PBS Premiere: July 29, 2013Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words tell us what Neurotypical is about.

Adam Larsen: I would say Neurotypical is probably a film about life from the perspective of autistics. These are folks that never have the spotlight on them and oftentimes have immense challenges and struggles fitting into society. And I wanted to hear their perspectives they have. Neurotypical is a word that was coined by the autistic community to describe individuals not on the autism spectrum. So quote-unquote, "normal" people. And I think that I love the title because society or the normal, quote-unquote "normal" society, being in the majority has many terms for many different types of people. And so it's wonderful that a minority, such as individuals with autism and Aspergers have coined a term for the majority. And so I really like the flip to that.

POV: How did you first get involved with this project or this film? What drew you to the subject?

Adam Larsen: My father has worked in the autism field for 20 years. And initially he was working with an organization called TEACCH, which is based out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And he went on to develop these work tasks called Shoebox Tasks, which folks all around the world use, I'd say more on the severe end of the spectrum of autism. They are basic hand-eye coordination activities that really are kind of the building blocks of folks learning how to learn. And growing up we would host social group gatherings for autistic adults at our house. And these were opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum to get together and socialize in a kind of comfortable environment. And I just remember, after these gatherings, not only was I impressed by these individuals, probably initially by their difference, but that our conversations about them and their points of view and their perspectives would just go on far longer than those get-togethers. And so I think I was struck by them as individuals and it stayed with me for a really long time.

POV: Now in the film description there are three main characters who are sort of the spine of the film. How did you meet these people? What, what was your initial access to them?

Adam Larsen: I met several of them through the TEACCH organization. They referred me to others, mostly in North Carolina. And then later in Virginia. We just kind of put out a word that we were doing a film and started hearing back that so and so was interested in being interviewed. The three families that we film were a very secondary thing, because I realized I had all of these wonderful interviews, but I had no structure for the film. And I'd edited together some demos that were 20 minutes long and while very interesting, I didn't feel that that could sustain the arc of a film. And so collectively my family, because this documentary was kind of a family affair, we were discussing ways of maybe finding that sort of thread or the arc for the film. And also secondly, because many of the folks that we interviewed are very articulate and they would be kind of considered part of the higher end of the spectrum. We wanted to include those that maybe couldn't advocate for themselves and so we came up with this idea that we would structure the film as a triptych. I had this idea to structure the film as the arc of a day.

POV: So tell us a little bit about the characters in your film, if you can just do that. Give a brief description of each one.

Adam Larsen: So Violet is four years old. And she is diagnosed with autism. And her family is really working to figure out how she's learning and find ways of kind of integrating her into society and work with her so that she can kind of get the most out of her experience. And then Nicholas, he's 14. Nicholas is diagnosed as well with autism or Aspergers. But he, his parents have left it up to him to come to terms with his diagnosis. So it's not at all a part of the conversation in his family. And he appears like a typical teenager. And he has many of the interests that are a typical teenager, but his folks help direct him when he comes up to these sort of roadblocks but really letting him kind of come to his own sort of understanding of himself. And then there's Paula who is an adult who has a neurotypical husband and son. And she really was diagnosed as an adult with autism and has really embraced her diagnosis. I think it explained a lot of, like explained many questions that she had in her life and challenges that she had, because all of a sudden she had this entire community that was a resource and also may have had similar experiences to her. So she's now very much an advocate for autistics and has a really wonderful perspective about autism.

POV: Now it's an incredible world that we enter into in the sense that it is so new. It's from a completely different perspective. Wolf is an extraordinary voice, can you talk a little bit about him and who he is?

Adam Larsen: His story is really interesting. I mean he was diagnosed actually correctly with autism at a very young age, which is not very common because often autism is lumped with many other things and people are misdiagnosed, if they were diagnosed at all. So and he had very astute doctors who told his mother that [she] seems to be doing the right thing with him and so just keep doing that. And keep building those sort of building blocks, because he's getting it. So, he has overcome many challenges in his life and had a ton of success in his life. He's got a wonderful job and He [is] in an amazing place. And he's also is an advocate for folks on the autism spectrum as well.

POV: He and other characters within your film really point out the differences in perspective. We learn a lot of different things through this journey, but is there anything that you come away with after the film saying, well this is why people along the autism spectrum disorder are different than us?

Adam Larsen: You know I would, I would say a lot has to do with fitting in you know. I mean the film in many ways has to do with fitting in. It's a very common human need to fit in and to feel like you belong. And for folks with autism, it's maybe more extreme because they may not be picking up those social cues of interactions between people. Or it might be more challenging for them to. And so with that struggle there is a lot of effort that they put into fitting in and emulating typical behavior in order to get a job or to make a friend.

POV: Is there anything that you've got that we were uncomfortable filming or were there any challenges with the characters that you follow?

