These are words often used by certain organizations and the medical community to describe autistic people, notably nonspeaking autistics with high support needs. Whether or not someone can speak seems to be the barometer for who is “mild” or “severe,” intelligent or not.
DJ “Deej” Savarese proves all of these notions wrong in a truly marvelous documentary of the show, America Reframed. The film captures Savarese’s last days of high school to his first few months of college.
Although he was abandoned by his biological parents when he was a toddler, Deej was luckily adopted by wonderful parents who fought hard for his right to be included in public education. They have never allowed anyone to use his disability to prevent him from having access to reaching his full potential.
They certainly serve as great inspirations for parents with high-support needs autistic children. With his adoptive mother helping him communicate via facilitated communication on an iPad, Deej shows just how brilliant he is. On top of that, he wrote and co-directed a play revolving around his experiences being autistic, which garnered applause in his high school auditorium.
He also appears to be incredibly loving towards his parents, as there are multiple times where he tells them how much he’ll miss them when he goes to college. Yet again, Deej breaks another stereotype that autistic people don’t feel empathy. At times, Deej also gets afraid of upsetting his parents, which distresses him. But when he’s happy, he’ll flap and yell excitedly, and that unbridled joy is contagious.
An important motif in the documentary is the way the film will handle framing the heavy investment Deej’s parents make to ensuring that his needs are met and that he is supported. This is a common dilemma in disability advocacy. It is major investment to support some disabled folk, and it’s important to be honest about that without framing the investment as a burden.
And, Deej accomplishes that important nuance. His parents could not be more proud of him, as is clear from the film. They do not regret the investment. They do not regret that Deej is autistic. They regret that other people fail to provide the right accommodations for nonspeaking autistics.
In a heartbreaking moment, Deej consoles his mother and feels apologetic for the stress she feels. His empathy is strong.
Deej has a girlfriend, Jen, who has cerebral palsy. This relationship challenges what people know and believe about disability. Jen and Deej both have difficulty with controlling their body’s movements. They both require support. They both, by their existence and their academic success, will challenge what people have believed about nonspeakers.
Deej is not the only one who deserves credit for making the episode a template on how to portray autistic people in an accurate and humanizing manner (as he served as a producer for the episode itself). The director, Robert Rooy, is an example of a filmmaker who frames the disabled people in his film in a human light, while also respecting Deej’s autonomy throughout.
There are brief moments where the film breaks the fourth wall when Rooy asks Deej if he wants a 10-minute break from filming after he gets overwhelmed. There also comes a point where we get a voiceover from Rooy and Deej discussing the parts that Deej wanted filmed.
Respecting Deej’s decision to keep the filming in his classes brief, Rooy follows through with the request. Such understanding towards autistic people on reality TV from filmmakers is quite seldom seen.
Instead of focusing only on the negative aspects of being autistic like most mainstream media does, Deej hit the mark in a remarkable way. What stands out is Deej’s love of justice for all marginalized people. He does not speak, but what he says is the Truth.
Of course, the film displays his struggles, but because we get to see so much triumph, it is easy to see the complicated and beautiful thinker he is beyond those struggles.
Like DJ’s poetry, which is highlighted in segments with painted animations to accompany them. The effect is an immersion in the sensory experience of Deej’s life and an invitation to the audience to glimpse the way his mind works.
Through those segments and his many accomplishments we see on screen, we get to see Deej for who he truly is: a remarkable human being full of hopeful justice.
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