Nicholas Barbano-George is a curious, lively, adorable 11-year-old with autism. He's also now a movie star. The Burlington boy is among several children spotlighted in Living the Autism Maze, which focuses on Vermonters grappling with this spectrum of neurological disorders. The documentary -- premiering this weekend in Burlington -- has been a literal labor of love for Nicholas' mother Anne Barbano, who co-directed the project with Jeff Farber of Middlesex.
"It was initially supposed to be 20 minutes, then we were trying for 30 minutes," recalls Barbano, who funded the project with a $9600 grant from the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council. "Jeff finally said, 'You know what? Your film's telling you it's 40 minutes.'"
Barbano imagined a comprehensive, oral-history approach that would include interviews with at least 10 families challenged by autism. They settled on six, and managed to find an array of people from Winooski to Woodstock. Although each has a distinct story to tell, there seems to be general agreement that medical personnel and public school systems often don't provide enough information or support. Hence the "maze" that must be navigated by parents desperately trying to figure out how to help their kids.
Autism hits an astonishing 1 in 166 children, usually manifesting by age 3. They tend to demonstrate problems with social relationships, communicating emotions and sensory signals. Nicholas appeared to be a normal infant, his dad Michael George says in the film, but by age 3 it became evident that "something just wasn't right." Nonetheless, Barbano points out that Nicholas wasn't officially diagnosed until the year 2000, when he was 6.
Another mother talks about her baby son experiencing a grand mal seizure and requiring CPR the day after being vaccinated for measles. "Then he stopped babbling and making eye contact," she says of the boy, now a teenager.
This account would seem to confirm the common suspicion that a mercury-based ingredient in childhood shots can bring on autism, a theory that has yet to be proven with scientific certainty.
Barbano and Farber interview several experts, such as a doctor from the Vermont Child Development Clinic, who speculate on a range of potential causes from genetic to environmental. Nobody knows how to make the disability go away.
"Sometimes when you get that label of autism, the attitude is, 'Well, there's no cure,'" Barbano suggests, miming a typical shrug of discouragement.On camera, the mother of a little girl notes, "The medical community lost interest once she was diagnosed."
Children with autism often can make substantial gains in specialized educational programs. In the film, Nicholas responds with enthusiasm to coaching from a speech therapist. "Vermont is a small state," Barbano observes. "They're trying to offer more programs to help families. It's evolving."
The film's struggling parents impressed Farber, who has about 20 previous documentaries under his belt. "As a father of two, it struck me how much more energy these people need to protect their kids and find services for them," he says. "I'm in awe of their commitment."
Living the Autism Maze will screen for free at 5:45 p.m. on September 17 at the Roxy.
"Shorts and Docs," a week of fascinating cinematic fare, will unspool at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier from September 16 through 18. The Manhattan Short Film Festival includes a dozen such works from around the world. Audience members can vote for their favorites.
"Shorts for the Shorter Set" aims to please youngsters at 11 a.m. on September 17. Screening on the 19th and 20th, Short Cut to Nirvana is a documentary about a massive gathering on the banks of the Ganges River; filmmaker Nick Day will appear in person.
On the 21st and 22nd, the seldom-seen 1972 Winter Soldier shows Vietnam veterans testifying about atrocities witnessed during the war. One of the key participants was Rusty Sachs, a former Marine helicopter pilot from Vermont. The 61-year-old Norwich native was 22 when he spoke at the three-day gathering in Detroit.
"I talked about friends and colleagues who had told me of flying missions in which Vietnamese prisoners were tossed out of helicopters," Sachs says. "Pilots always count the numbers of passengers when loading and unloading. I had been instructed by other officers that you want to have deniability if the numbers differ."
There'll be more on this doc and Rusty Sachs in next week's column. For information on the event, visit http://www.savoytheater.com or call 800-676-0509.