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Autism and Culture: Sundance Film Festival

In taking our weekly surveys of autism and culture, we regularly see the influence of autism on film, art, and technology. This week, we’re looking at two of these areas in particular—film and technology—to highlight a successful documentary that showed at Sundance this year as well as a new autism-focused app designed by a young girl to help her sister with autism.

First up, the film Life, Animated took crowds by storm this year at the Sundance Film Festival through its unflinching look at the coming-of-age story of a young boy who is on the spectrum. The film itself is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind about his own son, Owen. In Owen’s case, he stopped speaking at the age of three, learning to reconnect with language and relate to the world around him through the vehicle of Disney animation.

The film, which premiered last month at Sundance, won the directing award in the U.S. documentary competition, weaving video of Owen’s life with sequences from Disney classics and original animation based on Owen’s drawings used to tell his story. Rights to the film were picked up from A&E IndieFilms by the distribution company, The Orchard, with a theatrical release planned for 2016.

According to Julie Goldman, a producer on the documentary, “We are so excited for audiences to meet and connect with Owen Suskind and the Suskind family. The remarkable screenings at Sundance were just the start; we anticipate an extraordinary journey ahead with the Suskinds, A&E IndieFilms and The Orchard, who are committed to bringing this film to the widest possible audience.

Moving from the silver screen to the tablet screen, 12-year-old Eashana Suramanian, has developed her very own app inspired by her sister who is on the autism spectrum. According to young Eashana, she notied early on that for her 9-year-old sister Meghana, routine is extremely important.

According to the girls’ mother, Gayathri, “Meghana follows a very strict routine. Every day in the morning, it starts with brushing her teeth, combing her hair, dressing up, and getting ready for school. She has to know what comes next because if you make her do something that she’s not expecting, then she throws a tantrum…It throws the rest of the day off.”

Eashana adds that, “My parents struggle with giving [Meghana] tasks because they don’t know what’s happening in school because the communication is not that great between the teachers and parents. I looked at all these problems and said this had to be solved somehow or made easier for my parents. So I thought of AutBuddy that could have features to fix the problems—not fix but help.”

AutBuddy is the name of the app Eashana and her friends from her Derwood, Maryland middle school developed, which assists children with autism in maintaining a routine at home and in school. The app allows parents and teachers to communicate in real time in addition to other functions that help children on the spectrum to function on the same level. Already the app is getting significant attention, with Eashana and her team of students winning $20,000 in the 2016 Verizon App Challenge.