Julian Feder as Po in the upcoming movie about a boy with autism and his newly widowed father.

'Po' Director John Asher Hopes Movie Authentically Depicts Autism

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Filmmaker John Asher operates on one principle when choosing his projects.

“You shouldn’t be making the film unless you have some sort of first-hand experience about what the story is about,” Asher says.

That wasn’t a problem for his latest project, which he produced, directed and edited. “Po” follows a recently widowed dad (Christopher Gorham) and his sixth-grade son (Julian Feder), who’s on the autism spectrum, as they learn to live without a wife and mother. Patrick, who goes by Po, is an inquisitive, imaginative boy who struggles to express his grief, and his newly single father David attempts to cope by immersing himself in his high-pressure job.

For Asher, “Po” is somewhat of a passion project. His own son Evan is on the spectrum, as are the sons of screenwriter Colin Goldman and lead actor Gorham and the daughter of composer Burt Bacharach (whom Asher met by chance on a cross-country flight). The trio and their colleagues made it their mission to make “Po,” which is based on a true story, as authentic a depiction as possible.

“Every piece of dialogue that Po had and every movement that he did was thought out and deliberated on,” Asher told The Mighty. “We really didn’t want it to feel forced, and we didn’t want to do things we’ve never seen an autistic child do before. We wanted to stay true so people who are not affected by autism can learn something from watching this film.”

Asher hopes his efforts to incorporate his son’s attributes give viewers a bit of insight into what autism is like. Actors Julian Feder and Christopher Gorham and director/producer John Asher on the set of "Po."

“The movie is, for me, about teaching acceptance and about love — that love supersedes everything,” Asher said. “But on top of that, it’s to educate people who aren’t aware of what parents and what children of autism go through on a daily basis.”

Though the film still awaits its official release, it’s screened well, winning best picture awards at film festivals in Albuquerque, Houston (where Feder also nabbed a Rising Star award) and Palm Beach. The cast and crew received two standing ovations at the world premiere in Panama.

Still, Asher says “Po” has a difficult fight ahead of it.

“[A movie’s success] just has to do with where society is emotionally at any given time,” he told The Mighty. “That’s why making movies is a risky proposition because you never know the mood of the general public when you release a film. It’s a hard terrain right now for little movies.”

For Asher, the making of “Po,” which he has been involved in since 2005, was never about money.

“It was kind of a love letter to my son, to let him know I am aware of what he is going through, that I love him and care about him more than anything in the world.”

Follow “Po” on Facebook and Twitter.

The Mighty reviewed an advance copy of “Po” for this article.

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Ford to Launch Program Aimed at Hiring People on the Autism Spectrum

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Update: Ford Motor Company announced it will expand its pilot program in 2017 by hiring an additional 12 to 24 people on the autism spectrum. 

Ford Motor Company, in partnership with the Autism Alliance of Michigan, is launching a program designed to help people on the autism spectrum gain on-the-job work experience with Ford.

The program, called FordInclusiveWorks, is set to launch on June 1 and will match people with roles in Ford’s product development division. The program will last between 30 and 90 days, a Ford spokesperson told The Mighty. All participants will be paid for the duration of the program.

“Individuals with autism bring a unique set of talents to our business,” Felicia Fields, Ford group vice president of human resources and corporate services, said in a statement. “We recognize that having a diverse and inclusive workforce allows us to leverage a wider range of innovative ideas to make our customers’ lives better.”

The program, funded by The Autism Alliance of Michigan, is the first of its kind for Ford. It will create five positions designed specifically for people on the autism spectrum. According to Ford, participants will gain experience in the company’s vehicle evaluation and verification test lab, logging and prepping tires for test vehicles. Jobs that, Ford states, require a “great deal of focus” and “high level of attention to detail and organization.”

Ford plans on using this program to evaluate participants for future positions within the company. Completing the program does not guarantee a job. Instead, those who successfully graduate from the program will be entered into Ford’s standard recruiting process.

“We are truly excited to be collaborating with Ford on this pilot program,” Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, said. “For so many individuals with autism spectrum disorder, getting and keeping a job is a challenge. Often, companies lack understanding of the unique characteristics associated with autism, which can be challenging, and unfortunately this can lead to perceptions of a poor fit for the individual and coworkers.”

Those interested in the program can apply through Ford’s career portal.

