As a mother of a son with autism, filmmaker Lara Stolman became discouraged when she could not find any extracurricular activities for her child to join that would cater to someone on the autism spectrum. During her search, all she heard was negativity from people who would tell her that her son was not going to be able to do some of the things other kids his age could do.
“Unfortunately, because of the system in our country, kids with disabilities are often segregated from typical kids from a very early age,” Stolman told Remezcla during a phone interview last month. “There is a lot of exclusion and ostracization that occurs.”
So, when she met Mike and Maria McQuay a few years ago at a New Jersey YMCA while looking for swimming lessons for her son, she was encouraged by the fact that the couple, who also had a son with autism, was not using his disability as a reason not to let him participate in the sport.
“In the face of everyone saying no, they were saying yes,” Stolman said.
Not only were the McQuays saying yes, they were also recruiting kids on the autism spectrum to be a part of a new community swim team, the Hammerheads.
“I thought it was so inspiring not only as a mother, but as a storyteller,” Stolman said. “I wanted to show how important this swim team was going to be in the lives of the kids who joined, and their families.”
“You almost have to have a Ph.D. to fill out the paperwork the government gives you if you want to access some of the services that exist, so imagine if English is not your first language.”
In the documentary Swim Team, Stolman follows the personal journeys of three teenagers on the team, which is largely made up of Latino and Asian swimmers, as they strive to compete for state and national Special Olympics championships. These minorities, Stolman said, are underrepresented in competitive swimming nationwide.
One of the swimmers featured in the film is Robert Justino, who happens to be one of the fastest athletes on the team. Unaware of his disability for the first 17 years of his life, one of the most powerful scenes of Swim Team comes when his mother, Rosa Rosado, sits him down to reveal to him that he has autism and what it means to be autistic. As a single mother with three kids and without a strong support system behind her, Rosado said she spent years to trying to understand her son’s diagnosis, and focused more on getting him the resources he needed rather than explaining his condition to him.
“Once you have a child with a disability, without even noticing, you become isolated and alone in your situation,” Rosado said. “You naturally create your own world. Autism just wasn’t something we talked about.”
For Stolman, she wanted people to have more discussions about autism. She wanted to make her film compelling for audiences and show them the diversity of the team, so parents of children with autism would know they are not alone. Stolman said making Swim Team gave her a lot of hope for her own son’s future.
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“I knew as I was making the film that it could be inspiring to other families,” Stolman said. “I think the film is important in that way – to get families involved in things, even if people say no. They shouldn’t take no for an answer.”
While inspiring audiences is also important to Rosado, she hopes a film like Swim Team will get more people talking about the lack of resources and programs out there for families who have children with autism. She is finding this especially difficult now that Robert is 21.
“Robert is an adult and there are certain things he wants to do like get a job working with computers and learn how to drive,” Rosado said. “He has ambitions, but the system doesn’t allow it. If there are resources, where are they? These are kids that have desires and potential.”
Stolman agrees and adds that minority children with autism are less likely to receive the health care they need than their white counterparts. In a 2013 report published by the medical journal Pediatrics, research shows that race plays a factor in the amount of time it takes for a child to receive therapy after he or she is diagnosed with autism.
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“You almost have to have a Ph.D. to fill out the paperwork the government gives you if you want to access some of the services that exist, so imagine if English is not your first language,” Stolman said. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort from families and advocates to get a kid the services that are available at every stage. I hope Swim Team can do its small part to bring more awareness and break some of the stigmas.”
Swim Team opens at the IFC Center in New York City July 7-13 and at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles July 21-27.