'Swim Team' premieres on PBS Monday; moving story of autistic youths who test themselves in the pool
Movie by Lara Stolman showcased in IDA screening series: 'It's a film about characters... I thought these were really fascinating individuals'
One of the most difficult challenges facing parents of autistic children must be one of expectations -- what to expect your child can achieve in spite of such a condition. Doctors may paint a heartbreakingly limited image -- "Your child will never speak, your child will never walk." Should parents simply accept that, or fight to prove their son or daughter is capable of accomplishing much more?
From one perspective, the documentary Swim Team is about parents of autistic kids who refuse to accept a constricted view of their child's potential. Lara Stolman's film revolves around the Jersey Hammerheads, a swim team for kids on the autistic spectrum founded by Mike and Maria McQuay. Mike coaches the team and his son Mikey is one of the Hammerheads' star competitors. When Mikey was first diagnosed as a small child, the McQuays were told he might never walk or talk.
While we were making the film I wasn't thinking, 'This is a film that needs to explain what autism is and it needs to represent autism.' That's impossible, because autism is just too diverse.
"With the Hammerheads families, I had found a group of parents who refused to take no for an answer. They were saying YES and as a community, it was galvanizing for them," Stolman wrote in a director's statement.
Swim Team premieres Monday night on the PBS series POV, following its theatrical release over the summer. It won awards at several film festivals and is eligible for more as we move deeper into awards season.
Swim Team follows a season for the Hammerheads in competition against other Special Olympics teams at the regional, New Jersey state and national levels. Coach Mike's approach to his athletes is both sensitive and understanding, yet demanding -- he insists the kids give their maximum attention and effort. McQuay acknowledged as much in a Q&A following a showing of the film as part of the IDA's fall screening series. Coach Mike, his son and director Lara Stolman appeared at the event in Los Angeles Wednesday night.
"A lot of parents said when they first came to us, 'Oh, you're so hard on my son.' Well, I'm not here to show pity on your kid," McQuay stated during the Q&A. "Your kid is not 'less than.' They're different. They're autistic. And once society grabs a hold of that things can change."
The Hammerheads club serves many purposes, not simply to win as many gold medals as possible. Children with autism face a greater danger of drowning; the club gives them a chance to learn potentially life-saving skills. And for many autistic kids who deal with exclusion all the time -- from school activities to social events -- the Hammerheads offer a rare opportunity for a team experience.
"All these boys and the girls we have now -- I mean every child is different and your needs are different," Coach Mike said. "They don't want pity. They don't want pity, believe me. My son right now he doesn't want anybody to feel sorry for him."
Along with Mikey, the film closely follows two other team members -- Robbie Justino and Kelvin Truong, the latter of whom deals with both autism and Tourette's Syndrome. Swim Team captures them at a pivotal moment in their lives as they are reaching adulthood.
"These kids were going through what we call 'the transition years.' That's one of the reasons I wanted to focus on Kelvin and Robbie and Mikey because they were the oldest, they were the ones that were confronting -- and their families were confronting -- these issues, like guardianship, other things like work and what happens after school district support ends," Stolman told the IDA screening audience. "Unfortunately, there's not enough our government does."
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Stolman approached the project not only as a seasoned filmmaker, but as the mother of an autistic child. She said Swim Team has elicited a range of responses.
"We get really different reactions. We've had people say, 'You show such a diversity of the spectrum in the film' and then we've had people say the opposite, actually," Stolman recalled. "I've had people say to me, why don't we have people who need more support or people who are non-verbal represented? I always say I didn't set out to make a film about autism. And while we were making the film I wasn't thinking, 'This is a film that needs to explain what autism is and it needs to represent autism.' That's impossible, because autism is just too diverse, and that I know a lot about. It's wildly diverse."
Stolman added, "I think it's a film about characters and that's always where I was coming from. I thought these were really fascinating individuals. I did think it was important to have one character need more support -- at least one character. And Kelvin does represent people with autism who need a tremendous amount of support. As you know also, he's funny and charming and has lots to offer."
One of the most poignant scenes in the film comes when Rosa Justino, Robbie's mother, tries for the first time to tell her son that he is autistic.
"He didn't know yet that he was on the spectrum," Stolman explained. "[Rosa] hadn't had the conversation [with him]... After we started filming I said, 'When you're ready to have this conversation with Robbie I would like to film it. Would you let me?' And she said yes right away. There was no hesitation."
"There was no script or anything," Stolman continued. "There was some stopping and starting and she asked my advice, while we were filming, about wording. At that moment it was really just a conversation between moms. I think that's a lot of why that moment is so intimate and why the film has such intimate moments is the relationship that I developed with these families. We have so much in common. I don't think the film would be what it is if it was made by someone who didn't have all that stuff in common that I have with them."
Mike Sr. and Mikey McQuay are introduced at the Q&A for the IDA screening of Swim Team.
In the midst of the film Mikey McQuay graduated from high school. He is about to start working full time at a zoo in New Jersey, and he continues to swim competitively. Though soft-spoken, he fielded questions during the Q&A, including one from an audience member who wanted to know what it was like to see himself on screen in the documentary.
He responded, "For me, I like to show everyone what an autistic person can do."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.