MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Film Festival feature film Life, Animated that showed during the opening weekend, quickly became a catalyst for local families of children with autism to continue a very important discussion.

Life, Animated is based on the real-life story of Owen Suskind, the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind and his wife, Cornelia. An autistic boy who couldn’t speak for years, Owen memorized dozens of Disney movies, turned them into a language to express love and loss, kinship, brotherhood. The family was forced to become animated characters, communicating with him in Disney dialogue and song.

Joann Pezzano, teacher, on the SEPAC leadership team in Montclair, special educator and advocate, was looking forward to seeing the documentary Life, Animated.

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Like many parents of children with autism, Pezzano is quick to find any and all related media.

Pezzano loved the movie, and drew parallels to the hurdles parents face in the school system. She said, "The good thing about Montclair is that it's a great inclusive community and many kids with autism are in the public school system."

Challenges, however, are prevalent. Not everyone is united in wanting to reveal who their child is because of stereotypes and stigmas. The amazing memory we saw in Owen Suskind at the start of the movie is not uncommon. Neither is the erroneous notion that children do not want to connect. Much like Suskind, most autistic children are eager to connect. Similar to what was seen on screen, in real life, there are neighbors who will walk by a child and not say hello, children at school who are not taught inclusion, and educators who are not facilitating students getting to know each other on a social level.  These were some of the issues brought up by Pezzano. She also noted that the search for blame or cause often creates an unnecessary division even within the autism community.

Pezzano made an analogy to people with physical disabilities. If an average citizen observed someone having difficulty with a wheelchair, for example, they would easily be inclined to open a door, or push a wheel chair, for the disabled person. She said, "Many parents do not feel the need, if their kid is ok, to tell their children to reach out to others." She referred to invisible needs and the necessity to have conversations with our children that tap into to that natural empathy.

We asked whether she knew about the affinity therapy referenced in the movie. She did. In fact she added, "This is called following the lead of the child. Follow the kids' interests and follow your gut; there's no one answer." She said the film brought up the incredible work parents do and how difficult it sometimes is to trust their own gut when surrounded by so many opinions. 

When asked how the school system can help address some of the issues parents face, she encouraged professional development. She said, "There are no longer two separate worlds." She advocated basic training and said it should be given top down; in other words, our board of education needs to be invested.

Pezzano also gave praise saying, "There are tons of great speech therapists, OTs and special educators in town, principals, all who have all gone out of their way to include my son and others like him." However, she feels there is still much work that needs to be done involving all staff, parents and children. 

Pezzano told us that head of special education, Linda Mithaug, agreed to create an autism advisory panel to improve what is being done in the community. She said, “We need to work on housing, on the transition for autistic kids from 18-21 as they leave their homes and much more.”

Given that some people are less outspoken for a variety of reasons, over the next weeks Tap Into Montclair will be discussing the issue with SEPAC members in neighboring districts, and profiling a number of families who have children with autism, to follow the progress of these endeavors, and to foster inclusion and community involvement.

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