At first glance, People Like Me, directed by Marrok Sedgwick, seems to be a short film documenting Autistic people's experiences with Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). Sedgwick is an Autistic filmmaker from the West coast who currently resides in Chicago and is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Learning Sciences Research Institute. Although this film is short, clocking in around 20 minutes, you should not let its short runtime fool you into believing that it packs any less of a cinematic punch or does not carry the weight of a film with perhaps three times its run time. Although this film is short, it gets to the heart of many systematic issues at play for Autistic people, especially those with other marginalized identities.

Not only are the visual effects stunning, jarring, and extremely creative, the topics that the film touches on and leaves the viewers with are no less impactful. Just like Audre Lorde said, people do not lead single-issue lives, and discussions around ABA or other forms of "corrective therapy" for Autistic people are nuanced and complex. This film tackles disability and race, class, and even the prison industrial complex through discussions about the school system to prison pipeline system that is inclusive of a Disability Studies perspective. The work features face-to-face interviews and recollections from Sedgwick himself about working at ABA school and how his observations and his peers' lived experiences have helped shape his understanding of the treatment that children in particular go through with ABA therapy. This includes the ideas and ideals that ABA promises to parents regarding their children and the stark reality of how those promises are and aren't delivered.

One of the many things that set this film apart from the outset is its inclusion of a "Content Note." Almost all traumatic or upsetting media have trigger warnings or content warnings, but this content note functions differently. It lets the viewer know that some aspects of the film may be overstimulating for visual or auditory sensitivities. By framing this as a content note and consideration at the film's start, the director does a few things. Sedgwick informs the audience that while some of this work may not be triggering in the literal sense, it is still quite troubling. Further, the note does not explicitly single out people who have disabilities where visual or auditory sensitivity is impacted. By not referencing these disabilities explicitly, the director also opens the door for those with sensitivities who do not consider themselves disabled.

Now let us delve into why these visual or auditory contents are noteworthy. One of them is the use and overlap of both sounds and visual cues or identifiers. Various forms of music, such as synth music, intertwine and overlap with white noise, and multiple fonts and colors of letters also overlap and intertwine with each other sometimes in ways that purposefully make the writing harder to follow. What you hear and what you see as a result of this crashing, clashing, and melding of sounds and sensations not only overwhelms your eyes and your ears but your emotions as well. Various types of sounds and keys trigger different feelings within people, and those at times are in harmony or not with one another in a disorienting, overwhelming, stimulating, and exhilarating way. Although the film is only 20 minutes long, it has an intense impact not only on your eyes or your ears but on your emotions. These sights and sounds that play on our sense of place are also reflected in the content as well. Like the themes I will go into a bit later, the sights and sound swirl around and through one another, both with and against, to create a unique sensation.

To say this film is a simple look into the lives of Autistic people would be doing it a disservice. The film indeed looks at the material conditions under which Autistic people struggle, live, and survive. However, to truly understand the lives of the three prominent people of this film, we first need to understand the context with which this film is in, the themes it engages in, and how. Much like the film's visual and auditory aspects, things are not smooth or linear in topic or piece; instead, they swirl around back and forth. This could perhaps be because the director communicates with his friends and familiar conversations tend to be more circular rather than linear.

One of the central themes of the film is an investigation of Applied Behavioral Analysis . ABA is a form of "therapy", one might say, for Autistic children that are meant to alter, augment, or change behaviors within them that Neurotypical people see as non-desirable. The director speaks with friends about their personal experiences with ABA growing up and how their pasts are impacted because of it. These conversations are interspersed with commentary from the director about his experiences working at an ABA school. The things witnessed there from a disability and a racial justice standpoint also overlap with issues around the school to prison pipeline and how those who deviate from societal norms are warehoused away in the carceral system. Those who conform are rewarded; but to what ends? the film questions and, do those means justify the ends? There is also an investigation of choice, the choices that the director's friends have made as adults with AAC, and the choices presented to parents are also brought into question here. These conversations are also backed up with visual metaphors of reward and punishment and how someone is crushed literally and metaphorically in an attempt to make them conform.

While this film reflects on the dark pasts of its participants, it does not traffic in trauma porn or defeatist attitudes, but rather it looks to the future for Autistic people from the perspective of Autistic people themselves. It doesn't purport to give a voice to Autistic people; instead, it recognizes that they already have "voices," the film simply gives them a platform to express their "voices" however they see fit. I use the term voices in quotations here as the same kind of voice is not always used, but many voices are presented to viewers even from the same people being interviewed. This is also a part of the speculative future that can be had for Autistic people. The desire and hope to express themselves in a way that centers their needs and wants rather than the conformities of a Neurotypical society. And while the film leaves the viewer with some guidelines as to what that future could be, it does not chart an apparent path forward.

While it may seem as if I have nothing but rave reviews for this film, there were a couple of drawbacks that I noticed, significant enough for me to note here. The first was that the film was too short. While the visuals were very intense and the topics borderline traumatic for some, the film wraps up a bit too quickly. This may be because of time or technical constraints on the part of the director or the participants, but we don't get an in-depth conversation about all of the aforementioned topics. Instead, we get short vignettes of topics and connections made about the issues presented to us. Perhaps that was the director's intent, for the audience to engage in these kinds of solutions rather than spoon-feeding them the answers. And if this was the director's intent, it worked, but it could have been done better.

The next is both a strength and a weakness. The director primarily interviews friends and has in-depth conversations with them, and while, on the surface it seems to be a benefit as they can have more honest and open discussions, it can also lead to confirmation bias. Perhaps the director could have spent more time attempting to interview Autistic people who were not within a close sphere of influence. One of the most underrepresented themes I noticed within the work concerns speculative futures. Each of the people interviewed in the film thinks about what the future might look like for Autistic people moving forward, but there are no real concrete ideas, plans, or demonstrations. They are off the cuff conversations and sentences with half-thoughts, and sometimes lead to viewer frustration as it seems that there are plenty of ideas but not a foundational path to move forward.

All in all, the film is not only engaging but essential, and despite its minuscule list of pitfalls, which only become apparent after a second or third viewing of the film, it is worth watching for several reasons: it is directed by an Autistic director. It centers Autistic people, their experiences, and their needs. It engages the viewers in a way that's most comfortable to its participants, not the other way around. It calls for the audience to think about the critical life-changing, and even life-threatening circumstances that Autistic people find themselves in throughout the course of their lives. And it is a call to action that draws all its viewers in while not centering allyship. I highly recommend this film to anyone with or without time on their hands, as this is the kind of movie you make time for.

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