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An Interview with Tricia Regan, Director of Autism: The Musical

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HBO documentary AUTISM: THE MUSICAL, premiering Tuesday March 28 at 8pm (and available through April 2 on hbo.com), follows the lives of five autistic children in Los Angeles, and the dynamic woman named Elaine Hall who leads the children to defy expectations by writing, rehearsing and performing their own musical.

Documentary filmmaker Tricia Regan delivers an intimate chronicle of the six months prior to the musical's opening night, bringing attention to a modern-day epidemic while celebrating the power of the human spirit's ability to rise to any challenge.

Still recuperating from a long night at HBO's premiere party for the film, Regan and I talked about viewfinders, the Miracle Project and why we should start dealing with Autism.

The only sight viewers get to see of you is your hand trying to block young Neal, one of the performers, from kicking your camera. How were you able to operate while surrounded with all those curious kids?

Initially there was a lot of reaching and grabbing for the camera--I just had to set limits, telling them 'you can't touch'. It wasn't done out of anger or anything.

You know, on my camera you can flip the viewfinder around so that they could see themselves--almost like looking in a mirror. There is this one shot in the movie, that for the longest time (it just killed me to pull it out) one of the kids, who ended up not being featured in the movie (an African-American boy) was making faces into the viewfinder and it just goes on and on, it was hysterical. But yeah, they were very curious of the camera and what I had to do, but from the very beginning, I always had my camera with me--because it was so challenging to get to know these kids, I didn't want to have to do it twice. So every time they saw me it was always 'me and the camera' and that became our relationship.

What message do you want people to come away with after viewing Autism the Musical?
This movie, I think, shows you, the humanity behind autism--that it's a tough diagnosis that can devastate families. It's certainly not something that you would want in your life but, if your child is diagnosed with autism, you're still going to have a lot of the love and the pleasure that any parent has with their child. And that kid is still going to have the life of a kid in them first and their autism second.

What I would like for people to come away with is, feeling OK enough about autism to start dealing with it--because it will be devastating if we don't. There is a generation of kids coming up at a rate of 1 in 150 who are diagnosed with Autism-that's a substantial portion of our population. We can afford to ignore them. We can't afford it financially and we can't afford to miss out on that much humanity, either. We have to make room in our communities for these kids--we have to make room for them in our schools. And, as they grow older, we have to make room for them in our neighborhoods and in our workplaces, because we can't warehouse 1 in 150 people. I feel like there is a lot of 'burying our heads in the sand'--it's a difficult subject that people don't want to deal with and it's frightening. I see this even with [the response towards] my own movie. You know, people, at first, don't want to come and see the movie, but when they do see it, they are like, 'wow, I'm really glad that I saw your movie'.