Kit Steinkellner
February 04, 2015 6:00 am

One of the most emotional films to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the documentary How To Dance In Ohio. The film tells the story of autistic teenagers living through what is a right of passage for many American teenagers: attending their first prom. For many young people on the spectrum a social event like this is a very big deal, and is an opportunity specifically organized to help them learn and practice social skills. It’s a situation challenging for some, and near impossible for others.

The weight and importance of this prom, which was organized by the Amigo Family Counseling in Columbus, Ohio, is exactly why documentarian Alexandra Shiva wanted to film this story. In an interview with Hello Giggles about her film, Shiva spoke to exactly why this topic hit her hard. “They’re dealing with things we’ve all had to deal with, but because they’re on the spectrum they’re dealing with these problems in a heightened way or in a way that they can’t overcome without a lot of support,” she said. She also spoke to the honesty of people on the spectrum, “we all have those thoughts and those feelings and those fears, but they say them out loud.”

Another motivating factor for Shiva in telling this story is a bit more personal. She has a very close friend with a 16-year-old daughter on the spectrum, and watching the girl grow up made Shiva want to tell the story of what it’s like for young autistic women to come of age.

Shiva said, “Addressing adolescence on the spectrum is new. When it comes to talking about autism, so much focus in the past has been on intervention and cause and cure. It’s only now that people are dealing with the fact that we have 500,000 kids on spectrum coming of age in the next few years and we’re going to be living with them.”

The documentary focuses specifically on three young women: 16-year-old Marideth Bridges, 22-year-old Jessica Sullivan, and young adult Caroline McKenzie. Shiva made a very deliberate choice to tell the stories of three girls going to their first dance in order to help audiences understand both the individuality of her subjects as well as the challenges that unite them. As rare as it is to see young men on the spectrum appear on screen, it’s that much more rare to see young women on the spectrum — which makes Shiva’s film all the more important.

“It’s a very famous quote — you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism — and the idea is that the presentations are different with everybody,” Shiva said. “That said, from my experience with this community, there was a common theme of social difficulty and intense anxiety over social interactions. For me, the observation was we expect girls to be social, and when they’re not, when they have difficulty socializing, it’s more jarring for people.”

In the film, we watch the girls ask and be asked on dates, pick out their dresses, learn to dance, all while juggling school and work and family life. It’s familiar ground, but made brand new when seen through their eyes.

Shiva’s goal is to both educate her audience as well as help her audience empathize with these young people. She succeeds.

“Two things that were most important,” she said. “I wanted [my subjects] to have a voice and speak for themselves, and tell you what their interests/difficulties were, and I wanted the film to not feel like you were looking at them, [I] wanted it to feel like you were in it with them, and that you were experiencing these difficulties alongside them.”

How to Dance in Ohio will be premiering on HBO later this year, so watch for it, guys. This film is beautiful, and is exactly what jacking your parents’ HBO GO accounts was MADE for.

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