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A film set, where adults with autism learn job skills

Rebecca Wilbanks, photo and makeup credit

The“great wave” of kids with autism is growing up.

That’s what experts are calling this generation, since more than 80% of people diagnosed with full spectrum autism are under 21.

In Michigan, about 16,000 kids are eligible for special education services, according to a state report.

But when those kids grow up, the same report says, the state doesn’t have nearly enough services to help them get jobs or transition to adult lives.

That’s why one program in Rochester is giving young adults with autism the skills to get a job in an unusual way: by training them in the movie business.  

On set after lunch, the costume designer has a small breakdown

The crew is in the middle of shooting of the movie’s biggest scenes.

They’re filming in a three-story atrium on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, about 30 miles outside Detroit.

The writers, the actors, the editors, everyone has autism, except for the director and a few assistants.

Eighteen-year-old Alair Bergman, the costume designer, is already stressed from having to put together elaborate props at the last moment.

Now she’s serving as an extra, playing a waiter serving a tray of red wine (cranberry juice, really) in a dark suit.

Then, in the middle of a scene, Bergman drops the tray, the glasses crashing down.

Credit Rebecca Wilbanks, photo and makeup credit
A smaller shoot on an outdoor set

She runs into the bathroom in tears.

Her mom and I follow after her.

“Alair, are you OK?” we ask.

"It’s a big mess!” she sobs.

“Take a deep breath honey, it’s OK,” her mom says.  

"It's just that I's compulsive about when I screw up! I get really distraught. Perfectionism. Like, that wasn't perfect."

“It’s just that I’m compulsive about when I screw up,” says Bergman. “I get really distraught. Perfectionism! Like, that wasn’t perfect!”

She pulls it together, takes a big breath, and heads back out to the set, where the director is waiting.

“OK, Alair! I need you one more time, Alair,” he says.

“We got a new move for you, we’re going to lighten that load a bit ...”

Life on a different kind of film set

This program is based on a sister program in L.A., where the creators realized they had tapped into something.

They had created a huge draw for young adults with autism who love movies.

Really, really love movies, in a way that may be hard for neurotypical people to fully understand.

Take, for example, 20-year-old Evan Anderson of Rochester.

He’s tall, awkward, and shy.

Credit Rebecca Wilbanks
Evan Anderson, left, loves movies and has an endless arsenal of Three Stooges impressions for any situation.

But he has an endless series of Three Stooges routines that he can insert into any situation.

The impressions let him express excitement, anxiety, or goofiness at will.

That's not to say this whole project hasn't been stressful for him and a lot of the other students.

Film sets seem like they'd be a terrible place for someone with autism; there's constant social interaction and unpredictable demands and last-minute changes.

For 19-year-old Jeff Unger, controlling his temper has been tough.

"I just zone out for a minute. And for a half a second, gather myself back up," he says.

Unger is scary good with the camera equipment.  

Rebecca Willbanks. Makeup by Mary Riley
Jeff Unger, left, is a natural with camera equipment, though keeping his temper in check takes focus. He's less thrilled about having to act in the films.

His movie obsession really took off when he saw “American Beauty,” and for years now, he’s wanted to work on a film crew.

“I think that I can actually overcome that (temper) part, and show them that that has nothing to do with it. The autism won’t affect me at all,” he says.

But will students leave with a job after this?

“Is it fair to think these kids are going to walk out of here with the life skills, with the technical skills, to get a job in the movie business? I’d say no,” says John Martin, the film’s director.

He says he first got involved with similar programs because his daughter has autism, and he watched how hard it was for her to find activities where she was included.

What matters for these students now, he says, is their ability to learn how to get any job, regardless whether it’s on a film set or not.

“I focus on the skills that will teach them occupation, which is the professionalism of starting with showing up on time ready for work, understanding when you get a directive to stay focused on your job and do it. These kids, because of their social shortcomings, have to be taught those skills. And high school and normal education environments don’t teach it,” he says. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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