'Autism' docu sheds light on disability, family plight

Premieres as special screening

The horror films on display at the Sundance Film Festival are nothing compared to every parent's fear that their child could be diagnosed with the mysterious developmental disability called autism.

Hoping to shed light on what has become a national epidemic — affecting one in every 166 children — the documentary "Autism Every Day" premiered Sunday as a special screening at the festival.

Executive produced by NBC Universal chairman and CEO Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne, the founders of Autism Speaks and the grandparents of an autistic child, "Autism" chronicles a day in the life of eight families with severely autistic children. The Wrights were in attendance, joined by other family members from the film, including the Wrights' daughter Katie and Alison Singer, an executive on the film and senior vp communications and strategy at Autism Speaks.

Also attending to lend their support were Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television Group; Dan Glickman, MPAA chairman and CEO; and Jason Resnick, vp acquisitions at Focus Features.

Lauren Thierry, director and co-producer of the film and a mother of an autistic child, introduced the docu. "These are extraordinary families and entirely ordinary families, too," she said. "They are your neighbors down the street and the kids on your block. We're here to bear witness to their struggle, their pain and their love for their children."

New Yorker Thierry urged Hollywood to become more involved in the cause.

"We need to update Dustin Hoffman's 'Rain Man' character and even Billy Bob Thornton's character in 'Sling Blade.' Hollywood needs a vehicle that can provide an outlet for autism," she said.

The 44-minute film can be edited into shorter versions for outreach purposes, and a 12-minute version is available on the Autism Speaks Web site. The film also will air on the Sundance Channel.

"These families are broke and exhausted," Bob Wright said. "Who's going to care for all of their kids? Public service isn't ready for these kids."

As part of the Autism Speaks Foundation, which plans to raise $100 million a year for research and outreach, there are family service grants available to help pay for the extra educational services these children need to spur their developmental growth.

The foundation also has enlisted the help of lawyer Gary Meyerson, who has moved his entire practice to autism, with a specialty in education. The attorney has garnered the help of six law firms working pro bono to create precedents nationwide. "That will crack the code on a lot of issues," Wright said.

Autism Speaks, which recently acquired the National Association of Autism Research, has 122 full-time employees, with operations in 31 states.