Film screening, panel look at life after high school for people on the autism spectrum

BRATTLEBORO — Life, Animated, the inspirational, award-winning film about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism whose affinity for Disney characters opens the door to communication with others, screens Friday, April 21, at New England Youth Theatre.

The film will be followed by a panel discussion with autism experts about the so-called “autism cliff” - graduation from the federally-mandated care of the public school system.

Vermont students with disabilities may stay in the public school system until the day before their 22nd birthday. The period immediately following graduation from high school has been dubbed “the autism cliff” because of the steep drop-off in social activities and learning for those on the autistic spectrum.

Many parents and caregivers aren't prepared for their now-adult child to be entirely in their care, with little stimulation or productive activities to keep their child occupied.

Doors for the event open at 6:30 p.m., with a dessert bar, coffee, and tea reception. The film screens at 7 p.m.

A panel discussion with professionals who work in the field will follow at 8:30 p.m.

The event is a benefit for Theatre Adventure, NEYT's program for actors with disabilities, a year-round program for young people and adults with developmental disabilities.

Experts on the panel include Julie Cunningham, executive director of Families First, a social-services agency headquartered in Wilmington; Karen Price, parent training and Information Center project director and family support director at the Vermont Family Network, which is part of a federal program to support families raising children with disabilities; and others from the educational and nonprofit housing field.

“We are excited to offer this entertaining film as an inspiration for families caring for loved ones with disabilities,” NEYT Executive Director Hallie Flower said in a news release.

Tickets are $15 each, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds, according to Flower,

Life, Animated is based on the best-selling book of the same name, authored by journalist Ron Suskind, whose son Owen is the subject of the film. Owen suffered a “regression” in language and social skills at age three, and received a diagnosis of autism shortly thereafter.

By immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films, Owen and his father found a bridge to communicate through the language and voices of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin, Mowgli from The Jungle Book, and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, as well as many others.

The film is an emotional coming-of-age story that follows Owen as he grows into adulthood and takes his first steps toward independence. The NEYT screening of Life, Animated is underwritten by Todd Mandell and Richard Wizansky.

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