Normal People Scare Me is playing on Netflix and available for purchase on the Normal Films website
By Nils Skudra
On a recent occasion I had the opportunity to watch the 2006 documentary “Normal People Scare Me,” directed by teenage filmmaker Taylor Cross and his mother Keri Bowers (who happens to be the co-founder of The Art of Autism nonprofit) and produced by Joey Travolta, the older brother of John Travolta. The documentary explores the definitions of autism, its benefits and challenges, and the different experiences that individuals on the autism spectrum have in their daily lives. This ambitious film project accomplishes this goal by interviewing a wide variety of autistic individuals and their family members, along with Joey Travolta himself. Since I had the privilege of taking Joey’s film camp for individuals with special needs in the summer of 2008 in Moraga, California, it was very pleasing to see him featured in this documentary sharing his insights about autism. One particularly poignant statement he makes is that “hope is the most important thing” in the life of an autistic individual, which I strongly agree with since there are times when their parents feel hopeless about their ability to cope with their child’s diagnosis – indeed this was initially true for my own mother when I was first diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 10 because of the doctors’ prediction that I might have to be institutionalized due to their ignorance, at that time, of the full scope of what my diagnosis entailed.
In its effort to delve into the perspectives of parents with autistic children, the documentary reveals substantial background information on its teenage director’s formative years as an individual on the spectrum. Keri relates that since the day Taylor was born, there were nothing but challenges since he missed every major developmental milestone ranging from the ability to reciprocate familial affection to everyday social interaction. She recalls that there were times when this made her feel ashamed and angry, wondering why he would not love her back and whether there was something wrong with her parenting. In addition, Taylor’s stepfather relates that he initially thought Taylor was “uncouth” due to his awkward social behavior. However, as both of them gained greater comprehension of Taylor’s diagnosis over the years, they strove diligently to aid him in managing the challenges of autism, utilizing its benefits, and becoming more independent.
Another significant approach that the documentary takes is manifested in the direct questions that Taylor asks the various autistic interviewees regarding their feelings about having autism. Their responses demonstrate a wide diversity of reflections, as some respond that they are glad to have autism as a part of their identity which enables them to stand out from the crowd while others point to the associated social difficulties which can make them feel insecure about their diagnosis. For example, one respondent affirms, “I have a lot of problems with empathy,” elaborating upon how her autism frequently manifests in “mindblindness” characterized by an inability to absorb and interpret other people’s input and thoughts. Another respondent, when asked the question “Do you like being autistic?,” states that “[i]t is hard to understand people and to interact with other people.” A number of fellow respondents share this sentiment and maintain that sometimes this makes them see their autism as an obstacle that they wish would simply go away. In addition, they point out that sometimes people with autism have problems with noises and sensory issues, an experience which resonates strongly with me since I often have a panicked reaction to sudden loud noises such as the car unexpectedly going over a bump or hole in the road, pots and pans or dishes suddenly falling down and clanging or shattering, fireworks, or ambulance sirens or even natural phenomena such as thunder.
In its interviews with parents of children with autism or with therapists who work with them, the documentary unveils a profound transformation that they have undergone in their perception of how autism affects the children’s social and cognitive learning abilities. For example, a school therapist recounts that she initially viewed one particular autistic child’s neuro-divergent social behavior as a sign that he was spoiled, but in her observations of his conduct in the classroom she came to see that he was incredibly astute in math as well as uniquely and unequivocably honest, which significantly broadened her perspective on the symptoms of autism and how to navigate dealing with autistic children. On the other hand, one important point shared by the different parents interviewed is that autism, in one respondent’s words, “puts tremendous strain on the family” due to the difficulties of learning to comprehend their autistic children’s behaviors and social challenges and overcome their own sense of shame about not having a perfectly normal child. However, the transformative effect that having a child with autism has had on families is illustrated by the testimony of Taylor’s younger brother who relates that while he knew what autism was from having an autistic brother, the experience has given him much deeper insight into its range of behaviors and its positive aspects and made it possible to enlarge his own repertoire of empathy skills.
