Special Education

Oscar Nomination Spotlights Autism

By Christina A. Samuels — March 08, 2005 1 min read
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The Oscar-night paparazzi clearly were aiming for the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, in her pale-pink gown by the designer Stella McCartney.

But captured in a photo, to Ms. Paltrow’s left, was a smiling Sue Rubin, another presence on the red carpet at the Feb. 27 Academy Awards presentation in Hollywood.

Ms. Rubin, a 26-year-old with autism, is the subject of “Autism is a World,” a film that was nominated for best documentary short subject.

“Mighty Times: The Children’s March” won in the category.

A college junior from Whittier, Calif., Ms. Rubin was diagnosed with autism at age 4. She was believed to be mentally retarded until she was given an opportunity to interact with the world through typing on a special keyboard, said Gerardine Wurzburg, the film’s producer and director.

Ms. Rubin is listed as the screenwriter of the film.

Ms. Wurzburg said Ms. Rubin first learned to type with someone holding her hand, a technique known as facilitated communication. She now types independently, with someone holding her keyboard.

“If she walked into your office right now, you would dismiss her,” said Ms. Wurzburg, whose film company is based in Washington. “Then, once you show her the respect that anybody is due, you will see she’s very political, she’s very engaged, and a charming person.”

The method through which Ms. Rubin communicates was introduced in the 1990s. Douglas P. Biklen, a proponent of facilitated communication and a professor of special education at Syracuse University, was one of the film’s co-producers.

Originally hailed as a breakthrough, facilitated communication has also met with deep skepticism. A number of researchers have found that facilitators were guiding the hands of persons with autism. Ms. Wurzburg and Mr. Biklen say that the film is not about the method, but about challenging the perceptions of disability.

“Autism is a World” is scheduled to air on the Cable News Network on May 22 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2005 edition of Education Week

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