Normal People Scare Him

Spectrum Magazine. Teenager with autism makes a documentary film. Full copy follows the jpg of the opener. Copy appears as it was sent to the editor.

HED: Normal People Scare Him

DEK: High-school senior Taylor Cross' not-so-ordinary road to making his first film.

by Dave Gerardi

"To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful." - Carl Jung, psychiatrist

Normal people scare Taylor Cross.

Maybe 'scare' is too strong a word. Perhaps 'interest?' They don't interest him. But that doesn't sound as good a title as Normal People Scare Me, a documentary film Cross conceived and co-directed about autistic boys and girls, their fears, desires and dreams.

Taylor Cross is 6 feet 7 inches tall. His blond hair falls down to his shoulders in large round curls. It traps the light to create a glow around his cherubic face. In person, he is direct, honest and smart. He is anything but normal. (And if you think honesty and intelligence are normal human traits, perhaps you haven't seen reality television.)

"I have a very 'eff it' attitude," Cross says. He doesn't try to fit in. Instead, the high schooler lives life on his own terms. His mother, Keri Bowers, learns something new about him everyday. "He's never said, 'eff it' until today." Cross adds, "I've never really cared about what I was wearing." "Do you think you care yet?" Mom asks. "No."

Cross, 17, will graduate high school next June. He has a feature-length film under his belt. He has appeared on numerous TV shows, such as NBC's Today Show. He has been profiled in People Magazine. He is applying to film schools. Not bad for someone with a vocabulary of only 10 words at age 3 and a half.

Bowers, who co-directed Normal People Scare Me and has been the focal point of encouragement during the film and throughout Cross' life, says she was devastated prior to her son's diagnosis. He had hypotonia (decreased muscle tone) and the characteristic 'floppy head' caused by weak neck muscles. His emotional responses were limited. "I felt like I was being a bad mother," she says. These fears were reinforced by doctors who were unable to properly diagnose Cross. "They called me a refrigerator mom and said I didn't bond with my son." Of Cross, they said he was seriously emotionally disturbed and that he likely suffered from depression. "Taylor would perseverate (repeat a behavior after the cessation of the original stimulus) on a cartoon, but the clinician didn't know what 'perseveration' was," Bowers explains.

Once Bowers began to understand Cross' true condition, she took charge. Taylor has been fully included in school since the first grade (despite that, Bowers quickly adds as an aside, "he was not invited to a birthday party of a 'normal' peer until last year."). "My gut told me I needed to be tough and to encourage him," Bowers explains. When he would have a tantrum in the supermarket, Bowers would look at him and say, "They can't hear you in the back." He'd get louder. "Now they can't hear you in front," Bowers would respond. "People looked at me like I was nuts," she says. "They called me 'mean.' We've been kicked out of church. We were kicked out of a 'social skills for autism' class."

Bowers stayed tough. When Cross wanted something to eat, she pushed him to communicate. "I knew he had more than two words, so I said, 'You can't eat until you give me more than two words,'" she explains. Clearly it worked. Cross ate enough to tower over most people today. He has also learned to communicate well enough that, after a recent Today Show appearance, Bowers recounted, "I didn't have to say a word. I was looking at Taylor and falling in love with him.

"One day the speaker wires are plugged in and you're rockin'. Another day it cuts out," Bowers says, explaining her analogy about autism. The turning point in Cross' language development was putting him in alternative arts programs. Bowers enrolled him in "art, dance, drama classes?anything that would get him communicating. Through the arts, kids become more social, more communicative. You can be quirky in acting. It's accepted."

These classes planted the filmmaking seed in Cross' head. He shot a 10-minute short documentary about autism when he was 15. "It was my dream to be a filmmaker, so it was one of those things like, 'yeah, I'll go follow my dream,'" he says. The reaction to the 2004 short was so strong that two years later it would become the full-length Normal People Scare Me.