Adam Larsen: This is my first documentary, but comfort is very key to me. And I made a point of meeting everybody and being very clear to them that they're going to have this person with a camera following them around in their home. And everybody was okay with that. And they were just interested in sharing. I mean I think many of these people want to. They never get the opportunity in the spotlight and never get the opportunity to share their perspective or their stories. So it was easy actually to film many of these folks. I think the hardest, the most challenging point was filming Paula and her husband's argument. Just because it was a personal moment between the two of them and I happened to be there with a camera.

POV: Talk a little bit about the structure of the film and the structure and the stylistic choices that you made. Can you explain or talk a little bit more about that?

Adam Larsen: Okay, so the film is structured as three chapters, or a triptych. And I think early on I had this idea to structure the film as the arc of a day. And so we start off in morning. Violet, a young girl of four who's just kind of starting out in life and she's really exploring the world viscerally. She is learning and finding roadblocks, things and her parents are redirecting her, finding things she can't do and finding things that she can do. And Nicholas represents kind of the afternoon. And he's coming to terms with his identity. And he has more freedom because he's not with his parents all the time. And he has social challenges and is having to navigate that sort of world of friends and dating. Then there's Paula who is an adult caring for others and also has truly embraced her diagnosis. And she represents kind of the evening. I don't know, that's just kind of a sort of symbolic thing for me, but it's something that I think helped in my process of editing. There is an immense range of folks on the autism spectrum. And I just wanted to share that the world of autism is much bigger than just these things that the media oftentimes present.

POV: But what do you see as the consequences of the ways that mainstream media portrays or ignores people with autism?

Adam Larsen: I think there are many consequences to the way that autism is portrayed. I mean I think for one, the main focus is on children, especially very severe children. And I definitely don't want to discount that experience because that's incredibly challenging and it requires immense amount of work, working with children. Or the flip side, they focus on savants, Rain Man. By focusing on those two extremes, I think the part of the dialogue centers around this idea of cure. And if you speak with pretty much any of the folks in the film, certainly, and many folks with Aspergers and autism, they don't want to be cured. They're very comfortable with their way of thinking and their way of being. And when the focus is on cure, I think you take away energy and resources from the support systems. And these folks would far better be served by having more support systems than this energy on cure.

POV: So this is your first documentary film. Any advice for other up and coming first time filmmakers?

Adam Larsen: Yeah, I mean I probably have a lot of advice. For one, it's going to take a lot longer than you imagine. I initially thought it would take a very short amount of time. And I was very wrong in that because I certainly don't have the luxury of a big budget or resources. And so the filming of this was in between my other work. And I would also say, just start filming it you know. There's always an excuse to not film it. You don't have the right camera, or that. I mean the story is ultimately the most important thing. So if you happen to be there at a time when the story is ripe, just film it. And, and then figure it out after the fact. Because I think that's probably the most important thing. I thought about this for a long, long time and before I actually started. And all that downtime is not necessarily a bad thing, because I think you continue to think and you continue to hone in on that idea. And so while Neurotypical took four years to make, it actually, it wasn't wasted time. All that time I was thinking about it. And probably aligning clips in my head of how they might work together. And I mean all said and done, Neurotypical took a surprisingly short amount of time.

POV: Can you talk a little bit about documentary film? Are there particular filmmakers or films or types of films that you like?

Adam Larsen: I know starting out and making Neurotypical, I was very much inspired and influenced by Errol Morris. Even to the point where I had Philip Glass music kind of under some of my interviews as test music and such. Through all processes you realize that, you know, that's his way of filmmaking. And I needed to find my way of filmmaking. And actually the Philip Glass music, while it's kind of incredible, in some cases it actually was doing a disservice to the interviews that I was putting out there. It had sort of the repetition that actually kind of turned their words into something more or a little less human than their stories were. And so it was a really big learning thing for me. Just because you like something doesn't mean that you should actually do that in your film.

POV: You know we're introduced to a range of characters along the spectrum of autism. Talk a little bit about neurodiversity.

Adam Larsen: Yeah, sure. So neurodiversity is again, it's a term, I would say it's more of a movement that was I think initiated by the autism and Asperger community. It is really the idea that [everyone's neurology is different], it should be appreciated just as much as anyone else's neurology. So it's acceptance for all different ways of thinking. And I think advocates for folks with disabilities are hoping that this idea of neurodiversity can encompass all people, not just autism. And I think it does at its core. And so I think it's really important because everyone has a different way of thinking, I mean culturally. Our neurologies are flexible. And in talking to many people with autism they say in a really stressed out day they may lose speech, they may lose the ability to talk. And so I think it's just really important to understand that we aren't all these sort of rigid, finite beings. And that there is flexibility. At any one point you know you can have an accident and you can be impaired in some sort of way. So we just need to have flexibility around this sort of idea, and the way we treat other people and the way we see other people. And so that's what neurodiversity means to me.