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An eleven-minute quasi-documentary animation, A is for Autism is likely to slip beneath most peoples’ radar. Largely unknown outside of
specialist circles, the film itself (by Tim Webb) is without a “name” director and has a titular subject matter seldom approached by filmmakers (on the
rare occasions that they do it is often in a ‘high concept’ manner; consider the murder mystery of Silent Fall or The Boy Who Could Fly’s
escapist fantasy). Yet despite all this the piece is a minor gem and deserving of as wide an audience as possible.
Commissioned by Channel Four in 1992, the intention behind A is for Autism is to provide an insight into the lives and experiences of those who suffer from the condition. It does so by being a collaboration in the truest sense of the word: the animation takes as its basis a series of drawings by people with autism (whilst, understandably, retaining their distinctive qualities) and is accompanied by a soundtrack comprised of their thoughts and recollections.
This may suggest, as does the title, an overtly educational emphasis to the piece, yet A is for Autism avoids any stuffiness that this label pre-supposes. What is most immediate about the film is its great charm. Each of the original drawings (some of which can be viewed in a picture gallery found amongst the special features), though very different, presents a simplicity and refrain from stylization in a manner which is truly refreshing. And despite their lack of obvious similarities director Tim Webb is able to organize the material in such a way so as to produce associations and prompts an overall unison. Indeed, this approach gradually builds layer upon layer so as to create the bigger picture of what it is like to go through life with autism. In his sleeve notes producer Dick Arnall comments on how animation can be used as a tool, a claim that may appear somewhat pompous, yet is proven completely true; considering the low budget (though this may be true for any of any budget), animation is the only way the effects of this condition could be properly, and succinctly, conveyed.
Equally important, however, are the sounds to go with these images, ones which again interweave various contributions. Underpinned by a restrained flute and piano score (one composed and performed by autistic musicians), the assembled voices are edited in a manner so as to present both individual narratives - by extension suggesting the differing aspects of the condition - and the larger overall picture. Moreover, the interaction between the sound and the images prompts further associations (beyond mere illustration), which only serves to heighten this effect. Indeed, the density of the overall collage that Webb has created is astonishing considering the film’s brief running and therefore demanding of multiple viewings.
Where A is for Autism is most effective, however, is in its decision to let its contributors speak for themselves. There is a frustrating habit amongst documentary filmmakers to have actors, and more often than not child actors, provide the narration rather than the actual people they embody (though admittedly this is sometimes out of their hands). By avoiding this and relying solely on its participants, A is for Autism is able to provide a directness and honesty that are truly powerful. In doing so Webb has been forced to make the decision whereby he is only working with the more able top 10% of autism sufferers (though he ignores the genius aspects as seen in Rain Man and the like). As such he has perhaps created a film that stops short of being a full representation of the condition, yet this can only be seen as a minor concession to what is a quite remarkable achievement.