What made you decide to become a filmmaker?
I have been a disabilities advocate for 21 years doing many things to improve options and quality of life for kids with disabilities, their families, and professionals. But I can’t take credit for becoming a filmmaker. It is my son who was the muse and inspiration behind our first film, “Normal People Scare Me.”
On the eve of Taylor’s 15th birthday – which is also Christmas Eve., Taylor was involved in a holiday giving a project. I had always used community service as a way for Taylor to learn to relate to others, learn skills, and “think” about what helping others means. For over ten years, he had volunteered in many capacities in community giving. That particular year, Taylor surprised me when he said to me “Mom, this year I want to pay for the gifts .” I was stunned.
What a great lesson he had learned over the years!
“What can I do to earn some money, mom?” he asked. “Well, you can clean the swimming pool,” I suggested. With a sigh, a gasp, a roll of the eyes, and heavy breath (a typical reaction for a teen,) Taylor retorted “Nagggggggh! I want to make videos and sell them.”
As a former paralegal in the entertainment business, I had an idea what it takes for someone to make a movie, a record, or create success by writing a book. So I replied, “Taylor, you can’t make a movie! You need to go to college. You need to know how to do it…” Blah, blah, blah, I went on a diatribe about why a kid could not make a film. And then, I caught myself. As I turned and looked at Taylor, so trusting of my words and my attitudes, staring at me, believing me, a thought raced through my head… “Yea and they said you might never walk or talk, and we sure showed them.”
I took a breath and said, “Taylor, everything… everything I just said is a lie. It is not the truth. You can make a movie. I don’t know how to do it, but I will help you to get it made if it’s what you want to do.” He was now smiling. “I understand that people should write about – or create a film about what they know. You and I know autism; how about that for a topic?” I asked. “Yea, I know autism. Okay.” He replied. That night he came to me and said, “Mom, I want to call the film Normal People Scare Me.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Within one week, the universe presented Joey Travolta to us, and within a month, he had agreed to help mentor Taylor to make (at first) a student short film. The film’s screening at a local high school where Joey’s daughter Rachel was a senior was so successful it got awards and press attention. A couple of articles in the Los Angeles Daily News brought in an email from all over the world. Within months, we began filming the feature, 90-minute version of Normal People Scare Me.
How did becoming a filmmaker change your view about traveling and new people?
With the tremendous success of the film, we were asked by organizations, hospitals, colleges, Universities, and other agencies all over the world to come and screen our film and often, facilitate “mom and son” talks and workshops. Taylor and I had previously traveled to Canada, Europe and short trips to various places in the US, and each time we had issues – sometimes major issues – with different aspects of travel. Long lines, waiting our turn, being on time (many arguments about this one), losing items or leaving them behind, etc., but nothing could prepare us for the learning curve of traveling as advocates on a regular basis.
Airlines, flight attendants, hotel personnel, taxi’s, subway systems, currencies, food, etc., presented daily challenges for Taylor and me.
Taylor is 6’10”, and even so stature was often an issue as well (small seats on planes, beds, and door jams that are often lower in some countries.) It was clear that we both needed to learn and adapt to new strategies for the “rules” of travel, including how and what to pack, how little – how much, etc. But many other things were even scary for us. On several occasions, TSA officers got in our faces and asked us to “step aside” because Taylor responded to a question in a “weird” or “suspicious” manner. Then there were the times in Chicago, Manhattan, London and (a few others) when Taylor got lost, sometimes for hours! And then there were the times we nearly missed flights because Taylor needed to use the restroom at the last minute as the plane was boarding.
Then there are the arguments.
We’ve had many – and still do, over what I call his “ism” and rigid thinking, and my need to – oh, say – not miss that plane; or not want to pay for a new telephone charger he left behind…
Once, Taylor left his backpack on the bullet train in Japan containing over $600 worth of college books that Taylor insisted on lugging around Hiroshima. He never meant to read any of them but insisted “They needed to be in there mom, or I will lose them” But Taylor, they will be right where you leave them on your bed when we get back.” He insisted they needed to be with him. Again, this is his rigid thinking.
We have developed many strategies, some that have worked very well, and others, not so much. It’s a trial and error thing. I could go on to write a book on this subject or make a film – which is already in the planning stages called “Autism Travels.” But here’s a short list of 8 things a parent can do – and practice doing over and over, if necessary, to help with travel.
