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July 5, 2022

Amateur Utah filmmaker gives actors on the autism spectrum a chance star in movies

PROVO — A local substitute teacher who produces short films is trying to show the film industry that working with people with autism spectrum disorder can bring new perspectives to a project.

It started when Levi Harris realized the character he was creating was on the autism spectrum, and he decided he needed to cast an actor with autism spectrum disorder to bring the character to life on screen.

“It became very important to me to find the best way to go about that and the best way for representation,” he said.

As he began searching for the right person to act in his short film, Harris said he discovered those with autism spectrum disorder often feel marginalized and left out of opportunities like the one he was offering.

“We kind of uncovered the fact that so many people on the spectrum would love to be involved in film and acting, but they often get looked over in auditions or don’t even bother auditioning because they think there’s no chance they’ll get the part,” he said.

Harris decided to hold a casting call for actors with autism a few years ago and ended up meeting actors on the spectrum from around 8 years old all the way up to their mid-20s. Now, most of the actors who star in his films are on the spectrum.

“The kids and the adults were just fabulous; the things that they could come up with on the spot and just such a real and natural way. Their imagination kind of just like flowed in a way that I have actually never really seen with neurotypical actors,” Harris said.

He ended up wanting to hire nearly everyone who auditioned and give them the chance to work on the films.

The auditions were how Harris discovered Matthew Burggraaf, an actor with high-functioning autism, and cast him in the role of the spirit guide in the first film, “Thunderbird.” Burggraaf also worked as a production assistant on set.

“I love the idea of bringing more variety. We see so many of the same professional well-known actors and actresses in these films, but there’s people out there that are trying to figure out how to achieve their dreams, especially in film, voice acting, whatever it may be, and they’re not given a chance because of their disability or their mental process,” Burggraaf said.

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Working with Harris and others on the film’s production was a great experience for Burggraaf, who said everyone working on set always stayed calm and patient with the actors.

While Harris said “Thunderbird” had some technical issues, the performances blew him away, especially considering a lot of it was unscripted and the actors were able to be involved in the creative process.

“We didn’t have the budget to fully flesh out what we wanted, but he kind of adventures through a world apart from his own, that doesn’t make a lot of sense on like, just a logical level,” Harris explained.

The film follows the story of a young boy looking for a feather from a Thunderbird, which he was told would allow him to face his fears. In the end, he realizes his potential and the power to harness that power is within him.

“He had the feather all along,” Harris said. “So, it’s kind of just an allegorical, symbolic tale.”

Since then, Harris and his crew have made several other movies with a few in post-production right now. Working with actors on the spectrum helped bring the projects to life, Harris said.

“They just did such a good job. And I was so impressed with them and so honored to work with them,” he said.

Burggraaf hopes someday to see more films featuring actors on the spectrum.

“I think it would be amazing to see a film portrayed through the minds and the creativity of these great minds because (people with) autism … are some of the most intelligent people. They have so much creativity, they’re super smart, and we’re not giving them a chance to shine,” Burggraaf said.

Increasing visibility of these individuals and giving them the spotlight can help educate people across the world and take away any reservations someone might feel about working with someone on the spectrum, he added.

“If we can allow that space in film, that could also open up the eyes of many people around the country, around the world to think about, wow, yeah, they kind of have these funny quirks, but they’re actually really incredible beings, and it’s just incredible. People will get curious and want to be included more with these individuals,” he said.

Burggraaf said being exposed to projects where those on the autism spectrum played a key role will help educate individuals about how to treat someone with autism.

“The more people you can reach will open the public’s minds. We treat (those with ASD) more as odd individuals,” he said.

An online debate was recently sparked about the representation of people on the spectrum when musician Sia released her new movie “Music,” which is about a nonverbal girl with autism played by an actress not on the spectrum.

Many online were upset about what some said was a caricature or parody performance by the actress mimicking behaviors of those with autism. Others in the autism community felt the role should’ve been played by an individual with autism.

While Harris said he couldn’t speak to the exact details of what Sia went through while making the film, he did feel that Hollywood in general could do better to recognize the talent that those on the spectrum can bring to the industry.

“There is a wealth, enormous, just spectacularly untapped force, that is actors who are on the spectrum,” Harris said. “Not even just to play, well absolutely to play people who have autism, but also to play anyone because they’re acting, as actors.”

I think it would be amazing to see a film portrayed through the minds and the creativity of these great minds because (people with) autism … are some of the most intelligent people.

–Matthew Burggraaf, an actor with high-functioning autism

Burggraaf said he thinks the idea of telling stories featuring a person with autism is good, but he would like to see those in the autism community involved in these projects.

“No one else can portray someone on the spectrum better than they who are on the spectrum,” he said. “I think it’d be awesome if film companies were using people on the spectrum.”

Harris recently wrote a book of short stories in an effort to raise funds to create a feature-length film that will star the actors he has worked with on his past projects.

Burggraaf hopes others on the spectrum, especially children, are able to watch the films Harris has made and know that they can do that as well.

“It will help more people to go ‘I do want that perspective, to tell my story,'” he said.


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