I remember a boy in the second grade by the name of Joel. Friendless, a burden to our impatient teacher, and a playground pariah, Joel was often ridiculed for three things: flapping his hands in frenzy when excited or distressed, banging his head against his desk when things did not go his way, and when his turn came to read out loud, he would turn a story into an awkward song, singing the lyrics in some rigid, broken melody. Other than participating in class readings, and screaming at the top of his lungs when a classmate picked on him, Joel never really talked. Unfortunately, news of his strange behavior reached several parents, who demanded that their children be taken out of an “unsafe and disruptive learning environment.” I recall my mother pulling me from him when she volunteered at a school event, scolding me for befriending “that strange, abnormal kid.” Years later, reading about Joel’s distinctive behaviors, I learned about autism.
For a long time, I didn’t really have a solid understanding of autism, nor the thought processes of individuals with it. In past psychology courses, the condition was simply glossed over, either in text or during class lectures. However, I was taught that the majority of people diagnosed with autism also display a degree of mental retardation, capable of little to no speech. Wretches and Jabberers depicts the story of two men, Tracy and Larry, who dismantle a large misconception that people with autism are incapable of intelligible communication. Through the use of a keyboard, they learn to communicate their thoughts with others, and indeed, I was surprised and impressed with the eloquent messages conveyed to observers, whether such messages were simple questions regarding where to eat in Japan, or references to Buddhist philosophy when discussing personal experiences. Observing these men use technology to pose inquiries, express needs, and convey opinions that were silenced for so many years in the absence of advanced technology was not only heartwarming, but eye-opening. This is a documentary that allows viewers to take a closer glimpse into the lives of individuals who, at the outset, appear so alien in their appearance and behaviors, but really possess a comparable depth in emotion and capacity for communication as those without autism.
Recalling the opening facts presented at the beginning of the documentary, that in previous years, many children in the United States diagnosed with autism were institutionalized and cast away as mentally retarded, I thought of how liberating it must be for Tracy and Larry to finally convey to the world that they are more than just “disabled.” Provided with an avenue to convey their thoughts articulately and cogently, they clearly develop a greater sense of confidence, dispelling stereotypes the public may have about individuals with autism and similar conditions. One may opine that these men possess an intelligence that is not only markedly different, but perhaps more dynamic than that of verbal communicators. To maneuver around autism’s problematic symptoms—the tics, peculiar speech patterns, and impaired interaction—and be able to relay their thoughts in such depth, is an impressive feat, a daily challenge which I myself cannot imagine having to tackle. It saddens me that Tracy, Larry, and Joel from second grade have to deal with constant discrimination and meager confidence in their abilities. However, Wretches and Jabberers provides hope that such individuals can defy negative expectations, delivering the message that one’s intelligence manifests in alternative ways, not simply defined within the confines of disabilities often so heavily stigmatized.