Autism is a spectrum disorder, encompassing a wide range of conditions, symptoms, and experiences. But this short animation may help you understand, and empathize with, certain specific sensory and perception differences that some people with autism experience.
Marisabel Fernandez and Alexander Bernard produced and directed Listen as their senior film at Ringling College of Art and Design. Their goal was to create a film evoking part of the sensory perspective of a non-verbal child with autism, and they acknowledge that the type of experience they're trying to interpret is by no means universal to people, including non-verbal people, who are on the autism spectrum.
We spoke with Fernandez and Bernard over email about the project, the research that went into it, and the reception to film:
I was wondering, first of all, why you decided to tackle this subject for your piece?
Alexander Bernard: When I was younger, I remember having this immense fear of Autism. I was afraid of it because I couldn't understand it. As a child, it scared me for someone to involuntarily wave their arms around and occasional make bizarre sounds. In the back of my head, I would always remember these feelings I had back then and question them. Since then, the fear had subsided but my interest hadn't. I still wanted to know more and when Marisa and I discussed potential subjects for our film, Autism seemed to be a relevant connection between the two of us. I would constantly go back to these early memories and feelings during our research and interviews and during this time we began to discover that the real problem isn't those with the condition but rather those who look down upon it and those who fear it. We realized that we each have our own perspective on reality and those with Autism experience reality in their own way. Suddenly it became a question of why we do we try and pull those with Autism out of their own reality to be in ours. People still don't understand Autism despite its growing presence in this world.
So my reason for choosing this topic was no longer about trying to make sense of my experiences from when I was younger but rather trying to give a voice to those who have none. It became important to myself to create something that people could relate to and help them form a new perspective that would hopefully evoke tolerance.
Marisabel Fernandez: The notion of psychological disorders has always been something I've been very interested in, that one way or another has been present in my life through people I hold very dear to me.
Autism was something very undefined when I was growing up, and in a way a taboo topic for many. It was easier for people to ignore the truth but rather regard someone with autism as "different" without actually taking the time find out why this was.
For the majority of us I think it's safe to say that we all have one way or another felt alienated, or misunderstood. For me, this was a big part of my life growing up. This piece represented a way to give a voice to this group of people that do not have a voice of their own, and to stop the intolerance.
As we researched deeper into Autism, we began to uncover the incredible world that it is; and the level to which those with this condition have become completely alienated from society, not only socially but even something as essential as health care has been an ongoing battle for the autism community.
We realized the ignorance we ourselves had towards a topic as important as this one, and felt we needed to share this story with as many as we could, to not only inform society of what these people have to go through, but create more tolerance and understanding.
You mention that you did research with the autism community; what form did that research take?
We knew we needed to get information from all different angles of autism. We began by contacting a few organizations around our school and were invited to visit an Art Class for children with Autism. We spoke to as many of the kids as we could, interacted with them and learned a lot about the way many of them interacted with each other, or the particular activity they were doing. After this we interviewed a group of parents about their children and specific events and experiences they had, as well as siblings of these children.
In addition to this we also spoke to a number of adults with autism, asking them specific questions that would give us an idea of their routines in order to start connecting different experiences. There were also a series of Medical Articles regarding the scientific approach and study of Autism that we referenced.
In doing our research we came across a couple of Autism icons. Both Temple Grandin, and Carly Fleischmann were of immense help to us. There have been numerous books, articles and even movies based on their stories that helped us get a closer glimpse of what they go through.
We interviewed a series of teachers and therapists that work with both children and adults with Autism.
We also visited an autism school to find out about the different learning methods, used to teach children with different levels of Autism. This was the main resource we used for the card game the therapist uses in our animation.
How do you go about understanding and representing the world of someone who is non-verbal?
This was by far the biggest challenge we had throughout, and still have actually.
Autism has such a broad spectrum, that it was incredibly challenging to understand the world that all spectrums of Autism go through, which is why we made the choice to represent a specific area.
The first time we sat down with a child with Autism, our instinctive approach was to ask them 'What do you see?' Yet, soon realized the naivete in our question. How can you ask someone who has never experienced anything outside of their reality, to compare their reality with yours?
This mistake, got our minds thinking a bit more, and looking into a different approach to take in terms of finding out how different this reality could really be.
After conducting a deeper research, We were able to collect a few facts that we found in common between different levels of Autism and go from there. There are two main characteristics we found recurring throughout our research. One of them being "Sensory Overload" which can result in a terribly, painful experience for the child. The second being, an extreme narrowing of concentration when they find something to be very interesting.
We found many common grounds between the concept of synesthesia, and the way some of these children experience their surroundings. This is why we chose to represent these feelings through abstract visualizations.
The visuals are incredibly striking—the piecemeal visual representations of cats and dogs, the overstimulation. How did you go about developing them?
A method that we learned, that is commonly used in some Autism therapies, is the use of visuals to trigger memory. However we also found, that some of these children find it very challenging to view an entire image of a memory on its own. Rather than concentrating on the entirety of an image, they focus on a single aspect. Hence the shifting of focus from the nose, to the ears, to the mouth in the cards. This visual representation was continued throughout the entire piece when visualizing the different sounds and images that were occurring around the main character.
A great inspiration for this was Michel Gagne's Ratatouille taste visualizations. We studied the way in which he used colors, shapes and movements to represent different feelings and tastes.
We created a language for the different sounds and visual input through the use of geometric shapes and from there, tried to envision what these would look like when combined into one single environment.
What has the response been from people within the autism community—patients, caretakers, professionals?
We were actually terrified of publishing the piece because of the possible reactions we would receive, from the Autism community. We didn't know if they would feel offended by the piece, since it doesn't target every aspect of Autism, and not everyone with Autism experiences it in the same way or has the same characteristics.
However our aim was mainly to create awareness around the condition, and the way people behave towards those with Autism; and so far the responses we have gotten from therapists, parents, and caretakers have been incredibly positive. They've been able to understand the underlying message of the piece rather than the specific traits that we are portraying.
We look forward to hearing from more of the Autism community about their personal experience with the piece. We hope that this piece may serve as a way to inform those who don't know of this condition and create more tolerance and understanding towards this community.