Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

Autism and Teens: An Important New Film Spotlights Harsh Realities

A Single Mother Copes with her Autistic Teenager

Anyone who is raising teenagers or who has ever been one knows the journey from kid to grown-up is not always smooth sailing. Some of us drift off course now and then. Others face some turbulence. For parents of autistic children, the teen years are exponentially stormier.

I don't think I truly appreciated the magnitude of the exhaustion and the fears and the guilt and the frustration until I saw the recently released film, Fly Away, by writer-director-producer Janet Grillo. It's a tightly crafted story line that traces a divorced mother as she tries to keep her floundering freelance management consultant career afloat while caring for her autistic teenage daughter. Mandy, the daughter, rarely sleeps through the night and is prone to violent outbursts. I was choked up from beginning to end. 

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I cried when the daughter is suspended from her special-needs school because she attacked other children. My heart sunk for the mother when she was told to consider a residential facility. Did that make her a failure as a mother? But I really got teary at the happy times, when you see how much this mother and daughter really love and need each other.

With about one in 110 children diagnosed with autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, we are talking about a syndrome that is affecting thousands of children and their parents and siblings. Most of the media attention has been on diagnosing and caring for toddlers and elementary school children. The flood of hormones during puberty can exacerbate symptoms in ways that scientists are just beginning to study.

Grillo is not merely a story-teller, but an activist---10 percent of the proceeds of the film are donated to Autism Speaks. "There are now 800,000 Americans with austism," said Grillo wrote in an email, "while another child is diagnosed every 15 minutes. Most people on the spectrum of autism are NOT intellectually gifted Asperger-types. They will never function independently, requiring 24/7 care for the rest of their livers. They will outlive their families and caregivers. As the crest of the tsunami wave ages out of the school system and into adult life, what options, services and supports will meet them? It's a harrowing prospect, particularly as a parent. In FLY AWAY, I chose to dramatize severe autism, unflinchingly and without sentimentality. With the conviction that moving hearts moves minds and inspires activism. How can we ask others to help us if they don't understant our situation and our actual needs?" 

This is not an easy film to watch but it is an important one to see.

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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