Museum show highlights media-makers on the autism spectrum
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Museum show highlights media-makers on the autism spectrum
Jackson Tucker-Meyer (left), an artist represented in the exhibition, and Carl Goodman (right), Executive Director of Museum of the Moving Image.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- When his autistic son, Nate, was growing up, Josh Sapan used to take him to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens where the video game exhibitions helped Nate connect to the world.

Those experiences inspired Sapan, a museum trustee, to help establish a program that would not only acknowledge the important role moving images can play in the lives of those on the autism spectrum, but would also highlight people on the spectrum who create those images.

“I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some recognition for the work being done by people on the autistic spectrum?” said Sapan, the executive vice chairman of AMC Networks. “In its elevation, it might also stimulate funding and education and awareness.”

The result is Marvels of Media, an exhibition, awards ceremony and festival that opens Thursday and celebrates media-makers on the autism spectrum.

“We’re shining a light on something that already exists and then helping to amplify that,” said Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director. “Innovation in the creative arts often comes from those who bring something unique cognitively to the table.

He added that the museum seeks to recognize “how those who don’t necessarily fit cultural norms can end up playing a role in some of the more culturally significant artistic works of our time.”

Dena L. Gassner, a member of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee within the Department of Health and Human Services, served on the museum’s advisory committee. She said that some people on the spectrum respond to the rhythmic nature of moving images, particularly those they can watch again and again. “They like the familiarity and the predictability; there is a pattern to that,” said Gassner, who is on the spectrum, as is her son.

Twenty media works were chosen for awards from more than 3,000 nominations received from 117 countries. The 12 award categories include animated shorts, digital art, documentaries, narrative features and video games.

The selected pieces range from DIY projects to those created with large production budgets.

“The message behind the show is self-advocacy,” said Sara Guerrero-Mostafa, the museum’s deputy director of education and community engagement, who organized the effort with two other staff members — Miranda Lee and Tiffany Joy Butler — along with Sapan and an advisory committee of advocates, experts and artists.

“It’s part of saying, ‘Please accept as valuable people who act different, who might say things in a different way, who might not look you in the eye,’” Guerrero-Mostafa said. “The message is, there is not one way to be autistic and we want to speak for ourselves. We don’t want to be told to conform.”

One entry, “Satan Cured My Autism” is a 20-minute “mockumentary” by Jackson Tucker-Meyer — who, like the other artists, is on the spectrum. It pokes fun at what has come to be known as inspiration porn. In his film, Tucker-Meyer, 27, portrays Jimmy, a young autistic character who has two personas: one who “has learned to assimilate into neurotypical society — we call it masking,” he said, and the other who “doesn’t care about social niceties.”

“It’s this one person’s journey to reconcile or not reconcile the two halves of himself,” Tucker-Meyer said in an interview. “I personally have the privilege of passing for neurotypical in certain situations, and it has its own benefits and its own problems. I’ve been able to move in circles that maybe would have been closed off to me, but at the same time that can contribute to feelings of alienation or exhaustion. That’s what I’ve been wrestling with in this film.”

Among the 18 works on view at the exhibition are Bradley Hennessey’s An Aspie Life, an arcade-style video game that deals with “scripting,” the strategies used in autism education to help people know what to do in different social situations. “Having an exhibit is going to shed more light on our experiences,” Hennessey said.

The 2021 film “The Father of Rodents” by Bryn Chainey, portrays wrestlers from Australia in the United States. Alba Enid García Rivas and Julio Garay, a wife and husband team from Puerto Rico (Garay and their daughter are autistic) have created puppets and an animated film about a grandmother teaching her granddaughter about their Taíno ethnic group: “Dak’ Toká Taíno/Yo Soy Taíno/I Am Taíno.”

The exhibition also features the 2007 short film “In My Language” by blogger Mel Baggs, who died in 2020. The film, which offers a window into the minds of people who think and communicate in nontraditional ways, gained wide exposure through coverage on CNN when it was first released on YouTube.

London-based artist April Lin created a giant moving-image mural that was commissioned for the museum’s lobby wall. “Film is the way I communicate,” Lin said. “The specific contributions that autistic people make often get sidelined or don’t get the chance to blossom. This exhibition is a chance for us to be seen on our terms, without having to make ourselves smaller or dilute things to fit someone else’s vision.”

The submissions were reviewed by a panel of experts that included Sapan; actors Joe Pantoliano and Tony Goldwyn; Cheryl Henson, the president of the Jim Henson Foundation; and producer Brian Grazer.

The festival includes a workshop on creating access riders for artists with disabilities, an animation workshop and film screenings.

“We need to involve people on the spectrum in things created for people on the spectrum,” Guerrero-Mostafa said.

Ultimately, Sapan said, he hopes Marvels of Media becomes something akin to the Special Olympics, giving more attention to art forms that have meant so much to his son and others who share his interests. “It’s a personally driven project,” Sapan said.

For the makers, the project also feels personal. “I was basically trying to tell people what it’s really like to be autistic,” Tucker-Meyer says in his film, “specifically telling normal people how it feels, because I think that’s really the purpose of art: to tell normal people how it feels to be different.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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