The Secret Forest Discovered

There is something quietly stirring in the domain of television and film. For autistic people, it has often felt the subject of its representation and experiences in life have been packaged in such a way that others, whether that be from the view of experts or relatives and carers, are the driving force to build a picture of how and in what way autism touches their lives. Often it has looked as though the essential figure, the autistic person, is just the vehicle to tell someone else’s story and ancillary in their own role.

A challenge in that model has finally began to surface…


Invited to speak at this year’s This Human World film festival in Vienna, made possible by the shared networks from the European Network of Independent Living, I supported a panel discussion following the screening of Finnish film, My Secret Forest (Dir: Niina Brandt, 2016). Prior to even watching, there was some (unfounded as it would turn out) of striking an overly downcast note or embellishing the narrative in one form or another. Focused around a young man called Lauri, the film documents his own life across education, personal interests and frustrations in how autism inhibits his aspirations. With rich imagery and an understated score, accompanied by captions that conveys Lauri’s thoughts and observations throughout, it perhaps makes for occasional uneasy viewing for neurotypical audiences who had previously scorned the capabilities of verbally limited individuals, but also for those like myself who accept autism as an inextricable facet of who we are.

Lauri from ‘My Secret Forest’

One scene which poses difficult questions for the community comes in a conversation between Lauri and a young woman, also autistic, in the company of their personal interpreters and the equipment which enables them to communicate. At one stage, Lauri remarks:

Autism is not something ordinary for anyone, ever. It mustn’t be.

Such a comment that is expressed by someone autistic alone, which would likely have a similar tone and attitude as certain parents and carers might hold when they may feel despairing about the condition. As an extension to that, Lauri also makes a reference to Plato’s cave theory, that without autism, he would be outside. For a film which is constructed on Lauri’s perspective, this is quite troubling for me to process from a landscape which still struggles to accommodate autistic people in society and that being different from the larger population is not an affliction.

Equally though, it is perhaps necessary to acknowledge that, even where it may be autistic people themselves, they are free to make an assessment of the condition and their lives. For Lauri, who desires to be loved in a romantic manner, he has found autism to be a clear barrier in this respect. There may be questions as to how much someone like Lauri has been influenced by those around him, but autistic audiences should also be prepared where our own beliefs are tested and scrutinised by those with shared experiences.

Panel for ‘My Secret Forset’ — (LtoR) Martha Stickings, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (Moderator), Niina Brandt, Jack Welch, Tobias Buchner.

For society though, and the way in which it manages to provide for autistic adults like Lauri, who are housed in settings which on the surface might seem forward thinking and supportive of his needs, still have an institutional atmosphere in some respects. In one such scene, Lauri is sat in a room looking fretful in the room around him, where in the background there are audible cries and shouts of someone else in great distress elsewhere. In what appears to be a colouring activity, an unseen presence (most likely a worker) chides Lauri for using a wrong colour in an irked tone. Lauri shortly afterwards strikes his own face at what must feel like a punishment for an issue which should have never been one to begin with. While perhaps an improvement from the horrors of secure hospitals in recent decades previous, it is surely not the optimal in which autistic people are at the ideal standard of support to live in their community.

As part of the panel discussion, one of those participating indivdiuals, Dr Tobias Buchner, a member of the Austrian Monitoring Committee for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, highlighted there are ‘problematic understandings’ in the varied quality of support given for disabled people across the board in developed countries.

Within the audience also, questions were asked around how it was possible to be diagnosed autistic, when lacking in verbal features, and the diagnostic criteria influencing how our lives are alone vital to the way in which we are able to live. It sadly suggests a view that some people would, knowingly or not, advocate a deficit model in which autistic people are eclipsed by the condition and not what they can achieve. As Niina outlined early on in the discussion, “I didn’t want to do a film about autism — I wanted to focus on Lauri.” If we are to really change the way in which autism is portrayed before audiences, it is essential the essence of the individual shines and not to persist second fiddle to the already existing narrative of autism in itself as the foremost star of its representations.

Read more about ‘My Secret Forest’ and its wider impact here.

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