Friday, May 9, 2008

Autistic teen inspires undergrad to produce award-winning film

Jaclyn Spirer is passionate about the people and projects in her life.

Ms. Spirer, the 2004 valedictorian at Gateway High School, brought that passion to a film documentary about Matthew Wallace, a 15-year-old Pitcairn boy with profound autism, and his family.

That documentary -- "Finding Matty's Voice" -- recently won the Best Documentary and Grand Jury prizes at the Ivy Film Festival at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Ms. Spirer, 22, of Monroeville got to know Matthew when she was a high school junior, baby- sitting for the then 10-year-old. Matthew's father, Mark, was Ms. Spirer's advanced placement history teacher at Gateway.

"I was so moved by Matty," she said. "He completely changed my life."

The child's effect on her was so profound, Ms. Spirer entered Allegheny College with plans to eventually become a special education teacher.

Allegheny, a liberal arts college, doesn't offer a major in special education. Ms. Spirer chose a different major, communication arts, and soon discovered a calling to documentary filmmaking that led her back full circle to Matthew and his special needs.

"Finding Matty's Voice" was Ms. Spirer's senior project.

The Ivy Film Festival features the work of graduate and undergraduate film students and the involvement of top film industry professionals.

Director Martin Scorsese and Tom Rothman, chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, participated in this year's festival. The competition attracted 250 entries, many from prestigious film schools such as New York University and UCLA.

It is highly unlikely that a first-time filmmaker from a small college would win Best Documentary and the Grand Jury prizes. But Ms. Spirer, who works for Sesame Workshop in New York City, did just that.

The 25-minute film is a sensitive depiction of Matthew's inner world and his family's journey through autism.

"I didn't want to do this as an information piece about autism, but to bring people into Matty's world," Ms. Spirer said.

To accomplish this, she used a slow shutter speed to track Matthew playing with his hands in soapy water, a favorite activity that engages him for long periods. The film opens with this footage.

The film also incorporates family video footage from Matthew's early years and interviews with family members, who speak openly.

Matthew was diagnosed with autism at 18 months, after his parents noticed that he was regressing from developmental milestones already achieved, such as the ability to speak.

Matthew is now a freshman at Gateway High School. He communicates through a combination of signs, vocalization and other methods.

The film shows Matthew's central role in the life of his family -- parents Mark, 48, and Barbara, 46, and his siblings, brother Vincent, 21, and sister Maria, 18.

Matthew was diagnosed with autism in the mid-1990s, when much less was known about the condition.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that affects communication and behavior. One in every 150 children in the United States is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ranging from mild to severe.

The film's interviews with Barbara and Mark Wallace reveal their strong bond to their son, and their daily struggle with the condition and concerns for the future. Vincent and Maria, both college students, were also "disarmingly frank" in the interviews, said Ms. Spirer.

"They talked about feelings that even we were not aware of," said Mrs. Wallace, who, like her husband, is a teacher.

"I have huge respect for the Wallaces," said Ms. Spirer. "They are so strong. They will do anything they can to make sure Matty has a better life."

Although she knew the Wallaces well, interviewing them was an emotional experience for Ms. Spirer and the family. After her first interview, she wondered whether she was doing the right thing by making the film.

"I was emotionally and physically drained," she said. "I didn't want the Wallaces to go through this if it was going to cause them pain."

Ms. Spirer's adviser at Allegheny College, River Branch, encouraged her to stay with it.

"She told me that I was going to encounter struggles as a filmmaker and that it tells you that the story is important to tell," Ms. Spirer said.

Barbara Wallace said the film perfectly captures Matty's innocence -- his big brown eyes, his sensory world -- and how the family has grown because of him. She believes that anyone who sees the film will gain a greater understanding of what children with autism and their families experience.

To obtain a copy of the film or to arrange a screening, contact Ms. Spirer at

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