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A is for Autism (1992)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of A is for Autism (1992)
16mm, 11 minutes, colour
DirectorTim Webb
Production CompanyFinetake Productions
SponsorChannel Four
ProducerDick Arnall
MusicAlan Carter
 Thomas Wickens

Cast: Stewart Hogg, Daniel Sellers, Justin Sutton, Matthew Baguley, Sheila Baguley, Luke Hemstock (voices), Temple Grandin (interviewee); Jean Stanley (mother)

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The perceptions and experiences of autistic people, told using their own words and images.

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A is for Autism is a dazzling animated collage of drawings, live-action sequences and voiceovers that offers an insight into different aspects and forms of autism. It gives a rare glimpse of the very private and personal worlds of autistic children and adults, their thoughts and feelings and, especially, their sensory responses to and experiences of the world.

In 1991, Channel 4 commissioned Tim Webb to explore the possibility of making a short film for its Disabling World season, to give a general audience a small window into the condition of autism. In the UK, no film had ever been made about autism which included contributions from autistic people themselves.

After researching the project for a year, Webb decided to make an 'animated documentary' based upon contributions and collaborations with autistic people, seeing animation as the most effective means to convey the condition of autism. Every design in the film originates from a drawing by a person with autism and, although the drawings are very different, Webb organises the material in such a way as to create an overall unity.

The nature of the condition, which is characterised by often extreme social withdrawal and emotional detachment, presented Webb with a unique challenge. By deciding to depend solely on his autistic participants, he had to accept that he could work only with the most able ten per cent of autism sufferers, who might be willing and able to recount their thoughts and feelings. One of the narrators is Temple Grandin, who coached Dustin Hoffman for his role in Rain Man (US, 1988).

Underpinned by a restrained flute and piano score (one composed and performed by autistic musicians), the assembled voices are edited to present both individual narratives and a broader picture of the autistic world. The interaction between the sound and the images adds additional layers to a visually very dense film, and multiple viewings are necessary to comprehend fully all its illustrations and associations.

Caren Willig

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. Extract (3:33)
Complete film (11:12)
Channel 4 and Animation