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A Mother's Courage is an odd and mixed documentary. Its oddness starts with the title. It is a documentary about an Icelandic woman. Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir, who has a young son, Kali, with severe autism and decides to find out more about it by interviewing experts on autism, meeting other families with autistic children, and taking her son to a Texas center that promotes prompted communication. So it is a film about autism that promotes a controversial form of treatment, and isn't really about the mother at all. We do see the perspective of her and her husband, but we don't learn much about their personal history, their family struggles, or much about the different treatments they have tried. She may be courageous, but the film is certainly not about her courage.
The film has atmospheric music by Icelandic groups Sigur Ros and Bjork, and it begins and ends with artistic shots of Iceland, giving the film an almost religious tone. Kate Winslett does the narration, giving star power to the list of credits, reading a sometimes awkwardly written script from by Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir. She visits Temple Grandin and Simon Baron-Cohen, who give interesting explanations of what autism is. She meets a couple of American families with children who have autism: Becky and Abe Meulemans and then the Collins family, and we see some of the diagnostic process and the experience of parents in living with high-functioning children with autism. These are informative parts of the film that would help viewers understand much more about the disorder and how autistic children behave. We see scientists and clinicians at reputable institutes like the UC Davis MIND Institute, for example, talking about what is known about how it is possible to help children with autism. The production values of the documentary are good, although the sound quality is variable, and it could have been edited cutting out some material to get it down to 90 minutes, leaving the extra footage for the DVD.
The main problem with the documentary, however, comes about a third of the way into the film, the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) is introduced, as practiced by Soma Mukhopadhyay, who has an autistic son herself. She developed the method with him, and practices it at the HALO Clinic in Austen, Texas. Much of the rest of the 1 hour 45 minute film promotes this method and the HALO Clinic. We see quite long stretches of Mukhopadhyay working with children with her method of prompting them to spell out words by pointing at letters. The enticing promise behind this method is that many or all children with autism, even in its severe forms, are capable of age appropriate communicate when given the right means, and can even express themselves emotionally. In the last section of the film, we see Ericsdottir's son Kali start to learn how to communicate using the Rapid Prompting Method. The non-verbal boy brought up in an Icelandic household where English is also spoken turns out to be able to spell and express the desire to make songs for himself, by spelling out words. It is astonishing and inspirational.
However, anyone with any experience of the world of autism treatment knows that many miracle solutions are promoted, and while they have many advocates, they haven't received scientific confirmation. Some searching on the Internet shows debate and apparently unanswered assertions that there is no good scientific backing for RPM. (The exchange in the comments at the "Countering..." blog is particularly troubling.) There are some established scientists who are supportive of RPM, but an endorsement is still no match for scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, A Mother's Courage makes no distinction between proven and unproven treatments, and it does not warn of the dangers of desperate parents giving over large sums of money to clinics for treatments that don't work. Of course, parents may want to try new experimental methods in the hope that they will work, especially if there is little or no danger that they will harm. Yet people who are hoping for a cure can easily be duped. It is good to have hope and maintain a positive outlook, but is also important to be cautious. This documentary offers hope without the requisite caution.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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