The challenges faced by people with any degree of autism — as well as the challenges for their parents — are frequently documented, not only in films but also in meaningful works of human-interest reporting in newspapers and magazines.
Often left out of these stories (or portrayed fleetingly) are moments of everyday joy — yes, joy — in lives that strenuously shun emotional contact. Alexandra Shiva’s simple yet warm and revealing documentary “How to Dance in Ohio” is about that joy.
Without glossing over difficulties, the film (airing Monday on HBO) follows three young women with high-functioning autism as they undertake a daunting rite of passage: attending a formal dance.
The three are all fortunate to attend a remarkable clinical therapy center in Columbus, where a driven psychologist, the aptly named Emilio Amigo, helps his clients discover new ways to relate to the world as adults.
The spring formal, Amigo says, is “a collection of the worst possible sensory experiences that people living with autism encounter — it’ll be loud, it’ll be fast, it’ll be crowded, it’ll be confusing, it’ll be complicated. In some ways it’s a recipe for disaster.”
And, as Shiva’s film chronicles, it takes weeks of mental preparation. Not only do the young people in Amigo’s group sessions have to learn a few dance moves (including slow dances), they have to become aware of one another’s feelings, especially in the context of how to ask someone to a dance. (“Thanks but no thanks,” one girl tells her nervous suitor, without making eye contact.)
Left to her own devices, 16-year-old Marideth would sit in her bedroom 24/7 and surf the Internet in a constant state of trivial research. Her parents note the progress that’s been made in a decade: The little girl who wouldn’t allow anyone to touch her is now social enough to join them and her younger sister at the dinner table, where, unprompted, she begins to bring up the subject of the dance and, more vaguely, the idea of going out with a boy.
Nineteen-year-old Caroline is tentatively navigating community college and even has a steady boyfriend (who is also autistic), but tells her mother than being adult “is not fun. There’s just too much to not know about.”
And Jessica, 22, is able to work most days at a bakery that employs people with autism, but she’s easily rattled by any break in her routine. To make matters a bit worse, she has a tendency to let compliments inflate her ego. That means she might be the perfect prom queen, but it could also be emotionally devastating to see someone else win.
More striking is “How to Dance in Ohio’s” ability to get the girls’ parents to open up. One of the real treasures of a documentary such as this is how it can soothe another kind of remoteness. A viewer can sense that these folks have waited a long time for someone to come along and ask them about their fascinating kid. They seem grateful to get that chance.
How to Dance in Ohio (90 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, with encores.