Autistic Young Adults Train In The Movie Business

Jun 11, 2014
Originally published on June 11, 2014 1:49 pm

More than 80 percent of people diagnosed with full spectrum autism are under age 21, raising concerns about what will happen to this “great wave” of kids when they reach adulthood.

One new program in Michigan is trying to give young people with autism the skills to they need get a job by training them in the movie business. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Kate Wells of Michigan Radio reports from the set.


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Well, now on to this. More than 80 percent of people diagnosed with some sort of autism are younger than 21. But what happens when they reach adulthood and start to look for work?

One new job training program in Michigan is trying to give young people with autism, the skills they need to land a job in the movie business or anywhere. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Michigan Radio's Kate Wells reports from the set.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: The costume designer has a small breakdown after lunch. She's filling in as an extra, which means she has to go on camera as a tuxedoed waiter serving red wine. And they're in the middle of shooting one of the movie's biggest scenes when 18-year-old Alair Bergman (ph) spells a tray of drinks all over the floor. In tears she runs off set into the bathroom and her mom and I follow her in.

ALAIR BERGMAN: Alair, are you OK? (inaudible)

BERGMAN: It's just that I'm compulsive about when I screw up. I get really distraught.

WELLS: Alair pulls it together. She takes a deep breath. She heads back out onto the set, and the director is patiently waiting.

JOHN MARTIN: OK, Alair, I need you one more time, Alair.

BERGMAN: You can do it. You can do it.

MARTIN: You can do it. I've got an easier move for you. You just go to step right in.

WELLS: This is life on an autistic film set. The writers, the editors, the actors, everybody here has autism except for the director and a few of the assistants. And this whole program is based on a similar effort that was developed in the LA area. But this one is running through Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. And it draws in these young adults with autism, who love movies. I mean, like, love them in a way that it may be hard for neuro-typical people to fully understand. Like, for example, 20-year-old Evan Anderson (ph).


WELLS: That is one of Evan's many "Three Stooges" impression. He does them all the time. And he's kind of a shy, little bit awkward guy when you first meet him. But you quickly pick up that through these impressions. He can be excited. He can be nervous. He can even just be a goofy guy.

ANDERSON: Some of my other favorites would be "Yes Man." Yes.

WELLS: Was that a Jim Carrey impression you just did?

ANDERSON: Yes, Jim Carrey. I love that guy.

WELLS: But not every adult with autism is ready for this kind of a commitment. It's 15 weeks long, it's 9 to 5, and Alair Bergman, the costume designer, says she had to take a break. She had to start coming to the film set as a volunteer only because doing this full-time was just too stressful.

And to her credit, you would think that a film set would be the worse possible place for somebody with autism. There are the constant social interactions, last minute changes, unpredictable demands.

JEFF UNGER: I just zone out for a minute and for a half a second, gather my self back up.

WELLS: This is Jeff Unger (ph). He's 19 years old ,and he is just a natural with the camera equipment. But what he's really had to work on is keeping his temper under control on set. He says that has been worth it because more than anything, he wants to work on a film crew.

UNGER: I think that I will actually overcome that part and show them that autism won't affect me at all.

MARTIN: Is it fair to think that these kids are going to come out of this camp with the like skill - with the technical skills to walk into the movie business? I'd say no.

WELLS: This is John Martin. He's the director. And he says he got involved with this kind of project because his daughter has autism. And he says what that's taught him is how to focus on the skills that would help anybody get any kind of job.

MARTIN: I focus on the skills that will teach them occupation, which is the professionalism of starting with showing up on time, ready for work, understanding when you get a directive to stay focused on your jog and do it. These kids, because of their social shortcomings, have to be taught those skills. And high school and normal educational environments don't teach it.

WELLS: There are summer film camps for children with autism. They're already underway in California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and of course here in Michigan. And in Michigan we have about 16,000 kids getting special ed services for their autism. But when they become adults, a state report says, there are not nearly enough services to help those kids get jobs. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Kate Wells.

CHAKRABARTI: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.