HBO Documentary “How to Dance in Ohio” follows Autistic Young Adults

How to Dance in Ohio

How to Dance in Ohio is streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu

By Nils Skudra

On a recent occasion, I had the opportunity to watch How to Dance in Ohio, a 2015 Peabody Award-winning documentary directed by Alexandra Shiva which follows a group of teenagers on the autism spectrum at a support program in Columbus, Ohio. The characters are in the process of preparation for their spring formal in which they will hold a dance and winners will receive a special title at the end. Because of the social and sensory challenges that autistic individuals frequently struggle with, the group director, Dr. Emilio Amigo, focuses his efforts on social skills training with the members through improv activities such as role-playing in which girls and boys practice asking each other for a dance. These exercises serve an important purpose since they provide the group members with preparatory experience of how to cope with interpersonal situations in the outside world, including rejection and heartbreak, in a more independent manner for the future.

The documentary centers on three main participants in the autism support group: Marideth Bridges, Jessica Sullivan and Caroline McKenzie. Marideth is a 16-year-old computer wiz who spends much of her time on the Internet learning facts about different subjects such as movies and scientific information. Jessica is a 22-year-old who works at a bakery that employs an autistic workforce (similar to my experience of working at A Special Blend here in Greensboro) but still lives with her parents. Finally, Caroline is a 19-year-old college student who has a boyfriend in the support group and hopes to attend the spring formal with him. All three characters are striving toward independent living but have significant social challenges which each of them struggles to improve upon.

Of the three central characters, Jessica is shown to be the most emotionally vulnerable since she is prone to meltdowns when social situations do not end well for her. For example, during a scene in which Jessica discusses her work experience with her job coach, she breaks down and weeps incessantly when she is critiqued about her interactions with co-workers who regard her behavior as aggressive and overbearing. Jessica pleads that she does not want to lose her job and that she means no offense to any of her co-workers. This is a situation that I myself have dealt with in the workplace since some co-workers who are on the spectrum have come across as inappropriate and obnoxious in my interactions with them. My supervisors have acknowledged this as part of the social challenges that accompany autism but nonetheless insist that I should handle these encounters in a direct manner by communicating person-to-person with the co-workers in question instead of complaining to the management when I find their behavior offensive.

A fundamental thread that the documentary explores in the respective journeys of the three protagonists is the transformation of the parents’ outlooks toward their children’s autism and how it impacts their ability to function independently. Each set of parents began with the assumption that the challenges of autism would prevent their children from making a successful transition to independent living, but this belief is profoundly changed when they observe the progress that Marideth, Jessica and Caroline are making in their respective social, professional and academic pursuits. For example, Jessica’s parents remark that they had thought she would basically be an “adult child” who would live with them until they passed away, but now they realize that she is indeed capable of leading a successful independent life. Consequently, they work together with a resource specialist to help Jessica in finding an apartment for her to move into when she is ready. Similarly, Caroline’s and Marideth’s parents recognize that they will have to prepare their respective daughters for a life without them and therefore provide support in such areas as cooking and other important life skills.

Another truly noteworthy aspect of How to Dance in Ohio is the absence of many common tropes associated with autism. This was observed by another reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter who said of the documentary: “Compared to other documentaries about the condition, it’s heartening to see one that accentuates the positive so much, showing families where the parents have managed to keep their marriages intact, where no one gets bullied, no one is a savant, and there’s no mention of the debate around vaccines.”

The in-depth look that the film takes into the lives of the three main characters and their parents poignantly demonstrates this point since each set of parents displays an optimistic outlook on their daughters’ prospects for successful independent living, and while Marideth stands out as a computer wiz, she is not made the central focus of attention as an example of the autistic savant, a trope which some critics would point to Rain Man or The Good Doctor as conveying. Furthermore, the depiction of how the autism support group works to instill confidence among its members in their interpersonal skills through dance is an uplifting testament to the ability of autistic individuals to successfully cultivate relationships while at the same time learning to accept the possibility of rejection by potential romantic partners and continue to thrive socially in spite of it.

In summation, How to Dance in Ohio is a moving and profoundly sensitive examination of how young adults on the autism spectrum endeavor to form social connections through different mediums and make the transition to independent living. Both parents and young autistic viewers would find this documentary highly thought-provoking and relevant to their own lives since they can relate to many of the struggles that the main characters and their parents contend with. By drawing connections with the characters in the film, young autistic adults may hopefully be inspired to develop greater confidence in their interpersonal skills and capacity for independence, and their parents may in turn become more comfortable and optimistic about accepting those prospects.

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Nils Skudra and Jackson

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. 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.

4 Comments

  • It is likely that Freddie Highmore of The Good Doctor is not entirely neurotypical. His official bios suggest possible undiagnosed Aspergers. It is likely that, with “masking”, actors with Aspergers do not need a “label” in a world that embraces diversity.

    • Nicole:

      good point about the world embracing diversity more.

      It makes me think about how labels mattered and still do matter in history.

      Will show you the Compensation study done by Happe and team.

      As for Highmore – if I had these pings or suspicions I might have had them in 2005 when I was watching Finding Neverland.

      Also there is a study about “autistic traits” and the “Broader Autistic Phenotype”. Our writer contends that this is a product of a misuse of language in a Wittgensteinian way.

  • Yes, Nils:

    complaining to the management = siding with the NTs [unless management is Autistic themselves – or that would be an enclave?].

    Yes – direct communication is best.

    Jessica reminds me of some of the people in the last two seasons of EMPLOYABLE ME.

    Also there is a show in Australia called YOU CAN’T ASK THAT which currently has a casting call for all kinds of people. Received it last Friday.

    That recommendation from the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER – I wish more documentaries were like HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO – even though why is it called “social skills training” rather than “psychoeducation”? Probably a US/European/Australian difference.

    UNTOLD AUSTRALIA has a documentary called LOVE ME AS I AM which I hope you see and talk about one of these days.

    Marideth’s computer skills and rage for research would be considered ordinary and typical and she would be respected and valued for everything that she is.

    So would Mckenzie and Jessica.

    Someone on Springhole/Mary Sue was talking about how the chief demographic would be 18-30 for lots of marketing and advertising.

    Very glad the Dancers of Ohio were not socialised into passivity and dependence as happens to so many women their age – we resist more or less. That toxic goodgirlism.

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