Never over pack!.Also, carrying bulky luggage adds tremendous stress, expense, and weight to your travel and anything that is not calming should be eliminated wherever and whenever possible while traveling.
Put your name and number on any electronics, computer or game gear, beach towels and other things that get lost or stolen. I suggest that the words “My child has (name disability). If you find this item, my son lost it. Please call…” A lot of people will be more likely to return things if they feel connected to the seriousness of the loss.
Call ahead at least 24 hours to the airport and tell them you will be traveling with your child. Ask them what special accommodations they can make at the airport for your child’s individual needs (lines too long, etc.) Call ahead to request special seating on planes, in restaurants; to seek special hotel accommodations, to places you will be visiting (sightseeing, museums, parks, etc.) Though not all will accommodate you, many are happy to support accommodations – we’ve even been given free stuff (food, tickets, etc.) because people want to help others in need. Calling in advance helps you know what to expect, and also takes that off your “to do” list while at your destination.
Have your child carry a “lost and found” card. You can make it on your computer and laminate it. I like the kind that says something to the effect: “I have (name disability). If you are reading this, I am lost. My parent’s names are.List contact information, where you are staying, some someone back home (just in case your cell phone dies, or you are out of cell service for example.)
You should always carry with you a written itinerary and directions of where you are staying as well. Keep a short, written note attached to your plan – and on your person at all times explaining your child’s condition just in case something happens to you, and you are unable to speak for yourself. The itinerary can help others who may encounter your child and your emergency situation while you are traveling to understand at least something about your child at a glance.
Bring something memorable and comforting for your child from your home. A special blanket, small pillow, small stuffed animal, a favorite small framed picture; something that can fold and packed. When you get to your hotel or another lodging, if you can, get into your hotel room before your kid does. Have someone traveling with you watch him/her in the lobby or distract them at the door long enough to get into the room to place the “surprise” item on their designated bed. Then make a grand entry and say to the effect “Look what’s on your bed! How’d that get there?”
Parents should try to establish familiarity in the new environment. Bring a small “sensory bag” on the airplane. Don’t just bring the toys, game gear, computers and other things parents naturally bring on trips, but rather a ‘sensory’ bag contains things that calm with touch, smell, squishy things, etc. Things like a brush; a squishy toy, a mirror for viewing emotions, a small puzzle, special socks or slippers, or a washcloth to wipe off tears.
Know Your Destination. Once you decide where you are going, research the area(s), local transportation, review local maps, and everything else you can think of in advance. Sitting in your hotel room and saying, “where do you want to go now?” or asking the Concierge about theater tickets at the last minute causes stress for everybody.
What is the message you want your audience to discover in your films?
The central message of my film is hope.
Expect miracles. If it appears that you are not getting “your” miracle today, delight in someone else’s miracle. Together, my films have over 100 interview subjects in them. Young, old, boys, girls, men, women, some with lower abilities and others with higher abilities (there’s never really a way to say that and be politically correct for everyone is there?) On one level or another, audiences will relate to at least one subject in my films. It’s always good to relate isn’t it? My films are meant to educate, inspire, connect, make people laugh and cry, but most of all, to let people (you) know you are not alone in this thing called disabilities.
What would be your ideal film location if money was no object?
I want to go on an autism cruise to shoot it! All my life I have loved to sail for fun. Now I’d like to travel and work! Presenting my films and workshops for family enrichment while on board – all while filming it all for my travel film project would be ideal.
What would be your advice to our autistic travelers?
Learn to be “zen” – at one – with travel. Keep your breathing regulated, and breathe into the experiences good or bad. Show your child you are calm and in control – even if they are not.
Traveling with a child with autism and other disabilities can be hard. Small situations can turn big, loud and ugly fast. Keep your wits about you. Have a friend back home whom you can call day or night at the “ready” to take a call from you and (in advance) agree they will not engage in your problem, but rather help you to relax around whatever the problem is.
In other words, a support system to keep you calm, focused, and ready to solve your challenges and not build them bigger than they are.
Keri Bowers is a filmmaker, consultant, author, and workshop leader in disabilities advocacy, with a specialty in autism. Films include “Normal People Scare Me”,”The Sandwich Kid,” and “ARTS”. Books include “Mapping Transitions to Your Child’s Future,” and “Single Pregnancy, Single Parenting”.She is is Currently working on a new movie about autism and sexuality ‘Desire’.