Film Shows Impact on Families Who Raise a Child with Autism
“LOVE AND COMMUNICATION”: Filmmaker Jim Christy is shown at the Arizona International Film Festival, where his film, a fictionalized account of how having a child with autism impacts family relationships, had its premiere in May. (Photo courtesy of Jim Christy).
By Wendy Greenberg
Jim Christy wants you to know that he is just like any other parent who wants the best for his child. But as the father of a son with autism, his parenting experience presented him with additional challenges and decisions that can put family relationships at risk.
Christy, of Princeton, an award-winning playwright, director, producer, and actor, makes that point in his film, Love and Communication, which will have its East Coast premiere at the New Hope Film Festival on July 23. (It was shown in the Arizona International Film Festival in May.)
Christy, and his wife, artist Mary Phillipuk, have stood up to school leadership, done their own research, looked into myriad healing and educational techniques, and spent out of pocket to help their son try to reach his potential and live as independently as possible.
The film is “generating some energy” as more people hear about it, Christy says, because “people feel like these kinds of stories are not being told, stories about the impact on the family.”
While the events in the film are fictionalized, the premise is real. “When you want the best for your kid, raising a child with autism, it can be so hard on a family,” said Christy. “For my wife and I, it brought us closer together. For the couple in the film, like so many in real life, it pushes their marriage to the breaking point.”
A well-received play by Christy on which the film is based was produced at the Passage Theatre in Trenton in 2010. Why a film? ”To open the world up a little bit,” said Christy. “Expand the story, get a wider audience.” The film was shot in 2018 but was delayed during the pandemic.
Autism is a developmental disability which often doesn’t present itself until a child is 2 or 3 years old, and is characterized by differences in behavior, communication, sensory processing, social interaction and learning. The functioning level varies widely.
The Love and Communication story parallels life with son Jimmy, who is James Christy III, although he is Samuel Holden in the film. Christy and his wife lived in Hudson County at the time of their son’s diagnosis. “Right away, you want to get the best services,” he said on a June 30 Autism Radio podcast. Christy notes that in a typical scenario, a parent may sense issues with their child before a doctor does, and that is what happened. Phillipuk describes, in an informational video, that she asked their son to say “please” for a toy,
something he had done many times, but he began turning away. That gave her pause and she began to sense that something was amiss.
In both the movie and in their life, neither parent thought the school district-assigned classroom was right for their son. The teaching was not specific to autism and there was insufficient staffing. Christy and Phillipuk knew from their own research that the classroom would not give Jimmy the skills he needed. Instead they paid for a private school, as well as lawyers to get funded. Although they had just moved into their house, they moved to Somerset County and were successful in getting a better program.
In the movie, the best school has no openings and a long waiting list, but the father in the movie pursues a placement for his son. The father favors the applied behavior analysis technique of teaching although Christy admits the reliance on data can feel rigid.
Meanwhile, the mother in the film is intrigued by a relationship-based program offered through expensive DVDs and promises that Christy says sometimes seem like scams. But the possibility of creating a bond with a distant child was worth pursuing.
In the play, the young child was unseen. An actor working with the child turned to the audience. “The child was in the audience,” explained Christy. “It made a connection, but we knew that wouldn’t work in a film.” In the movie young Sammy is played by twin youngsters from Princeton. The tone of the film is a little more raw, said Christy, as the story is told visually, not verbally. The movie takes us through some antagonistic Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings, and some new characters are introduced, such as a therapist who has a nephew with autism.
“That story is important to me,” said Christy, because while his own family was able to choose a better program, “many people don’t have a choice” — and he wanted to reflect that in the movie.
The film was shot in various locations around New Jersey, but mostly in Princeton. Scenes with the main couple were shot in the Christy home on Leigh Avenue, and an important scene was shot in a neighbors’ home. “In general, the community was overwhelmingly supportive,” said Christy. Tony from Local Greek learned that we were shooting on our block and volunteered to make a great meal for the entire crew one night.”
Christy, 51, grew up in theater as his dad, James Christy Sr., was an area director and theater professor at Villanova University. In fact, an actress he met at a Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival play directed by his father, Ellen Adair, is in the film and plans to attend the New Hope film premiere. She had a part in the television series Homeland. Lev Gorn, who was in The Americans on television, plays a charismatic purveyor on the online relationship-based technique. Christy himself, was “the nerdy, sniffling kid” in the movie, The Dead Poets Society.
Christy’s goal for Love and Communication is to show what parents of children diagnosed with autism are dealt. “People talk about parents of special needs kids being heroes. And they mean well by it, but people need to know we’re just like anyone else. We didn’t choose this. This is about people who are doing the best they can.” He wants to keep telling the story, and keep screening the film.
His goals for his son Jimmy, now age 19, have evolved. “They are not the same goals as when he was 3,” Christy says. “We are not going to find the great cure. He will always need care. His school has been amazing, and we want him to grow as much as he can. We want him to be happy.”
For more information, or to purchase tickets for the New Hope Film Festival, visit loveandcommunication.com.