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What I Want the World to Know About Autism

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Autism requires understanding and empathy. Autism affects social and learning skills. It can also affect the way someone thinks and it can make it difficult to comprehend (understand) words, situations, facial expressions or emotions.

I want to share my story about my life with autism. I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at 6 years old. PDD-NOS stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified; it’s on the Autism Spectrum. As a child, I had no eye contact, poor language and social skills and melted down every day. I was nonverbal and overly sensitive to everything like noises. I didn’t really understand why I had tutors in classes with me. I still do, and I’m fine with that.

Now I know I have tutors in classes with me because I learn differently. Without tutors, I would be confused and wouldn’t be able to understand what’s going on. I was bullied, picked on and made fun of and lied to in school. People would stare and point at me. It made me feel like I would never fit or blend in with everyone else. Many tried to push me down, but people who care about me helped me go back up on my feet.

Look at me now. I’ve worked extremely hard, and I’m independent. Whenever people try to bring me down, I automatically get back up. When a person points and stares at someone with autism, that’s called being rude and disrespectful. I think the people who judge me really just don’t understand.

For those of you who support people with autism and don’t judge them at all, keep continuing to spread autism awareness. For those of you who don’t seem to understand autism, try to ask yourself, “How can I help people with autism?” For those of you who have autism, you are beautiful fearless warriors. Nothing can stop you from succeeding. You can succeed like everyone else. You are just as equal as anyone. If you want to succeed, go for it. For those of you who want to understand autism, try practicing empathy. Offer people on the spectrum  fairness, equality and respect. And I encourage you to stop judging others.

Nothing will ever stop me from rising to the top. Nothing is going to stop me from rising all the way to success. I am never going to give up. That is why I am writing this.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Sam Allen, Young Man With Autism, Campaigns for Notice on Driver's Licenses

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Thanks to the efforts of one San Antonio man on the autism spectrum and his mother, the Texas Department of Public Safety (TXDPS) is promoting several new initiatives for autistic drivers.

Sam Allen and his mother Jennifer, founder and CEO of the nonprofit awareness and advocacy organization Aspergers101, collaborated with TXDPS to spread the word about an optional “communication impediment” notice that can be placed on the back of driver’s licenses. Though the option has been available for some time, many people were unaware of it.

“These initiatives are truly groundbreaking. I have peace of mind knowing that I’m protected with the communication impediment driver license notice,” Sam Allen, 21, said in a TXDPS press release. “The ability for me to drive is a stepping stone toward a life of independence; and I am grateful that initiatives like the ones announced today are changing the way law enforcement interacts with those with autism or other communication challenges.” The back of a Texas driver's license shows the "communication impediment" notice.

DPS spokesman Sgt. Lonny Haschel, who has a family member on the spectrum, added that the notice, which can also be utilized by drivers with conditions such as Down syndrome, stuttering and hearing loss, helps facilitate communication between drivers and officers.

“Being a police officer is a very dangerous occupation, because you never know who you’re going to encounter when you’re making a traffic stop,” Haschel told The Mighty. “Having that kind of understanding back and forth when we encounter an individual that may have a communication impediment is going to make our job that much that better, and make it a much better community service.”

TXDPS will offer additional training and education about autism spectrum disorders for its officers and recruits, in addition to hosting a “Driving with Autism” camp in concert with Aspergers101.

The camp, slated to launch later this year, will feature classroom instruction, hands-on driving practice and role-play scenarios with officers.

Jennifer Allen said the initiatives establish a precedent for both the law enforcement and autism spectrum communities.

“Much of my fear about my autistic son driving has been eased thanks to the Texas Department of Public Safety. I deeply appreciate that DPS responded to our efforts to raise awareness and seek meaningful policies that accommodate those with a communication challenge related to autism, Asperger’s syndrome, brain injury or other speech impediments,” Allen said. “These initiatives set the stage for powerful well-rounded programs that other states hopefully will emulate.”

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When a Man at Walmart Asked How I Can Let My Son With Autism 'Act Like That'

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One of the biggest lessons I learned from my son Dominic’s autism journey is that not everyone is going to be kind. People will stare or judge you for the movements your child makes and the public meltdowns.

