When your child is diagnosed with autism, it can feel like your world has fallen apart. Last year, when our son Gabriel was three, it happened to us. And though life is extremely hard for us, and much more so for him, he has opened our eyes, minds and souls to magical things in everyday life – like cinema.
Our son is essentially non-verbal, having very few words, and like many with autism he has major difficulties with language, communication and social interaction. We first took him to the cinema when he was two, and a passion was born. In the darkness of the theatre there’s no threat or pressure from neurotypical folk expecting conversation and eye contact. The two-dimensional characters provide a safe way of accessing life experiences: our son can’t seek answers and information as others would by asking questions and sharing fears. The darkness and ‘front focus’ help reduce the constant overwhelming visual input that is part of his life: how can you attend to the ‘thing’ in front of you when your eyes are flooded with hundreds of images every minute from every nook of peripheral vision?
In spring 2012, when he had a vocabulary of approximately 15 words, Gabriel clearly said ‘Sparky’. We were excited that he’d said a word and was undoubtedly trying to communicate with us, yet we had no idea what ‘sparky’ was. We searched our memories and came up blank. Then one day I recalled, ‘Last month we did see a trailer for a Tim Burton film – there was a dog in it called Sparky, but it’s only mentioned a couple of times, and it was so fast, and we’ve only seen it once…’
‘Nah,’ my husband said, ‘can’t be.’
How much we have learnt since.
That one trailer was to seize Gabriel’s imagination like no other. How did we discover that ‘Sparky’ was indeed the endearing dog of Burton’s creation? Gabriel showed us. We went to the cinema and Gabriel ran to a cardboard FRANKENWEENIE placard and spent 45 minutes dancing, babbling, singsonging and beaming in front of it. Over several months we hotly anticipated the release of the film. With every poster, every Disney Store window display, Gabriel turned to us with animation and joy. He began to request ‘Sparky?’ for the trailer and, always, he’d turn to us and exclaim and dance and beam.
One night, having difficulty getting Gabriel to sleep, I sat quietly with him. Thinking he’d finally drifted off, I tiptoed away, only to be stopped in my tracks by the little voice that floated out of the darkness – ‘Something big is gonna happen!’ The moment was eerie and magical; tears filled my eyes and swelled my throat.
Many phrases from FRANKENWEENIE were to follow, and this was before we’d even seen the film! Gabriel made – ‘Turtle, dinosaur’ – a request for us to sketch Shelly the turtle’s transformation into a T-rex like monster. He started to tell us ‘Mr Whiskers had a dream about you last night.’ He learnt new words: bat, monster, sea monkey! And, amazingly, he began to role-play. We’d been told that ‘autistics’ lack imaginary capacity, yet our son took what he saw in the FRANKENWEENIE trailers, and ultimately the film, and began to apply it to his toys: play-sniffing, tracking, chasing cats, even dispensing kisses.
But the biggest moment was yet to come. It wasn’t Gabriel seeing his Sparky birthday cake on his fourth birthday and being utterly transfixed – ‘Spaaaaarky!’ It wasn’t going to the cinema three times a week to see FRANKENWEENIE while it was out. It wasn’t him managing to go to nursery for two hours because he had a laminated picture of Sparky in his hand and another in his bag. It was the giant sign he gave us during our first viewing of the film.
We’d spent months digesting, assimilating and loving the FRANKENWEENIE trailers, posters and placards, so we approached the screening with the ecstasy of parents knowing they were giving their child The Greatest Gift Ever. It started brilliantly, Gabriel was spellbound, but then he started to scream and sob… Sparky had been hit by a car.
Tim Burton didn’t show us the car, he didn’t show us the corpse; we saw nothing but Victor’s reaction – a face of fear shouting ‘Sparky! Nooooo!’ And that was the moment that many clinicians and educators were proven wrong. We had been told ‘autistics can’t express empathy and have little or no sense of other,’ yet here, in his distress, Gabriel was clearly showing us otherwise. He has shown us the same countless times since, identifying with a film character to such an extent that even subtle bullying will reduce him to tears. The first screening of a film is always difficult (and this is where Autism-Friendly Screenings are vital), as Gabriel has yet to discover that the character emerges triumphant and safe.
FRANKENWEENIE sparked a magical trajectory for us, showing us the actual potential in our beautiful boy, rather than the deficiency that others perceive in him because he can’t express himself in recognised, neurotypical ways. It also has given us so many moments of unbridled joy and discovery that I don’t have the words to convey their significance in our lives.
Ultimately, FRANKENWEENIE is the tale of a boy who is different, isolated and misunderstood. The boy loses himself in film, and the adults find themselves as he shows them what love really is. In this way, and every other way, FRANKENWEENIE is the film of our lives.
Thank you to Clapham Picturehouse for the perfect family experience, an Autism-Friendly Screening of FRANKENWEENIE in a very special place.
– Antonia Lidder