by Cressida Greening
July 20th, 2011

A few weeks ago we screened Adam Larsen’s delicately rendered, insightful documentary Neurotypical, a film which offers a different perspective on autism, placing autistics in control of readdressing society’s perception about them. In turn the film throws open the question of what we percieve as ‘normal’. We spoke to Adam about making the documentary and also had the chance to speak to Paula Durbin-Westby, one of the film’s subjects, about neurodiversity and the necessity of accepting a plurality of definitions and expectations of what constitutes ‘normal’.

Rooftop Films: Describe Neurotypical for someone who hasn’t seen it.

Adam Larsen: I’ve been describing Neurotypical as a documentary about autism from the perspective of autistics, but, really, it’s most accurate to describe it as a film about life, and the storytellers just happen to be autistic.

RF: Why did you want to make this documentary? What first drew you to this topic?

AL: My father has worked in the autism field for over 20 years. Growing up, we held social group gatherings once a month for autistic adults at our house. So I got to know autistics on very personal levels rather than viewing them through the lens of their diagnosis. I started to realize that there was a huge disconnect between the people I knew and the media’s generalizing portrayals of autistics. My dad and I wanted to make a film in which the autistics we knew could speak for themselves.

RF: You raise the topic of neurodiversity, which asserts that mental conditions are not actually disabilities but rather part of human development and should be recognized as normal. Do you see this attitude becoming more accepted in society as time goes on?

Paula Durbin-Westby: Developmental, mental, and physical disabilities are a natural part of the human condition. This is the meaning of the term “neurodiversity.” Neurodiversity is a fact of existence, whether we like it or not. The neurodiversity movement does not claim that these conditions are not disabilities. On the contrary, mental, developmental, and other neurobiological conditions typically are disabilities. The concept of neurodiversity encourages the idea of acceptance of people as they are rather than trying to “normalize” them. So, far from suggesting that these disabilities be recognized as “normal,” in the sense of “typical,” neurodiversity proponents urge people to consider that a range of human ability and disability exists, sometimes within the same person. While we should accept each human being as they are, this does not mean that we reject the idea of services and supports. We promote services and supports that will help each individual live life to its fullest, according to the principles of self-determination.

RF: What do you hope the audience gets out of this film?

AL: Well, if you’re certain that you are Neurotypical, be warned, you may walk away from the film feeling less sure about that. I think we all can benefit from thinking a little less typically.

RF: What’s your next project?

AL: I’ve got two documentary projects in the works. Starts With a Bow will follow John, a self-taught fiddler with Asperger’s and Tourette’s, on his quest to build a replica of an obscure 16th century violin. And, I’m also developing a film about Clarence Fountain, one of the founding members of the Blind Boys of Alabama.


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  1. Gun Wechsler says:

    Would like to buy a copy of the film Neurotypical to give to our daughter (whose almost 4-year son is on the spectrum).– Just saw the film is Asheville and found it to be most beautiful and informative!
    Many thanks!

  2. Doris Byrd says:

    I have not seen the documentary, plan to see it in June. I would love to purchase a copy to use at an inservice at my school. I teach students at the lower end of the spectrum in a middle school setting. I think that the faculty needs to know more about disabilities in general and autism more specifically. Also, I have a nephew on the spectrum. His parents are in denial. Other family members call him names that are not appropriate,etc. I have not been able to adequately explain the condition. To show this documentary at a family gathering may be the solution that I need.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.


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