The beauty of Normal People Scare Me is in the contrasts. The native Californian interviewed a wide variety of autistics. Their views about themselves, the people around them and their neurological condition cover a wide range of emotions. Asked about how she felt about autism, one girl replied, "I feel sad because people don't understand me." A boy responded, "It makes me feel okay because everyone's going to have their own thing." Such honest reactions are par for the course in the film. One cannot help but smile at the film's title and appreciate that, in fact, autistics are more 'normal' than most people think. It is to Cross' credit that he is able to both communicate so deftly with his interview subjects and get that message across to the camera (doubly so considering how notoriously problematic autism tends to be regarding communication issues).

Normal People Scare Me begins with a montage of Cross and a "making of" sequence. Mostly, however, it is a series of interviews conducted by Cross with people (kids, by and large) on the spectrum. Some are high functioning. Others, like Jan, can only communicate when presented with multiple choice questions. Jan, Sr., holds out his hand. Each finger is an answer, and Jan, Jr., grabs the finger that expresses what he wants to say.

Interviews with Taylor's precocious younger brother, Jace, and his stepdad, Stuart, provide an excellent counterpoint to the other 70-plus interviews in the film. Stuart and Jace explain what it's like as a 'normal' person to live with an autistic. "My first impression of Taylor was someone who was uncouth," Stuart says. As he learned more about autism, he says he became frustrated?not frustrated at Taylor, but frustrated for him.

The production process wore on Cross. "It was very tiring and sometimes I wasn't cooperative," he says. Staying focused was a hurdle. "He needed help with the process steps," Bowers says. Despite the success the film is having (it is touring North America as The Autism Perspective Tour), "it's not all pretty, cute and sweet," Bowers explains. Cross failed film class last semester (but he did well on his SATs). The tour involves a lot of travel, and Bowers was initially reluctant to allow Cross to do it. "We've pulled each other's hair out, figuratively," she laughs. On the other hand, the experience has been a tremendous source of practical education. "He learned how to take a subway and check in at a hotel. These things are important," Bowers explains. She is also encouraging Cross to do more press interviews without her guidance as part of the learning process.

In addition to Bowers' contacts in the entertainment industry that she developed as a paralegal for an entertainment lawyer, Joey Travolta (older brother of John and a film director in his own right) was a huge help on the project. A visionary, Bowers calls him. "He sees great and wonderful opportunities in nothing," she says. Travolta mentored Cross on the 10-minute short and became the producer for Normal People.

"I see a big difference between the first day I met Taylor and now," Travolta says. "This is a kid going on national television and presenting himself as a normal cocky teenager. Once he realized (the film) could happen, it built his confidence." A former special education teacher in New Jersey during the early 70s, Travolta opened up an acting workshop, Entertainment Experience, in Woodland Hills, Calif. (now in Tarzana, Calif.) five years ago. On behalf of her advocacy group Pause 4 Kids, Keri Bowers approached Travolta about creating classes for special needs children. "A lot of kids are excluded so much, they're not a part of anything," Travolta says. "Here, they form relationships. There's something non-judgmental about acting and filmmakers. It's a safe place to come and express yourself and make mistakes." Special needs children have thrived in his workshops. "To act you have to interact," he adds. "There's a relationship between filmmaking and acting. You have to collaborate. It teaches social skills, and improvisation is something you use in real life." Special needs kids are, for the most part, included in 'regular' classes. They write their own scripts in some cases. "We're giving them a voice."

Cross continues to do things his way. During a photo shoot for People Magazine, he put on one regular sock and one low cut sock. "It never occurred to him that, 'oh, maybe I should wear two socks that match,'" Bowers says. "That's the beauty of Taylor though." He'd go to school in flood pants, she explains, and she'd look at Taylor disapprovingly: "That's a social issue. You want to be 'normalized.' Why give yourself more reason to stand out when you already stand out. I'd be saying, 'Taylor, that's so uncool.'" When he was 12, Bowers advised him to try reaching out and making some friends. "As parents we want what's best for our kids. He was telling me in a very articulate way, 'I just want to do it differently, mom. Don't make me be like you or want what you want.'" That, Bowers says, is when she began to see him as a special individual.

Taylor Cross is not interested in the classic traditions of the prom and football games. He has no patience for convention and social rituals. He is bored by the ordinary. Instead of imposing social pressures in an attempt to 'normalize' Taylor, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we'd be better off emulating him.

Dave Gerardi, writer/filmmaker for hire