Overview: Making friends. Dating. Fitting in at work. Becoming independent. These challenges can be hard for any young adult, but for those with autism, coming of age can be paralyzing.
In Columbus, Ohio, three young women living with autism now face perhaps the biggest challenge yet: a spring formal dance. Encouraged to face their fears head-on, they are preparing to test their abilities. Directed and produced by Alexandra Shiva (Stagedoor), HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO charts the months leading up to the big day, going inside therapy sessions, as young women and men confront anxieties, learn dance moves and practice their social skills, aided by a trusted psychologist and his staff, as well as supportive families. It debuted MONDAY, OCTOBER 26.
Expectations: It is always good to see the disadvantaged be improved and empowered in today’s harsh society. It will be a heart-warmer for those who watch to see the youth filmed here growing healthier, conquering setbacks and not being denied typical experiences of life.
Gut Reaction: I’ve been starved of documentary debuts as of late and when this one finally came around, to be honest, I wasn’t all that excited for it. I simply boiled down what I knew about it into a simple tagline: autistic children go to their first formal dance. What a dumbass! I should have known that it was a bit more detailed than that. It turns out it held my attention and I was pleased to have seen it.
I fell more interested in it as it went on because I was naive as to what life is like for an autistic person, as well as the family that lives with one and the professionals that help them. HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO by Alexandra Shiva (pictured) is more than just about the formal dance in itself. It is all a social interaction exercise taken on by Dr. Emilio Amigo and staff. He admits in the piece that he is setting these people, of all ages along the autistic spectrum, for a stressful and challenging time, but knows that if they just see it through, all will be alright in the end.
Three girls are the focal point. There is Marideth, Caroline and Jessica and we learn of their home life, their fears and challenges. We learn how hard it is for them to be comfortable to say “hello” to someone. To take it one step further they don’t even know what the proper way to greet someone is. They don’t want touched or looked at or preached to and Dr. Amigo finds an engaging way in challenging all that via the formal dance experience. Though we witness some of the stresses, especially via interview moments with parents or though the accepted camera into their homes, we are shown a real accomplishment in these people’s lives. Formal dances can be uncomfortable even for the typical teen let alone those with autism. But, it is no surprise that in the end they all had a good time and could only have grown from the experience.
Bonus: Alexandra Shiva was the filmmaker actually allowed to get close in on their lives. Below highlights from a Q & A with HBO.
HBO: What made you want to tell this story?
ALEXANDRA SHIVA: I have a friend with a 16-year-old daughter who I’ve known since she was 4. She’s on the autism spectrum and happens to be nonverbal. It’s a very different story, but I was interested in her coming of age. There tends to be a focus on little kids on the spectrum and on diagnosis, cause and cure. I was like, “What’s happening to the people who are growing up? Where are they going to live and work?” I wanted to explore that process.
HBO: How did you meet Dr. Amigo?
AS: I was at a conference in Newark and met a woman on the autism spectrum who said, “You have to come meet my doctor in Columbus, Ohio.” I went to meet Dr. Amigo (pictured) and to see a play they were doing, ‘Law and Order: Fairy Tale Unit.’ It was amazing. Dr. Amigo was very excited about the upcoming prom and told me they were spending three months in group therapy preparing for it. That’s where it really crystalized; I thought that was the perfect way to tell the story because it’s so relatable. Everyone knows what it’s like to be scared of a dance or a date.
HBO: How did you select the three young women who are your focus?
AS: First, we had to work with Dr. Amigo to make sure we didn’t impact treatment negatively. He talked to his clients about who wanted to participate and there were different levels; people who were fine in groups, people who wanted to be interviewed, people who said, “You could come home with us,” and people who didn’t want to be in it at all.
HBO: How many people did you interview?
AS: It was very important to me that everyone who wanted to be interviewed got represented in some way. So much of why I wanted to make the movie was this idea of these people speaking for themselves; a lot of times you have the doctor or parents speak. The strength for me was that they could talk about their own experience. There’s no filter and there’s something so refreshing about being with people who are honest all the time.
HBO: What was challenging and rewarding for you about interviewing this group?
AS: Marideth was the most challenging and the most rewarding for me. She was incredible. One of the things that Dr. Amigo always said was that anytime anyone wanted to turn the camera off, they should just say it. She did that a lot. There’s no filter and there’s something so refreshing about being with people who are honest all the time. It was a really fascinating, fantastic experience every day.
HBO: What surprised you about working with the group?
AS: People say, “It doesn’t seem like they’re affected by the camera.” There are a couple of reasons for that. First, it was a much more collaborative process than I’ve ever had making a documentary. It started with a town hall meeting where everyone asked questions. Everything was up for discussion. The whole first week, my team would sit in a room with four to five clients at a time and we would all explain what we do. They would touch the camera and inspect it. I think they got comfortable.
The second piece is that I don’t think the presence of the camera added the same kind of self-consciousness that it would add for someone not on the spectrum. The presence of another person already brings that anxiety; they were more aware of us than the camera. In an interesting way, the staff was more self-conscious than the clients.
HBO: What was the mood like at the dance?
AS: The staff was quite nervous because there was a walkthrough the week before and only three people showed up. I think Dr. Amigo was concerned that was what the dance was going to look like. The day of the dance, everybody arrived 45 minutes early with their parents. Only Marideth’s mom was allowed to come in because she was helping as a volunteer. All the other parents had to leave, which was fantastic for everybody.
Some people had a hard time. There were definitely two or three who had meltdowns and had to go outside or into the quiet room. But everyone interacted and it was an achievement for everybody in their own way. It was really important for us that by the time you get to that dance, you realize that for Marideth to walk up and say “hi,” means something.
Dr. Amigo always maintained that he was going to use the presence of the camera as a therapeutic tool. The actual film has created a sense of pride and self-esteem for them. In the same way the dance did, the film is just further giving them a sense of self.
In Conclusion: I’m glad I ended up seeing HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO. It ended up being an eye-opener for me on how to live with an autistic person, how someone in that spectrum navigates through life, decisions and choices, and how the good works of professionals like Dr. Amigo are empowering them to cope with life’s issues from their perspective. It is a documentary worth experiencing. Find it on HBONow/Go.
Next Week: On Monday, 11.02 HBO will debut THE DIPLOMAT, which chronicles the political and personal life of the larger-than-life U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke whose career spanned 50 years of American foreign policy, ranging from Vietnam, to Bosnia and Kosovo, to Afghanistan.