No Word for Autism

Co-producers: Rachel Antell & Elinor Pierce

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Something is happening to the children of Somali refugees born in Minnesota: many have autism, and their parents want to know why. There is no word for autism in the Somali language: some call it the “Minnesota Disease,” believing it is triggered by something in their new environment. Other Somalis, coming from an oral culture, refer to the growing numbers of children with severe autism as “the ones who do not speak.” Yet their parents have strong, resonant voices.

No Word for Autism brings new, vital voices from the margins into the center of the conversation: by doing so, it expands our understanding of the science – and experience – of autism. The film is uniquely poised to engage viewers with complex questions about the surging rates of autism through a character-driven and place-based approach. It dwells in the lively tension between the distinctive, acute crisis experienced by the Somali community, and the common struggles of all parents living with autism. We explore the limits of science, and the seemingly unlimited devotion and dedication of parents, to find the cause and cure of autism.

The Filmmakers:
Rachel Antell graduated from Stanford University in 2001 with an MA in documentary film. She has worked on a number of films related to immigration, including Death on a Friendly Border (2001); Hold Your Breath (2005); Acting on Faith (2005) and Fremont, USA (2008). Prior to studying documentary she spent 6 years as an associate at the Pluralism Project working with religious immigrants. Rachel currently works as a freelance documentary producer and editor in the Bay Area.

To “No Word for Autism,” Elinor Pierce brings twenty years of experience researching and writing about immigrant communities in the U.S., and fourteen years of experience living with–and learning about–autism. As a researcher at Harvard University, she helps develop educational materials including an award-winning website, two documentary films, and a series of short format videos (now in production). As the parent of a child with autism, she has consulted to autism organizations and served on the boards of disability NGOs. She and Rachel Antell collaborated on two previous film projects.

To contribute to the production of this film:
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Funders to date: Berkeley Film Foundation