April 1, 2010 / 11:45 PM / 7 years ago

HBO film looks at autism through mother's eyes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A documentary narrated by actress Kate Winslet debuts on U.S. television Friday aiming to take audiences beyond narrow depictions of autism in films like “Rain Man” and expose them more broadly to the disability.

The film, “A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back To Autism,” is based upon an Icelandic woman’s journey as she meets scientists and autism experts in the United States in an effort to improve the life of her 10 year-old son.

“Mother’s Courage” premieres on cable TV’s HBO on World Autism Awareness Day, and shows Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir struggling to find treatments for her autistic son, Keli.

Along with Winslet, Icelandic musicians Bjork and Sigur Ros add their voices and music to the movie, and Iceland’s first lady Dorrit Moussaieff backed the project when filming began four years ago. While celebrities bring name value to “Mother’s Courage,” its makers say their aim is to educate and change narrow perceptions of autism.

In 1988 Oscar-winning film “Rain Man,” for instance, Dustin Hoffman played an autistic man and mathematical genius who is taken on a road trip by his brother (played by Tom Cruise) and along the way counts cards at casinos to win some money.

“Autism is more varied than reflected in that movie” said Ericsdottir, noting it was what many people associated with the disability even 22 years after it played in theaters.

Autism is a general term for a group of developmental brain disorders and symptoms, such as problems with social interaction and communication, and it can range from mild to severe. Its cause is unknown and there is no known cure.

One in 110 U.S. children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder every year, with boys factoring much higher, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HUMOROUS AND HEART-WRENCHING

Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, the film shows both humorous and heart-wrenching realities of families raising autistic kids and navigating diagnoses and treatments that sometimes conflict.

“In addition to coping with the disability, they must cope with the negative attitudes of society,” said Ericsdottir. “This is because people aren’t educated and informed enough.”

The film shows Ericsdottir visiting a variety of experts, treatment centers and schools, including a Helping Autism through Learning and Outreach (HALO) center in Austin, Texas that uses a method called rapid prompting, a technique designed to help those with autism to focus and respond.

“Mother’s Courage” provides no answers to autism but shows hope. Ericsdottir eventually moved Keli and her family from Iceland to be closer to the Austin-based center.

“I thought there was no hope for Keli,” she said. “He is so different now because he is starting to communicate.”

Contrary to the film’s title, Ericsdottir said she did not think of herself as brave.

“I just did it because I love him so much, and he deserves the very best of life,” she said. “If the film can free these children, it is worth the effort.”

More information can be found at www.amotherscourage.org, and www.worldautismawarenessday.org provides links to autism organizations in each country.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bob Tourtellotte

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