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Biklen and Academy Award-winning director explore autism on four continents

November 18, 2009

Jennifer Russo
(315) 443-4751

On the heels of their Academy Award nominated 2005 documentary “Autism Is A World,” School of Education Dean Douglas Biklen has again teamed up with Academy Award-winning director Gerardine Wurzburg and State of the Art, Inc., to create a documentary film about the experiences of individuals with autism. With support from the Hussman Foundation, Biklen and Wurzburg have traveled to Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland following the film’s subjects, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher.

The two subjects are men in their 40s from quiet towns in Vermont. They have autism and communicate through typing on a portable computer or device. In their travels, while exploring the sights, sounds and flavors of each destination, Bissonnette and Thresher meet up with younger adults with autism who also communicate by typing. They share stories about independence, the freedom of communication and the experiences of inclusion, exclusion or even seclusion.

In Sri Lanka, the men travel in tuk-tuks, small three-wheeled vehicles that navigate the crowded streets at breakneck speed. They attend a cricket match, swim in the Indian Ocean and tour a Buddhist temple. Bissonnette and Thresher are also reunited with their friend Chammi, a writer and poet. Chammi and his mother, Anoja, lived in Syracuse for a time, where Chammi learned to communicate with facilitated communication—a form of augmentative communication where the individual points and types—before returning to their native Sri Lanka.

The duo’s next destination is Tokyo, where Bissonnette and Thresher are invited to participate in a panel discussion at an international conference on autism at Tokyo University, organized by Maho Suzuki, a doctoral student in special education, and Masahiro Nochi, a Syracuse University alum and faculty member at Tokyo U. Suzuki introduces the American travelers to Naoki, a young man who, like Bissonnette, is a talented artist, and has authored and illustrated many children’s books and volumes of poetry. Because of his label of autism, though, he has not been allowed to attend a regular high school; instead he is pursuing his high school education through an online program.

The travelers are welcomed to Finland by School of Education Alumna Eija Karna-Lin G‘93 of the University of Joensuu. In Finland, Karna-Lin works with Henna, an artist who lives independently in her own home. Antti is a young man working toward an independent lifestyle and also a student of Karna-Lin’s. Bissonnette and Thresher’s visit marks Henna and Antti’s first meeting with other people with autism who type to communicate, and the foursome gain media attention, as Bissonnette and Thresher have at every stop on their world tour.

About 150 hours of film have been recorded and thousands of miles have been traveled, but the journey is far from over. Bissonnette and Thresher will continue to work with Biklen, Wurzburg and the team from State of The Art, Inc., to edit and provide commentary for the film. They will continue to share their stories from the road at national conference presentations, as they did at the Disability Studies in Education Conference in Syracuse in May. The film will be released in the United States  in 2010.

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