Newport Beach Film Festival documentary shows challenges autistic students face in college

by in News

A young, autistic man gets into a university science program — he’s proved himself to be brilliant in mathematics.

He reaches his first year of large science classes, where students are required to do labs and switch partners each week.

Meeting a new person weekly proves traumatic for the man. Heartbroken, he drops out of science and becomes an English major.

This is no film script. It’s a true incident encountered by Jan Blacher, distinguished professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. She also runs the on-campus SEARCH Family Autism Resources Center, which provides support, screening, education and other services for autistic individuals and their families.

Stories like these turned out to be the seeds for the documentary “Autism Goes to College,” which will be screened Sunday, April 28 at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

Blacher said she started listening to what autistic youths were telling her about how they survive college: how to get along with professors; how to find a major; how to stick with a major; how to graduate.

When she had collected a sizable amount of material, Blacher contacted Erik Linthorst, a Manhattan Beach filmmaker who in 2008 documented his family’s struggles trying to find treatments and therapies for his son who was on the autism spectrum.

Linthorst said he was struck by Blacher’s stories, which offered insights into the challenges faced by autistic students on campus and how faculty members’ lack of training and awareness has been affecting them.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, Linthorst followed five autistic students from various Southern California four-year and community colleges, including one who graduated in June 2018. The experience was challenging, but rewarding, he said.

“It was awkward at first to have cameras,” Linthorst said. “Add to that, students in the spectrum who are more sensitive to their sensory environment. So, we spent enough time, until they were comfortable with me.”

The primary goal of the film, he said, was to “share dialogue about best practices and how to best serve these students.”

The film also allowed Linthorst to flex his creative muscles. As he started filming, he began to realize that a number of interesting storylines had developed off camera or in the past.

Linthorst, for instance, struggled to show how one of his subjects had almost gotten expelled for threatening another student.

“But how do you show that?” he said. “It was an important anecdote.”

So, Linthorst hired a Brazilian animation team he found on Vimeo to tell that and other stories. “Animation became an important part of our storytelling,” he said.

There were a number of challenges including raising money for the project, Blacher said. They had to get by with creative solutions, such as holding an online contest for the cover art.

“It took us a while to figure out how to get the students to communicate effectively with us via email,” she said. “But the learning curve was fun to watch.”

Blacher said she was struck by the sense of humor that pervades the film. And that has been spilling over to the Q&As the students have been doing with film audiences, she said.

“These students are genuine and hilarious,” Blacher said. “More than anything else, this film is a celebration of their lives, their spirit and accomplishments.”

If you go

“Autism Goes to College” will be screened at 5:45 p.m. Sunday, April 28 at the Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido in Newport Beach, as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival. Tickets are $16. Information: 949-673-8350 or newportbeachfilmfest.com