Autism in Love

d0a08b_dea72ec2e51f45c3b2a5a9e1a948da8a.png_srz_p_346_192_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzI am on a Boeing 757, sitting in the economy section, one of the few times I am grateful for having short legs.   I am returning home from New York where a film I conceived and executive produced just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.   It is truly an honor, given the numbers: 6700 films were submitted and only 120 were selected for the competition.   The film, “Autism in Love,” is in the “world documentary feature” category, competing against 11 others in its category for a coveted award.

One of the films in competition with “Autism in Love” is called “In Transit,” a beautiful and moving documentary interweaving stories told by real passengers (i.e., not actors) on the Empire Builder, an AMTRAK train whose route goes from Seattle to Chicago.   The stories themselves are captivating, but I was equally captivated by the fact that the stories were told as the American landscape unwound behind it, creating a kind of metaphor within a metaphor.   Each person seems to be in some sort of transition in their lives, moving internally as they physically move through the landscape.  But on a train, the sensation is that it is the landscape that is moving, so that one’s internal movement is mirrored by the movement of the landscape.  And of course, all that occurs on a screen projecting a “moving picture,” a medium that is, by definition, about movement.

I am doing the same thing now, traveling at 514 miles per hour, four-fifths the speed of sound, 40,000 feet above the ground.  We humans, through the ingenuity provided by our cerebral cortexes, create and build machines that allow us to use nature in order to defy it.   We build machines that move us from one place to another for many reasons, but ultimately we build machines that move us physically in order to move us emotionally.

The film I produced, expertly directed by Matt Fuller, follows the lives of several people diagnosed with autism as they navigate the waters of romance and love.  Their lives are very different from one another’s, but they each live in the landscape others have called autism.   I have lost any objectivity I might have had about the film, but judging by the reviews I have been reading, it succeeds in a message I was hoping for; that love is love and nearly anyone, despite having a label that others insist prevent them from loving, can teach us about it.

In college days I was taught that humans, by nature and physiology, are novelty seeking animals.   That is undoubtedly what makes solitary confinement so punishing.  But without the contrast of stability there could be no novelty, just as a figure disappears when the ground around it disappears.

So whether we find ourselves riding the rails of AMTRAK, sitting on a bus, or flying on a Boeing 757, we ultimately remain figures embedded in the world around us.  We are moving, or being moved.

For more information on “Autism in Love,” see, or better yet, see “Autism in Love” on Facebook.

Air Hollywood: Flying the Friendly Skies

brace positionThe tagline for this blog begins with the words “aviation” and “autism,” and to say the least it is difficult to find ways of integrating the two topics.   A company called “Air Hollywood” has now made it easy.

Air Hollywood is not an airline per se; it is, as their name might suggest, kind of a fictitious, Hollywood airline.   Their business focuses on providing sets for the entertainment industry, including interiors of any kind of airplane you can imagine, cockpits, terminals, gates, etc., as well as stock footage and almost anything imaginable that is needed for movies and is aviation-related.   You have seen their work in films such as “Flight,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Kill Bill” as well as hundreds of others.

Recently, Air Hollywood took on a new project.   They have decided to offer classes on preparing children and adults for the entire commercial-aviation related gamut of challenges that face them.    Over-stimulation at check-in areas, fluorescent lights, airport waiting areas and queues, boarding airplanes, and sitting in a confined airplane, all can pose challenges to those with autism.  They call their program “Open Sky for Autism,” and it is being offered for free.  It promises to help acclimate those with autism by using supervised repetition during simulations of airport arrival, ticketing, check-in, baggage check, TSA screening, boarding, in-flight simulation, and deboarding.   They even do one better than the “real” airlines, and offer complimentary lunch and refreshments!   Their opening event is scheduled for April 5th.  Here’s the link:

If you have been following either this or my last blog for a while, you know that I am more than intrigued by people who do good things when they don’t have to.    I don’t know the folks at Air Hollywood, but I do know that for whatever their reasons they have decided to do something good for a chunk of humanity that needs it, something that is frankly difficult to do and outside what a typical therapeutic agency or clinic has the means to do.

Every religious tradition with which I am familiar preaches charity.   Growing up, I learned that the yields on the corners of each of your agricultural fields should be left for the hungry and poor.   I applaud any company that uses its resources to do good.



Terry Barrett, The Mind-Body Problem, Genetics and Pipes in Dark Places

In my first semester in graduate school, I had an advanced general  psychology course taught by a young professor named Terry Barrett. Dr. Barrett  was an experimental psychologist and ex-wrestler, and the first assignment he gave us was to write a 3-page paper on the “mind-body problem.”

When my paper came back graded, I received my first and only “F” in  graduate school. The big “F” on the first page was followed by the two words reserved for students who professors either had a bone to pick or wanted to sleep with: “See me.” Knowing it wasn’t going to be the latter, I was worried (I would have worried either way, come to think of it), but I promptly went to his office, whereupon I not only got a loud lecture, but at one point Dr. Barrett grabbed the front of my shirt, lifted me off the ground with one hand, shoved me up against the  bookcase, and told me never, ever to do what I had done in that paper. The crime I had committed, he told me, was to think for myself. He wasn’t interested at all in what I had to say, but only whether or not I was capable of regurgitating (his word)  what he told us in lecture. I smoked a pipe in those days (almost everyone was  smoking something), and he added, with my slight 110 pound frame suspended from his fist: “Take your pipe and shove it up your  ass.”

I was not particularly upset by all of this. Growing up in my family, I was  accustomed to dramatic displays. Besides, I had gone through an undergraduate  program with so much thinking for myself that I don’t think I came away having  learned much. While I didn’t welcome regurgitation, I did like the idea of actually  learning something, which is what Barrett was trying to get across. So, 35 years later, thanks Terry, because the end result was that in two years at Murray State I learned more than in the following three years in my doctoral program and in my previous four years of undergraduate training.

What made me think of this story was the post I wrote in my last blog last about my view that genetic research is where we are most likely going to find a cure for autism.  Critics of that view point out that although billions have been spent so far on genetic research, most studies fail to produce anything significant, and that only genes with very minor effects have been uncovered. They see genetic research as “grasping at straws” and believe that environmental influences such as lifestyle and chemical exposures provide “plentiful evidence” for the causation of disease.

The debate between genetics and environment is an old one, and most  believe that diseases are typically caused by a combination of the two. The problem is one of both causality and duality. Are the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave reality? The fact is that the shadows would not exist without the sun and the figures blocking the sun, so as many philosophers have pointed out, they cannot be meaningfully separated. If you accept that somehow environment and heredity are indeed separate, then it is not necessarily the case that one thing causes the other, but instead causality may well be a two-way street. It is the interplay between the two that creates the end result.

From this perspective, all the research we do, whether on genetic contributions or environmental ones, is important, in that when put together we will most likely find the ways that all of these factors interact leading us down the road to diseases such as autism.

While I no longer smoke a pipe, I did save my first graduate school paper.  I even re-used it a few years later in my doctoral program, where perhaps ill-advisedly one was permitted to think, and expanded it to about 20 pages. I got an  A+ on that one.