One in 68 children in America has been diagnosed with autism, a number that has increased tenfold in the past decade, making it the country's fastest-growing developmental disorder. HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO is an intimate portrait of the social struggles adolescents with autism face, offering a humanizing look at the resilience of these young adults.
All of the young adults featured in the film are under the care of their trusted psychologist, Dr. Emilio Amigo of Amigo Family Counseling, who has been providing clinical therapy for children, teens and adults with autism for more than 20 years. Through group therapy sessions, he empathetically counsels patients on social behavior, including how to show emotion, how to physically interact with others and, of course, how to dance.
"For many of them, there's like a giant wall between them and everybody else," explains Dr. Amigo. "And the simple task of learning how to say hello, make eye contact, be in a back-and-forth conversation, can be incredibly difficult, if not crippling. Over the years, we've designed these exercises and these activities that are tremendously challenging for them."
The three young women profiled are:
Marideth, a 16-year-old high school student who struggles to socialize and prefers to spend hours at home, alone in her room on her computer. While her parents and younger sister have gotten her to engage with the family, interacting with others is still a challenge. Marideth openly discusses her interest in finding a date for the spring formal with her parents, which is a big step for her.
Caroline, a 19-year-old entering a new chapter in her life: attending college. Although she spent time learning about the basics of college and what a typical day would look like before she started, she struggles to adapt to changes in her schedule. Caroline is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Jay, whom she met at Dr. Amigo's group session. While she is comfortable knowing she has a date to the dance, she is cautious about the challenges of growing up.
Jessica, a 22-year-old who lives at home with her parents and dog, and is working on the skills she will need to live on her own. Working at a bakery that provides job opportunities for young adults on the autism spectrum, Jessica makes her own money, which she will need when she moves out. She gets easily discouraged when trying to find a date and a dress, but does not let anxiety take away from the excitement of attending the dance.
As the formal approaches, Dr. Amigo pushes all of his patients out of their comfort zones, while assuring them that the night will go smoothly. During group sessions, he diligently goes through the logistics of the night, from the layout of the venue and proper dress code to the appropriate way to accept a dance, even facilitating dates. Though many aspects of a dance are inherently stressful and worrisome for his students, learning how to do everyday tasks, such as touching another person, looking into someone's eyes when talking and showing emotion when speaking to others, allows them to realize that they will ultimately be okay.
HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO reevaluates the definition of normal by emphasizing the universal need to belong, connect and grow, and by celebrating every individual's unique path.
Director and producer Alexandra Shiva produced and directed "Bombay Eunuch," a feature-length documentary about a makeshift family of eunuchs struggling to survive. Her second film, "Stagedoor," follows five kids through a musical theater summer camp program in the Catskills.
HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO is directed and produced by Alexandra Shiva; producer, Bari Pearlman; executive producer, Jason Blum; editor, Toby Shimin; director of photography, Laela Kilbourn; composer, Bryan Senti. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.