuses” who’ll end up in
Silicon Valley. In fact, many if not more resemble the child in our film, who
is functionally non-verbal. Autism is a lifelong condition; children outlive
their caregivers, yet few achieve independence. Today, one percent of Americans
have it; 1 in 58 children. And there’s no sign it’s letting up. Is it an
epidemic? We don’t know. But we do know it’s a national crisis.

Like many parents, I’m haunted by the specter
of my son’s life when I’m gone. He’s an only child. We’re not part of a big,
extended family. Who will not only care for him, but care ABOUT him? Films give
us a chance to step inside of different worlds and lives — to bridge the gap
between you and me, into “we.” Through an emotional experience, movies can
function as empathy-machines, going straight to the heart, and then to the
head. We need people whose lives have not been touched by autism, to be more
than just aware of it. We need them to FEEL it; for 90 minutes in a darkened
room, to share it. Maybe then, they’ll
be inclined to step into a booth and vote for legislators and legislatures to
provide ongoing services funded by taxpayer dollars. If “they” become “us,” WE can join together, and help.

Our film received help from Geena Davis. Last year,
she co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival to promote gender equality in
storytelling. Recognizing that it’s harder to distribute an indie film than to make
one, BFF offers national distribution to award winners. “Jack of the Red Hearts” won the Jury Prize for Narrative feature, and this Friday, February 26th, we’ll
open in 25 AMC theaters across the country (including LA and NYC). On April
20th we will air on Lifetime during Autism Awareness Month. Later this spring, it will be available on VOD, VUDU and other major platforms, and Walmart (one
of the few vendors still selling significant numbers of DVDs) will prominently
place ours in their stores.

Here’s to all of us women, as we energetically step
forward to occupy our space on the storytelling landscape, sharing and
describing what we know from the lives we are living — proudly announcing I AM
and WE ARE.

Janet Grillo is a critically acclaimed filmmaker, Emmy Award winning producer, and former studio executive. She directed the award-winning “Jack of the Red Hearts,” wrote/directed/produced the critically acclaimed “Fly Away,” executive produced the Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary, “Autism: The Musical” and oversaw the cult classic “House Party” series, when a creative executive at New Line Cinema. She is a full-time arts professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. 

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