W.C. Fields once said ‘Never work with animals or children.’ Perhaps, had I heard that quote before I started filming, I might’ve actually heeded it. But alas not, and so my first foray into the world of documentary filmmaking focused on children. Three autistic children.
My goal was to illustrate what it meant to be autistic from the perspective of three children who ranged in functionality across the autism spectrum.
Working with kids, in particular special needs children, is an interesting experience, because you’re never quite sure what you’re getting into on a day-to-day basis. The two boys fell into the Asperger’s category of autism, which places them on the higher functioning scale, so they were highly communicative and very smart. Their struggle lay more in the realms of social interaction and non-verbal communication. Their sister, however, fell on the lower end of the spectrum, and this translated to a child who was extremely routine-driven, prone to frequent tantrums and crying bouts, who communicated at the level of a two-and-a-half-year old (at chronological age 9), and generally focused on what was happening immediately at the time.
In some ways we were a match made in heaven: first-time filmmaker with a vague notion of what she was supposed to be doing, coupled with three autistic children, one of whom was almost completely oblivious to her presence.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Develop your shoot plan and then be prepared to abandon it. The children really are in control of your shooting day – if they’re not feeling particularly social or talkative or just having an off day, then you will too. Or, if you had an idea of starting with Child A and Shot X, transitioning to Scene B, while it’s good to have that vision, be prepared to let it go. How they’re feeling will determine what you shoot.
2. Avoid turning off the camera. Because I was observing the kids’ natural interaction in addition to interviewing, I tried to keep filming at all times simply because I didn’t want to miss anything. Initially, I was concerned that they’d feel like they were under a microscope, but the boys were thrilled to have a captive audience and the girl didn’t really pay me any attention.
3. Run with it. Interviewing was an interesting process because I’d sometimes ask a question and they’d reply, but if I gave it a few seconds they’d continue talking and the tangents were infinitely more interesting than the question I’d asked.
One of my biggest struggles was the notion of doing something that might upset the children for the sake of illustrating a point in the film, whether it was changing something in the girl’s routine (knowing how much it would upset her) or asking a question the boys clearly didn’t want to answer. In situations like this the children’s Mum was absolutely invaluable; she assisted with later interviews with the boys and obtained more detailed answers and descriptions simply because she is their Mum and they are comfortable speaking to her.
I hope to have the opportunity to revisit the children’s progress in about five years.