As the camera glides serenely above a lake, pauses by a whorled tree stump, or rests for a moment of quiet contemplation beneath a sky silvery with clouds, I make a note about the filmmakers’ technique. A moment later, Hughie Malone, an 11-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, interjects with his own critique: “I know how obsessed you are with the scenic shots,” he says, in his restless precocious manner, beckoning the camera along a leafy path, “this way looks better.”
If you find it surprisingly easy to relate to Hughie, a boy who can not easily relate to people, it’s partly because in Autism and Me (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) director Liam McGrath lets his contributors lead the way. This is a refreshing approach for a programme that deals not so much with autism, but people with autism. Elegantly constructed and entirely moving, the programme pays more attention to individuals than to a condition.
No one is quite as fluently realised by that approach as Fiacre Ryan, a 16-year-old from Mayo, who is non-verbal but extremely articulate – he communicates via a Rapid Prompt Method, spelling out words by gesture, and the programme assists with a voice over. “I mostly try to show that I am not stupid,” he says. If self-deprecation is a spectrum, Fiacre at its extreme end: he narrates his experience with the soul of a poet, and the programme gives his internal monologue a revelatory public expression.
There’s a similar shape to the documentary, guided by the support structures that help people with autism, whether mild or severe, overcome social limitations. We meet Niamh Biddulph, a young woman adjusting to changing circumstances – a new home and starting college – and striving for independence. Adam Harris, founder of an autism awareness group, can show videos of his “huge meltdowns” as a toddler, before he had “the tools to navigate the world”. We then meet twin boys Dylan and Lee Burke, one mildly autistic and one more so, acquiring those tools in St Ultan’s Primary School.
It’s immensely heartening to see how St Ultan’s, or Fiacre’s Scoil Mhuire in Swinford, accommodate the needs of their autistic students (director McGrath also has an eye for the strange beauty of an autism unit’s shimmering “time out” period) but the documentary doesn’t gloss over the challenges. Candid encounters with parents who fear for their children’s future are distressing to watch. And when Hughie, alert to everything but social cues, frets about “a joke [going] absolutely nowhere and there’s an awkward silence”, it carries a shiver of that precise situation befalling him on the Late Late Show. It’s a tribute to the documentary that had you watched it beforehand, that awkwardness would have been lessened.
And this is where a documentary like Autism and Me can play a valuable role in an evolving culture. As Harris explains, for many people problems arise less from autistic behaviour itself – the traits people find “weird, strange, odd, annoying” – than from a society that doesn’t understand them. In recognising the achievements of supports for autistic needs and encouraging gentle integration where possible, the programme depicts growing mutual access between autism and the mainstream, and even helps to provide it. As Fiacre puts it at the show’s stirring conclusion, it gives “testimony to my aesthetic world, vast and beautiful”.