Autism is an often misunderstood spectrum disorder. Its treatment in news, entertainment, and even documentaries tend to suffer from a bad habit of treating it as a horrible disease or something that deserves sympathy more than understanding. “How to Dance in Ohio”, HBO’s newest documentary, avoids falling into these traps, and successfully illustrates the difficulties of living with Autism while maintaining both the humanity and commonality of the individuals portrayed in the film.
The film documents sessions from the Amigo Family Counseling Center, a place for children, teens, and adults with Autism. The clinic’s operator, Dr. Emilio Amigo attempts to motivate his patients by helping them to overcome the limitations they have been raised to accept as part of their diagnosis. Amigo does not treat his patients as weak or flawed, but instead he sets up challenges to build up their confidence and help to grow their self-esteem. By targeting the areas of life that most often hinder individuals with Autism, Amigo aims to give his patients what they need to live a happy and safe life.
Specifically, ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ follows the three months leading up to the counseling center’s formal dance, where the patients will be expected to get dressed up, talk to each other, and dance. Formal dances make most people a bit anxious, but Autism typically increases the level of fear and concern an individual feels, making the idea of attending such a dance a burdensome challenge. Most people with Autism lack the ability to understand social cues, an aspect of the condition that is aptly explored in the film.
The very idea of preparing for the dance makes the film’s three main protagonists, Marideth, Caroline, and Jessica, more than a little nervous. Who will they go to the dance with? What will they wear? The questions and their repercussions keep building up as the big day approaches. One fantastic accomplishment of the film is the way in which it shows the differences between the three women. While they all have Autism they are unique individuals each with their own problems and personalities.
As the film progresses it does allow viewers to observe progress from the girls as they get closer to the dance. They are still nervous, but they appear to be more up to the challenge. The documentary does not frame Autism as a disease that needs to be cured, but as something that can be overcome. Autism is shown as a challenge that some people are faced with, and the message of the film is that only when we overcome the challenges we face as people do we become truly alive. ‘How to Dance in Ohio’ is about experiencing and living life by overcoming and conquering challenges whatever their origins.