One of the most painful social difficulties that children on the autism spectrum confront is how to navigate the problem of bullying from other children. The documentary elaborates upon this in stark detail through its interviews with the various respondents who recall their encounters with physical and verbal bullying directed at them as neuro-divergent individuals. One girl relates that this experience, while painful, was very instructive since it instilled her with a stronger appreciation for the goodness in people due to her firsthand observations of the cruelty and meanness that many children so frequently exhibit. The role of bullying as a formative experience in social navigation poses a complex question for many autistic individuals since their family members want them to learn the social cues that are necessary for success in their everyday lives, but at the same time the propensity of many neuro-typical children for taking advantage of their autistic peers’ vulnerability can make some parents uneasy about putting their children through public school. I was recently asked by my ushering supervisor at the High Point Theater whether I would have preferred to be home-schooled, to which I responded that I would have if it meant being spared from bullying but on the other hand it would have meant being deprived of the many public school teachers who have proven so kind and beneficial to my academic career, so this dilemma on the part of other autistic individuals and their parents is one which I can strongly relate to.
One of the central questions that the documentary asks captures the very essence of the title: “Do normal people scare me?” The answers of the various respondents illustrate the complexity of this question for autistic individuals. One pointedly replies “All the time!” while others relate how everyone is different in certain ways, and one parent states that she helped her autistic child understand who “normal” people are by comparing them to “Muggles” (non-magical humans) and autistic individuals to wizards in the Harry Potter saga. Because many of these respondents consider autism to be their own “normal” as part of their identity, this can be beneficial in approaching mainstream “normal” people since having a comprehension of one’s own type of normality and encouraging neurotypical individuals to recognize that can in some ways ease the process of social navigation and integration for individuals on the autism spectrum.
A final factor that the documentary addresses in its conclusions is the statistical data on children diagnosed with autism in the United States. In its end credits, the documentary states that 1 in 166 people is diagnosed with autism, and it gives an estimate of the cost of lifelong care for autistic individuals and the rate at which it will increase in the next 10 years. However, this information is significantly dated since the documentary was made in 2006, and in the 12 years since it was made the number of children in the U.S. who are diagnosed with autism has substantially increased. Recent statistics have emerged which indicate that 1 in 68 children is now born with autism, and here in North Carolina it stands at an even narrower range of 1 in 58. Given this dramatic numerical rise, it would do well for a future documentary to be made which addresses the current figures of children born with autism, the rate at which the cost of lifelong care now stands, and the efforts that are currently being undertaken to improve the quality of autism services.
In summation, “Normal People Scare Me” presents a highly engaging and informative look into the experience of being autistic from the purview of an autistic director who directly contributes his own experiences to the project as well as those of the different respondents on the spectrum whom he interviews. While the statistical information in the documentary is dated by twelve years, contemporary viewers would do well to watch this film so that they may not only gain deeper perspective and understanding of what having autism entails but also compare its findings with today’s figures of children born on the spectrum. Through this comparison, viewers can be encouraged to undertake further study of the causes of autism and find further ways of helping autistic individuals secure the services necessary for them to succeed in the social and professional realms.
Editor’s Note: Both of the films Normal People Scare Me & the follow-up film Normal People Scare Me Too can be purchased on the Normal Films website. Keri Bowers and Taylor Cross are available for film showings. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
“I am an artist on the autism spectrum, specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history as a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children.I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.
I have also been pursuing a side career as a freelance journalist, and I have had at least 8 articles published in local magazines and newspapers from various cities and towns in North Carolina and in Pittverse Magazine (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), which is staffed entirely by people on the autism spectrum. I am very keen on contributing articles as a regular blogger for the Art of Autism. Among my ideas for article topics are my experiences with disclosing my diagnosis in the workplace; and local businesses which are staffed by people on the spectrum and which donate their proceeds to autism causes. Through these blogs I hope to highlight the issues of autism’s portrayal in film, the challenges of discrimination that autistic individuals encounter in the workplace, and to promote support for local organizations that are dedicated to autism causes.”