By Nils Skudra
In browsing through autism-themed films, I watched an 18-minute short film which I felt would be a great topic for a review.
The film is titled Duke and revolves around an adolescent boy with autism whose mother makes a concerted effort to obtain special education services for him due to her conviction that he can articulate his feelings and become successfully integrated into society with the necessary support.
I felt that this film was a prime selection because it depicts a protagonist who would be considered more challenged than most autistics due to his verbal impairment, and individuals who are non-speaking are often regarded as lacking the ability to achieve independence and contribute to society, something that is commonly associated with autistic adults with less challenges.
However, Duke utterly disproves this notion, and therefore it offers an important contribution to film depictions of autism.
The film opens with the title character Duke Peters (played by Robert Solomon), a 17-year-old boy with autism, standing on a beach with his eyes closed, smiling, opening his eyes and making peculiar signals with his hands.
This blissful moment is then interrupted by calls from Duke’s mother Brenda (played by Piercey Dalton) telling him to write his name. The scene subsequently cuts to a classroom where Duke and his mother are meeting with the school principal, who is conducting a test to determine whether Duke can successfully communicate by typing his name on an iPod. However, Duke slaps his head repeatedly and makes agitated vocalizations, prompting his mother to attempt to calm him down.
Following this examination, the principal tells Brenda that Duke has failed the test for the third time and that they cannot do anything for him. Brenda insists that Duke can articulate his feelings, handing the principal a note written by Duke in which he states very clearly that he wishes to be treated like everyone else and be seen in a new light.
The principal, however, is skeptical that Duke wrote this note completely by himself, insinuating that Brenda either helped Duke or wrote it herself.
Furthermore, the principal maintains that they cannot offer special education services, stating, “We can’t afford to have a therapist in the room every day.” This insensitivity only reinforces Brenda’s determination, as she adamantly insists that she knows what Duke needs and that she will do whatever it takes, even if she has to go to court, to obtain support services for him.
The lack of special education services for Duke is a striking point that the film touches upon and which I can relate to personally, although as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome I would be considered to have less challenges than Duke.
When I was first diagnosed at age 10, medical professionals thought that I might have to be institutionalized since they did not fully understand what my diagnosis entailed. My mother therefore fought to secure special education services for me, and after a lengthy legal case this goal was achieved.
From my personal experience, I can affirm that the availability of special education services for children with autism is highly important to their social and academic success, as it not only helped me in making my way through public school, but it also exposed me to other students with autism, some of whom had greater challenges in terms of verbal communication. Watching this film thus furnished new insight into how critical it is for parents to obtain special education services for all children with autism.
Following the school session, Brenda takes Duke to meet with Susan (played by Tammy Kaitz), a local therapist who has been working with Duke. Unfortunately, she cannot offer much assistance, telling Brenda that “everyone has their own way of getting there,” but Brenda is insistent that Duke receives the necessary support since she will not be around forever to take care of him. The session goes awry, however, when Duke responds to the therapist by putting his hands on her head and his fingers in her hair, prompting his mother to scold him and try to stop his behavior, after which they return home.
It is clear from these early scenes that Duke struggles with many challenging behaviors, which tend to require more specialized support, thus explaining the urgency of Brenda’s effort to obtain special education services for him.
When Brenda and Duke return home, she puts on some rock music for him, as he clearly finds it enjoyable and stimulating, but his insensitive brother Brandon (played by Zack Kozlow) abruptly shuts the music off, saying that he needs to do homework.
This incurs Brenda’s indignation, as the music serves the purpose of calming Duke and provides a medium through which he can communicate with her on some level. The challenge of finding acceptance from his other family members is further demonstrated at the dinner table when Brenda gives Duke the honor of saying grace, which causes some uneasiness on the part of his father and siblings since Duke cannot verbally form words, but he performs the task with an affirmative moan. Following the dinner scene, a montage of footage captures the various ways in which Duke’s family seeks to support his learning, including being taught through the use of word cards and a spelling boards and entering words on the iPod.
The challenges that children with autism face in gaining acceptance from their family members is a very prevalent trend, captured in numerous films and television shows. While most individuals with autism frequently struggle with this issue, it is likely even more pronounced in families of children who are more challenged due to the problems of verbal communication and the physical behaviors which parents may construe as aggressive and self-harmful.
The effect that this can have on sibling relationships is equally disturbing since some neurotypical children may display insensitive or even bullying behavior toward their siblings. This is manifested during a subsequent scene in which Brandon tries to snatch Duke’s iPod, threatening to take his cartoons away unless Duke writes his name. When Duke starts having a panicked reaction, Brenda rushes in and tells him to breathe, after which she confronts Brandon, charging that he does not respect his brother.
The toll that Duke’s issues take on his family is subsequently demonstrated by his father Joseph (played by Jeff Marchelletta) who tells Brenda that he is done coping with these problems. This prompts an argument between them, with Joseph accusing Brenda of talking to Duke “like a normal teenager” in spite of the fact that, from Joseph’s viewpoint, he clearly is not a normal adolescent.
Furthermore, he maintains that Brenda has lost track of everyone in the house through her focus on trying to help Duke. However, the rupture of their marriage is averted when Brenda discovers that Duke has typed “I want to go to” on the iPod, and he vocalizes affirmatively when asked if he wrote this. With his mother’s encouragement, he completes the sentence by typing “to the beach,” prompting everyone to joyfully congratulate him on having demonstrated his ability to articulate what he wants.
The film concludes with the family having a wonderful vacation at the beach while Duke stands with his feet in the water, watching a surfer out on the ocean. With the scene of his imagination thus fulfilled, it is clear that the beach truly gives Duke the space to feel free and whole. He then types the words “I want to surf” on his iPod, which pleases his mother. The credits then feature an epilogue with footage of the real Duke, who now takes surfing lessons in Malibu, California, and a biographical description stating that he began typing after 17 years of being unable to communicate with his family, and the written messages in the film are original.
Finally, the epilogue is followed by the words of John McLaughlin, the Director of Research and Analytics at ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education:
Research shows that if we give the best available special education to children with severe disabilities, those children are more likely to grow up productive, independent, and able to contribute to society.
Duke is a superbly made short film characterized by sensitive performances and a brilliant portrayal of the challenges that teens who are challenged by autism face. While most autism-themed films and television shows focus on protagonists who have less challenges than Duke (who are verbally articulate), this film makes a significant deviation from that trend through its focus on a protagonist who communicates through written text after a profound struggle that affects both his family and academic life.
Furthermore, the film makes a compelling case for the importance of determined family support, which Piercey Dalton personifies in her portrayal of Brenda, so that adolescents with low-functioning autism can secure the services they need and successfully integrate into society as fully-fledged adults. By watching Duke’s example, families will hopefully be inspired to go to greater lengths to provide this support for their children so that they may achieve this success.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history 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. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. 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.