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Producer Scott Steindorff’s Movie "Understanding Autism" Shines an Valuable Light on Neurodiversity

Updated: Apr 8

By Ron Sandison, M Div

Understanding Autism premieres April 4th, 2024

"There is a lot of misunderstanding around autism, and through a more thorough understanding of neurodiversity, we can reduce the shame and stigma surrounding them."

— Scott Steindorff, Movie Producer


I was excited to interview Hollywood director and producer Scott Steindorff and watch his new documentary Understanding Autism, which premieres on PBS on April 4. Scott worked with actors Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey, Natalie Portman, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr. He is the executive producer of HBO’s Emmy-nominated Station Eleven and Golden Globe winner for Empire Falls. He was diagnosed as a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and as an adult with autism.


Understanding Autism was filmed in 20 cities throughout the US and UK. Scott and his team interviewed the world's top researchers, scientists, doctors, and psychologists, as well as autistic children and adults across the spectrum. I loved the documentary storytelling approach to creating inclusion and hearing about Scott’s challenges with autism and his career as a movie and TV producer.       


1. What were some challenges you experienced as a child with autism?

The biggest challenge I had as a child and still have as an adult is motor skills. I don’t have the ability to put things together like toys or build things. My father was a well-known builder in the community. In the seventh grade, I built a bench for shop class, and I got an F in the class. I was embarrassed, and my father was embarrassed because I could not process mechanical activities. I am left-handed, write upside down, and can’t fix cars.

       

2. In Understanding Autism, there are many majestic nature scenes, such as the Rocky Mountains, when you interviewed Dr. Temple Grandin or the beaches of Hawaii with the Autism Moms of Kona. How has autism enabled you to connect with nature and animals?

I was raised on a large parcel of land in a little town in Minnesota, and that was my safe place. I love to be in the trees. We on the spectrum have a high sense of ability for smells and visual experiences, so for me, running in the pine trees brought me peace and living on the land. It is important for us to connect with nature and not be limited by confined spaces but to get outside.   


3. My “autistic joy” was running track and cross-country. You share in Understanding Autism that your special interest, autistic joy, was skiing; how did your passion prepare you for life and empower you to develop other skills? 

Like you, I was a fast runner and athletic. I started skiing at age four, and it still is my autistic joy. I trained and competed on the US Freestyle Ski Team and traveled the world. Again, skiing involves nature, on the mountain and in the snow, and I loved every moment of it.   


4. At what age were you diagnosed with autism? What events lead to your diagnosis of autism as an adult? How did you respond when your daughter Jamie told you she thought you had autism?

I look back on my life, and in fourth grade at age 10, the teacher took me aside because I was bullied terribly and had difficulty learning and said, “You stare into space, you can’t make eye contact, you have difficulty communicating and socializing, and you seem aloof.” The teacher thought I was using drugs at age 10. These features today would lead to an autism diagnosis. At age 23, I was diagnosed with ADHD and was resistant; I thought I could get organized, I could do my planning, and all I needed to do was get a day planner, but I had never been able to do it.


In my 40s, after my youngest daughter Jamie was struggling and diagnosed with ADHD and on the spectrum, she informed me, “Dad, you’re autistic. You’re absolutely autistic!” I was reminded that in my 20s, I struggled emotionally and in everything. I was in therapy from age 23 until adulthood, yet none of those therapists realized that I was autistic.


My first instinct was, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me this.’ Jamie sent me articles on autism, and I went to a therapist in New York, and she helped me uncover my autism. It changed my life; I became aware of things I previously was unaware of. The most difficult part of my diagnosis was the therapist interviewing my children and the people in my life and sharing her findings with me. I was shocked that I was so unaware of certain aspects of myself. After I was diagnosed, I began to work on emotional regulation; I think it’s the most overlooked aspect of autism and ADHD.      


5. If you knew as a child you had autism, how would your journey in life be different? What would you have done differently?

I don’t know if I would’ve done anything differently. One of the biggest misconceptions about autism is that we don’t feel cold. What I’ve discovered is that we feel too much, way too much, and we need to regulate our feelings. As a child, it would’ve helped me to understand emotions, and this knowledge would’ve made business, relationships, friendships, and life a lot easier.

      

6. In the documentary, you talk about autism as your superpower. How has autism been a superpower for you?

My superpower of autism was from an early age; I could read fast and retain all the information. I learned to regulate my emotions by reading every book and article on emotions and seeking out experts in the field. I think what has helped me the most with autism is understanding feelings and learning to connect.   


7. What are some superpowers of the autistic people in your film?

The biggest thing I discovered from creating this film is that children who are nonverbal and have difficulty in school are so much more intelligent, loving, and understanding of life than we’ve given them credit. I am in awe of all these amazing people. I hope the film highlights that, even if someone can’t speak or has difficulty processing information, they still have gifts to contribute to the world.