One of my earliest memories of a public meltdown happened in a Walmart. Dominic was about 2 and half years old, and it was a busy day. He’s sensitive to noises, and large crowds can make him anxious. He became overwhelmed and started to scream and cry. I immediately picked him up and headed out the door so he could calm down. A few people stared at us as I was practically running for the door, but most seemed to try and avoid looking at us. I was probably about 50 feet from the door when a man turned and glared at me. He yelled, “How can you let your son act like that?” I stopped, looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m sorry my son’s autism offends you!” He quickly turned and walked away. While it may have not been the most polite reaction, it felt good to stand up for my son.

As I was learning the ropes, we had quite a few experiences like that. People would scoff and stare when my son would begin to “fuss.” I was always quick to try and remove him from the situation, but a lot of times I wasn’t quick enough to escape judgment. There were some days when we would get a smile or a nod. Whether or not they understood what we were going through, I’ll never know, but it was a kind gesture all the same.

When Dominic was about 3, we took a trip to Denny’s. It was busier than I had hoped, and by the time we got our food, he was done with our outing. I asked the waitress for some boxes and my check. When she returned, she informed me my food was paid for. I don’t know who paid for our food, but it’s a day I’ll never forget.

Dominic is now 9, and he still doesn’t like going to the store and most other places. But I’ve learned how to get in and out of places a lot quicker, and he has learned how to cope for longer than 10 minutes. I’ve also learned how to read him a lot better, and I can typically see if an outing is going to end in a meltdown. If that’s the case, I let him stay at home. If staying at home isn’t an option, the promise of a special treat or a set of headphones and a good ole’ Metallica song can usually do the trick.

We have grown a lot since that day in Walmart, and while at the time it was both enraging and hurtful to be treated that way, I’m thankful it happened. It prepared me for what was to come.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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A Letter to My Younger Self, Who Didn't Know She Is on the Autism Spectrum

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Teenage me, I remember how you used to walk around with your head held down looking sad. You were filled with anxiety and were dealing with a great deal of depression. Life at home was not easy for you. You had too much to deal with. You went to school and you didn’t fit in. You were a teenager but mentally and emotionally you felt like a child. You sat in class and watched your peers, who were dressed in designer clothes and shoes, connect with each other, and you felt left out. Then you got out of school and went home to deal with abuse. It wasn’t easy when the utilities got shut off. It was no fun doing your homework by candlelight and not having much food to eat. It was no fun taking a cold bath in the winter because there was no heat or hot water.

Teenage me, you looked outside of home, seeking a connection with anyone you could find. It was hard because you had limited social skills. I’m glad you connected with some good people because if you hadn’t I wouldn’t be who I am today. There were some people you met who knew things weren’t right at home, but you were too afraid to talk about it. Teenage me, I wish you had the courage to tell because if you had, we would have had a better life. I understand why you didn’t. The fear, the immaturity and the impaired social skills got the best of you, but you did the best you could. Teenage me, you struggled a lot with your school work, but you did manage to graduate. You didn’t get a party, but you were just happy to be done with school.

Teenage me, you grew up to be a broken and damaged adult. You were physically alive but mentally, emotionally and spiritually you felt dead. You dealt with a great deal of pain. You lost your motivation and had no hope. People talked about you, criticized you and walked out of your life because they thought you were a hopeless case. Then you became homeless. That was when you learned who your real friends were. You had people abandon you. To many people, you were never going to be productive because you were not making an attempt to live the life they felt you should have been living.

In the street you found the sense of belonging you had been looking for all your life. It took a group of “broken” people to see your beauty and value. The people on the street looked past your outward appearance and limitations and looked into your heart. They accepted you as you were and didn’t try to change you into who they felt you should have been. From that moment, you began to rise. Then you got off the street and started your journey to healing.

Younger me, I wish I could go back in time and tell you that you were not as bad as people made you out to be and you were not as bad as you felt. I also wish I could have gone back in time and told you there was a reason behind the way you were. You were born a unique individual who was designed to stand out. You struggled in school, you struggled in life and you struggled with your social and communication skills, not because you were “stupid,” but because you were born with autism spectrum disorder. On the brighter side your ASD is what fuels your creativity. I wish I could go back and share with you everything I know now so we wouldn’t have had to struggle or suffer for so long.

After years of struggling, learning most of my lessons the hard way and from therapy, I know the only thing I needed in my life was support. I needed someone to get to know me for who I am and not for whom they want me to be. I needed someone to invest their time in me, taking an interest in my ideas, teaching me the things I need to know and giving me that extra push when I need it. I lost a lot of years of my life, but I survived every obstacle. 

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to your teenaged self when you were struggling to accept your differences. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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