by Debra Muzikar
Editor’s Note: Normal People Scare Me Too is available for purchase on the NormalFilms website. The next screening of Normal People Scare Me Too will be on August 13 in Los Angeles. View the Channel 17 news (NBC) in Bakersfield for the screening at Inclusion Films.
It’s 2002. Keri Bowers is raising her 14-year old autistic son, Taylor, in Thousand Oaks, a suburban community in Southern California. She recently quit her job as a paralegal and started the non-profit Pause4Kids which focuses on creative therapies and social skills for children on the autism spectrum.
“I didn’t know what to do with Taylor. I was a single mom. He was 14 and in the throes of puberty. I couldn’t keep doing this. I called an emergency IEP. The School District brought in their attorneys. They knew I was a paralegal and they knew I was well-versed in the law.”
An IEP or Individual Education Plan is an educational team meeting required by law for special needs students. The team decides what is appropriate for the student. Keri looks at the twelve educators, psychologists, and school administrators sitting around the table and said, “No more emails, no more notes home, no more phone calls. I love my son, but I don’t like him. You are in the business of educating Taylor. Do it!”
“I had it with both Taylor and the school,” Keri reflects. “He was an adolescent on the autism spectrum going through puberty. The school was relying on me to tell them what to do.”
She tells the school administrators she’s going to take Taylor out of school for three weeks to travel.
“They (the school district) weren’t happy. But at that time I was looking at a placement in Utah for Taylor. I had nothing to lose. I felt maybe if I took him away we could heal our relationship and bond again.”
A few weeks earlier, Taylor concocted “a wild idea” to make a movie.
“We bought presents each year for families who were down-and-out during the holidays. This year Taylor surprised me and said he wanted to earn the money himself to buy the presents.”
Keri told Taylor, “I’ll pay you to clean the pool.”
“No mom, I want to make a movie,” was Taylor’s response.
Taylor from a young age had been fascinated with movies.
“You can’t make a movie. You’re only 14.”
In the middle of telling Taylor what he couldn’t do, she remembers all the times people told her Taylor couldn’t do something. Taylor would never be able to talk, walk, would not be able to graduate from high school, etc.
Keri has an epiphany. She can’t project her own fears and limitations onto Taylor.
“Everything I just said is a lie,” she tells Taylor. “You can make a film. You can do whatever you set your mind to do. What do you want to make a movie about?”
“How about something we know a lot about,” Keri suggests. “How about autism?”
Taylor agrees. That night he comes home smiling.
“I’ve got the perfect title for my film,” Taylor said, “Let’s call it Normal People Scare Me!”
“How did you come up with that name?” Keri asks.
“I saw it on a t-shirt and I thought that’s how I feel.”
Keri probes Taylor for more information about why normal people scare him.
“Sometimes people talk too fast; they don’t inter-relate with me and that scares me,” Taylor responds.
Within a week Keri finds herself sitting across the table from Joey Travolta, pitching the film. “My son who is autistic is interested in making a film called Normal People Scare Me,” she says.
Keri is coy when she pitches. She wants Joey to buy in to the project. “I kept going back in forth in the conversation. I talked to Joey about including children on the spectrum in a social skills group that focused on film-making.” Keri was looking for people like Joey who could bring real-life skills to the table for the children and the teens the nonprofit Pause4Kids served.
“I read an article that week in the newspaper about Joey. He was a former special education teacher in New Jersey, but was now in Los Angeles working with high school students who wanted to make films.”
Joey is intrigued.
The next week Keri and Taylor leave for their adventure. They ride camels past the pyramids in Egypt, they absorb ancient history in Greece, and they dance on the cruise ship at night. “We ate like pigs,” she recalls. Taylor surprises her with his knowledge of Greek history. He develops social skills through his passion giving tourists unofficial tours of the Coliseum. Keri and Taylor return from their trip with a new lease on life and are ready to take on the movie.
Joey volunteers his time to mentor Taylor.
“Joey had a company called The Entertainment Experience. It was before he started Inclusion Films.”
Joey and Taylor create a ten-minute short in less than eight weeks with six interviews. Out of dozens of entries, Normal People Scare Me is the audience favorite at a high school film contest.
This leads to production of a full-movie version and the inception of the company Normal Films. Taylor interviews 65 autistic people asking each the question – “Do Normal People Scare You?” Nine out of ten respond yes.
One year and $100,000 later, Taylor and Keri are propelled into a whirlwind of activity surrounding their new film. The mother and son duo appear in People Magazine and field interviews from major publications. Requests for presentations come forth from all parts of the globe. The film becomes a classic used in universities and high schools. It’s one of the first films created from an all autistic perspective.
Fast forward 10 years and 2 movies later. What has happened to the cast who appeared in the original Normal People Scare Me? The good news is we will be able to find out with the release of Normal People Scare Me Too. Keri, Taylor, and Joey Travolta have reunited. An all autistic film crew – graduates from Inclusion Films, the film company Joey founded to serve autistic people, makes it an authentic set. “The movie has an autistic crew filming an autistic man interviewing autistic people,” Keri says.
“People talk about futures for autistic people,” Keri says. “The future is a gaping hole. The future is now.”
The new film will not only provide a follow-up from the cast of the first film, it has new people. “Taylor is interviewing people who have greater challenges. Maybe they are non-verbal, dually-diagnosed, or self-injurous,” Keri says. “And we are interviewing more young women. We also hope to tell the stories of the crew.”
Interviews for the new movie are set to be complete by the end of the summer. The movie then goes into edit mode. “We expect the movie to be released in early 2016,” Keri says.
I ask Keri if there are differences in the answers received in this movie from the prior version. “Not as many people are answering yes when asked if normal people scare them. I think this is an evolution in how we are relating to autistic people now. Maybe autistic people are feeling more accepted.”
Keri’s final words are to parents. “When we celebrate possibilities in autism, the intention is not to divide the community. Your child is a light. You’re child has something to contribute. Their mere existence is a light even if the challenges and pain are significant. Parents need to refrain from placing their own perceptions and limitations on their children. They need to process their own shame, guilt and fear.”