A lot of adults (myself among them) are arguing very vocally right now over the scope, cause, and impact of autism in America. Acrid debates over mercury, vaccines, special diets, alternative therapies and conceded court cases are flooding the media almost daily.
It's enough to give autism a bad name.
Then, along comes an honest little documentary like Autism: The Musical. This all-too-real movie lifts the heart up and then slams it right back down on the pavement -- and we love every minute of it.
This simply shot, beautifully conveyed portrait of life with autism premieres tonight on HBO (and will stream for free for one week at hbo.com). It serves to remind us all that, no matter what "causes autism," no matter what, if anything might "cure" it, children affected by the disorder deserve all of the honor, love and patience that we, a nation consumed by our own attention deficits, can muster.
This moving and funny film opens with the jarring data that autism in America has spiked from 1-in-10,000 kids in 1980 to 1-in-150 today.
But instead of dwelling on the cause of autism, the film focuses mostly on five wonderful kids -- two boys with very high functioning autism who are brilliant, charming, and yes, "quirky;" a teenage girl who sings (and looks) like an angel; a little boy who rarely speaks, but who can express himself vividly through his cello; and one Russian adopted boy who is completely nonverbal (until he gets a computer) and who will break your heart when you see him.
Anyway, they put on a show, and it is riveting, joyous and tearful. But the real message here is that kids with autism are human beings, just like everyone else on God's green earth -- with their own hopes and fears, intellects and personalities.
They deserve more than our compassion, our love and our dollars. They deserve our respect.
Meanwhile, Autism: The Musical unflinchingly shows just how stressful the disorder can be on families. The weight on couples is obvious: One marriage suffers through infidelity, another ends in painful divorce.
Some people might complain that the potential causes and treatments of autism are only touched upon here -- though we do see clear evidence of heart-wrenching autistic "regression," and there is some talk about vaccines, environmental toxins and "damaged kids."
Others might worry that the portraits of the two high functioning boys -- so bright and charismatic you want to hang out with them for hours (though their peers shun them into a lonely world of their own) -- will leave the mistaken impression that most children with autism are like this. If they were, then the epidemic might be slightly less painful to bear.
Sadly, however, most kids with autism are more than just a little "quirky." And as much as we truly adore all the children in this film, few, if any parents of "typical" kids could honestly say, "I wish my child were like that."
Autism: The Musical, then, gives us the whole unvarnished "spectrum" of autism spectrum disorder. Little Neal, the adopted boy who can neither speak nor hold a gaze, tells us what we should know: These extraordinary children (and many adults with autism, too) need and deserve our attention, and help.
Here, I hope, is a movie that everyone can watch and appreciate. From those of us who think that many autism cases were triggered by environmental toxins; to the "neuro-diversity" people, some of whom think that autism is a natural, inborn variation of human brain wiring, and should be celebrated, not treated; to the CDC, who wishes we would ALL just go away.
Please watch this film: You will be treated to an achingly accurate portrait of what autism is, isn't, and can be.
David Kirby is author of "Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and The Autism Epidemic - A Medical Controversy"