Alone In A Crowded Room

ABC • 2010

What happens to autistic children when they grow up? A documentary that explores the line between ability and disability.



This film explores the line between ability and disability and takes us beyond our preconceptions of one of the most mysterious and challenging disorders of our time. It tells the stories of four autistic adults who get together at the autism social picnic – stories about love, family, work and friendship. We examine their difficulties with perception, empathy, emotion, and the practicalities of daily life and get an insight into a world that has often been described as unreachable. As we follow the stories and dilemmas of these characters’ lives, we begin to question what we know about this condition – and what we think we know about ourselves. Beyond the notions of the inaccessible autistic child or the autistic savant there is the question: What happens to autistic children when they grow up?

Alone In A Crowded Room – Trailer

Alone In A Crowded Room extras – Meet the Characters


Production Story

Lucy Paplinska’s interest in making Alone in a Crowded Room was sparked by her father’s research into Early Intervention in the field of autism. She first discussed the project with co-producer Lisa Horler in 2003 while they were both directing episodes of an ABC TV Series Family Story.

Lucy had recently completed the Postgraduate Diploma of Film & Television: Documentary at the Victorian College of the Arts, and was interested in making intimate and insightful documentaries which explored the human condition through personal stories and accounts. She was drawn to the topic of autism as it seemed to her an extremely complex subject, which she had not seen portrayed in the media in a way that truly humanisedcthose diagnosed with the disorder.

This initial conversation commenced the long process of making the film, beginning with receiving development funding at the end of 2004.

After speaking to organisations such as Autism Victoria and looking around at what was available about ASD in the media Lucy realised that: “although there were quite a few portrayals of children with autism, as well as autistic savants, there really wasn’t anything that explored autism from the point of view of people who were trying to live a “normal” life – i.e. have jobs, friendships, partners and so on”. Lucy decided to explore the subject from this perspective and see what was possible – or not – for someone with autism. After visiting many support groups and speaking to many possible characters she settled on the four people who are in the final film.

Lucy felt that these four people would be particularly good at allowing a glimpse into their inner world and also felt that “They were all quite different to each other and exemplified the diverse challenges that people with autism face – as well as their various strengths – and were also at different stages of life facing very different challenges”.

And yet there were also many similarities – although of course every person with autism is unique, autistic people often share common interests and common difficulties – and the four characters were also linked in other ways. In fact what also drew Lucy to them was that they all knew each other or had met, for instance Wendy and James are good friends and live in the same town.

“One of the most interesting things that I encountered during the research for this project was the fact that there exists a vibrant and rich autistic community”, says Lucy. There once existed the assumption that autistic people do not like company. In fact, it was thought that one of the main features of autism is what was termed “autistic aloneness” by Leo Kanner, one of the first people to medically diagnose autism. However Lucy found instead that many people with autism were very much interested in others, it was just that this interest was often displayed in a way most of us were not used to – such as through an interest in facts etc. Lucy really wanted this idea of the autistic community to be part of the film – hence the idea for the picnic.

The film is a mixture of observational moments and unfolding stories in the characters’ lives, and their first person accounts of their past experiences and their hopes and fears for the future. In addition, the constructed “visual effect” sequences – such as the scene in the supermarket – were envisioned as a way of giving those of us without the condition some idea of what the world feels like for those with autism – a world where even going shopping or walking down the street can be filled with hidden dangers.

It became obvious that the documentary would work best without a narrator: “As the film grew it became clear that what was important was to make a film without “experts” and to allow the characters to speak for themselves and to tell us about their condition and about their lives in their own words.”

Another reason for this is that Lucy wanted the viewer to be gently drawn into the characters’ world and to experience their point of view without being guided by an outsider’s voice.
The biggest challenge for Lucy in making the documentary was – as an outsider – trying to both understand and stay true to the characters’ experience of the world. This was tricky as the film needed to feel as if their world was being portrayed “from the inside out” while at the same time interpreting the experience of autism for the rest of us.

Some wonderful Melbourne bands – Clinkerfield, Grand Salvo and The Smallgoods, provide the music for the documentary. Lucy really wanted to use “the kinds of songs you could hear on the radio” rather than composed music again give the sense that what we were seeing was “real life” – the characters’ personal stories unfolding before our eyes.

Alone in a Crowded Room was filmed over the period of four years which makes it special both with regards to the relationship that Lucy developed with the people in the film, and in terms of being able to take a really in-depth and intimate look at the characters’ lives – thus fulfilling Lucy’s original desire for a complex and thoughtful approach to the subject matter.

About Autism

Autism is a complex developmental difference that usually appears during the first three years of life. It is lifelong and there is no “cure”. Although a definitive cause has not been identified, its origin is in the brain and genetic factors play a major role. Autism is more prevalent in boys than girls and knows no racial, ethnic, or social boundaries. Family income, lifestyle, and educational levels do not affect the likelihood of autism occurring. The incidence of autism in Australia is 1 in 100 people.

Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication and social interactions. Other symptoms of autism include an insistence on sameness, a narrow and obsessive range of interests, stereotyped movements and noises, hypersensitivity to light, sound, and touch, and elaborate rituals and routines. The world often seems like an overwhelming place and the person with autism may take refuge in behaviour that appears aggressive or self- injurious, The emotions of a person with autism are often shaped by things which are important to them, rather than as responses to external stimuli, especially other people.

In this film references are made to the autistic spectrum, which can range from cases where the individual is severely intellectually disabled and has many neurological problems, to what is known as “high-functioning” autism, where the person has normal or above normal IQ, and few neurological handicaps, but is disabled in other ways – usually to do with social interaction.

References will also be made to “Asperger Syndrome”. This is a diagnostic term typically used for people at the higher end of the spectrum. “Aspies” are capable of high-level communication, but may not be able to function in other ways due to their social handicaps, and various sensory disabilities.

Autism is a very complicated disorder, and despite various commonalities of disturbance, each person diagnosed with it experiences it in different ways, and has varied symptoms. The fascinating thing about autism is that it is often a disorder that only comes into play when there are other people around. Without expectations to act in certain ways in society the person with autism may feel very able, and be capable of all the things that many of us would wish for – artistic expression, valuable work, friendships, and relationships – but on their own terms.

Members of the autistic community have their own range of terms and descriptions that are used in the film. They refer to “neurotypicals” or “NT’s” – i.e. those of us who are non-autistic. They also call themselves “auties” for those diagnosed with autism, and “aspies” for those with Asperger Syndrome.The characters in this film are a mixture of auties and aspies.

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