Louis Theroux is perhaps not the most obvious choice of film-maker to create a thought-provoking documentary about children with autism and their families. He is more famous for his, sometimes awkward, interviews with hardened criminals or controversial religious groups. But to him, this new two-part series is not so different from his previous films:
“Several months on from the decision to make these shows, I look back to see that in important respects they are not so different from ones I’ve made investigating weird worlds and strange pastimes. They too involve acts that cut to the core of what it means to be human: the meaning of love and loyalty; the duties and limits of parenthood and marriage; the nature of identity.”
Despite the title, this documentary isn't another glimpse into the romantic lives of people with learning difficulties, like Channel 4's controversial The Undateables, it is rather an incredibly emotional insight into the life of severely autistic children and the people that love them.
As to be expected with a "Louis Theroux" documentary, he begins as a very clear outsider; making cringe worthy attempts to engage with the children and asking questions such as, “do you like being autistic” to a child who is less than tolerant to his presence. As a presenter he can come across as somewhat condescending, but this is not his intention. He rather has a natural awkwardness, something which dissipates throughout this programme as he learns other to communicate via other non-verbal means such as high fives, facial expressions, and playing dominoes.
The programme features the families of children and young adults from D.L.C. Warren, one of the best schools in America specialising in Autism, and explores the highs and lows of what Louis describes as one of the most extraordinary kinds of relationship. He meets Joey, a thirteen year-old boy and his mother Carol, who is struggling with the more problematic aspects of Joey's autism. His fits of rage are becoming increasingly challenging, but Louis manages to connect with him on a level that shows him to be charming and sensitive. Joey's behaviour pushes his mother to her limits and she admits that each day his violent outbursts at school mean that he has to be restrained. In one scene, Joey lashes out at his mother at home, and as she wrestles him to the ground and places cushions around him, Louis asks if she wants them to cease filming; she replies, “No, no this is true autism”.
Louis Theroux also meets Paula, the mother of two children severely affected by the condition. She expresses her frustration that despite all that she has had to go through to bring them up and how much she loves them, her children do not seem to reciprocate her affection. She tearfully explains that she doesn't get much enjoyment out of them. Both she and her husband remark that their marriage will never be the same, and express the intense envy and sadness they experience when they watch typical children playing. It’s a poignant moment, as the viewer cannot fail to see an exasperated mother coping with the harsh reality of her family life.
The documentary also has a positive element to it in the form of Nicky, a nineteen year-old who is ready to graduate from the speciality school and enter mainstream education. In stark contrast to the other young people featured in the programme, Nicky is incredibly sociable and talkative. He even researches Theroux on the internet and jokes, “You're famous for this?” Nicky is an enigmatic character; he has written his own novel and co-teaches a comic book class at his school. His family are equally endearing and there is clearly a strong family bond in place. Despite his initial nerves and anxiety about changing schools, Nicky finds familiar friends on his first day and settles in well.
In keeping with his previous documentaries, and as indicated by the title, Louis Theroux is all about films that explore extremes. The programme features some severely autistic children who present the most challenging behaviour, and this sample is by no means intended to represent all autistic children. What the film is really about is the relationship some parents have with their children. Put simply, a mother's love for a son or daughter, when said child is socially distant from her; living in a seemingly impenetrable bubble.
Some parents wouldn't have their child any other way, others pray for a miracle, but in reality they are the miracle. The challenges may cause the parent to agonise over putting their child into residential care, and it may push them to the limits of despair. But despite the violent behaviour, the uncontrollable outbursts, and the difficulty in communication, a mother's love never wavers.
What this documentary really portrays is the incredible persistence of these parents; their inner reserves of compassion and their ability to battle on. Their strength in the face of their plight is awe-inspiring and truly commendable.
Watch the documentary on BBC iPlayer until Thursday 3rd of May 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01gk4xc/Louis_Theroux_Louis_Therou...
Written by Jasmine Kluge