8. What are some cool places you traveled to while filming Understanding Autism?

While making the film, I went to 47 cities and traveled to the University of Cambridge, all over the UK and Brighton. After traveling around the world, I feel we are only at the beginning of understanding autism. The brain has over 100 billion neurons and we know so little about it. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen taught me that every person is wired differently, and we have diversity in our brains so we can’t judge a book by its cover.


9. What impact do you hope Understanding Autism will have on people’s perspective of neurodiversity?

I think neurotypical people will see this documentary and have a firmer grasp of autism. I geared this film for everyone so doctors, therapists, psychologists, and typical people will understand the parts of autism, genetics, and the love people with autism and their families have for each other. Some of these families had challenges with a child unable to function independently, yet they still loved the child unconditionally, and I want communities and schools to embrace this same love.


10. Why are people with autism at risk for mental health issues?

I discovered all the depression and anxiety I have. I was fortunate to have my ski career at age 16; skiing caused me to meditate, and if I didn’t have the meditation, I would’ve struggled more with anxiety and depression.


11. What did you learn filming Understanding Autism?

Since I have siblings on the spectrum, I learned that genetics plays a big part in autism. That is why I chose to make this film; this is the most important issue in my family. Many children will get diagnosed with ADHD or autism, and this leads to a parent receiving a diagnosis. I interviewed a family, and the father could not make eye contact and was struggling emotionally, and I said, ‘Have you been diagnosed?’ so he went to a counselor and was diagnosed with autism.


12. How can we celebrate neurodiversity?

My favorite book, which I read 25 times, was Elephant Man; I could relate to the character by feeling misunderstood. I want people to understand children with autism and not have critical judgment toward them, which is not justified. I want people to accept autistic people the way they are and to teach them in ways they can learn and not try to make them not autistic but the best version of themselves.


13. What were some challenges you experienced as an autistic dad raising three children?

I love magic, fairs, and parades, and in the movie, my daughter Jamie shares, “As a child, I was embarrassed by dad being more excited than us kids at school events.” Now, my children are accepting of my enthusiasm for those things. I have found ways to fit in with the structure of life, but it was a struggle. It required learning to express myself and emotions in ways my children and people can understand and relate. 

  

14. Only 22% of people with autism are employed, only 3% are gainfully employed, and the life expectancy of a person with autism is 54 years old. What are some support systems the US can develop to empower people with autism to thrive?

Two things need to happen right away: first, educate autistic people and employers about the value that autistics provide in the workplace. People with autism can work and contribute when they use their gifts and special interests. Dr. Temple Grandin said, “Find that special interest in children and let them thrive in it, and it will be their career.” My special interests as a child were writing and reading. I began to write at age 10. I am one of the lucky ones; I took my special interests and made it my career by making movies and TV shows. Hollywood was a very difficult business to break into, but I had an interest in books, and I turned them into movies and TV shows. People in Hollywood don’t read a lot of books, but I do, so I found my way. As I say in the movie all these great inventions are created by autistic people.


Second, big corporations need to realize there is a ton of talent with autistic people, and we see things in unique ways, and this can bring innovation. We have visions of what could be, and we can create new technology and innovation.


15. In interviewing 200 people with autism while writing my four books, I’ve noticed the key to our success is having someone who believes in us and empowers us to market and refine our gifts. Who were your mentors who helped you market and refine your talents?

I didn’t think I had a mentor who really understood my autism, but I did have many mentors in different areas of my career who helped recognize my talents. I hope my film helps people understand autism so they can mentor people with autism and refine their gifts.


16. What future projects do you plan to help people with autism?

I am a board member of the National Arc Foundation, the largest intellectual disability foundation in the world. I want to incorporate more programs, funding, and awareness to help people with autism, especially those with higher needs and difficulty functioning in regular life activities.


Understanding Autism Documentary

Scott Steindorff is a prominent Hollywood producer and shares his journey with autism in an hour-long documentary, premiering April 4, 2024, on PBS. He created the film to reduce the shame and stigma of being neurodivergent. In capturing personal stories of determination, resilience, and hope, Understanding Autism shines a light on subjects such as identifying autism in women versus men, early signs in children, testimonials from parents, communication barriers, issues in the education system, and more. With 1 in 36 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the film delivers a thought-provoking and enlightening narrative that strives to foster greater understanding and acceptance of autism in our society.


For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.


Understanding Autism Movie Trailer


Ron Sandison, M Div, works full-time in the medical field and is a Professor of Theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of the Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America, the Art of Autism, and the Els Center of Excellence. Ron has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Siloam, and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 15,000 Scriptures, including 22 complete books of the New Testament. Ron speaks at over 70 events a year, including 20-plus education conferences. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with their daughter, Makayla.

 

 

 

 

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