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(cover picture) Horn, Elizabeth
2010 Finding the Words : a Documentary about Children Recovering from Autism. : Horn Productions and Video Project.

Notes: DVD, 60 minutes
Reviewed 10 Nov 2011 by:
Jamie Pacton <>
East Tennessee State University/ITT Technical Institute
Medium: Film/Video
Autism in children - Treatment - Case studies
Autistic children - Rehabilitation - Case studies
Autistic children - Family relationships

ABSTRACT:    Finding the Words is a 60-minute film that follows the progress of eight autistic children as they recover from Autism Spectrum Disorder. There is extensive discussion by experts about the nature of autism as a biological disease and comprehensive footage of these children in before and after settings.

Disease or Disorder? This is one of the most pressing questions in the autism community and one of the most divisive points of debate there as well. The notion of recovery from autism is dependent on how a person—a parent, an educator, a medical professional, or anyone else interested in or involved with autism—answers this question. If autism is a psychological disorder, then it is something a child is born with and it is something that will always be there. When autism is seen as a disease, however, then the possibility of recovery exists.

The hour-long documentary Finding the Words: A Documentary about Children Recovering from Autism is unequivocal in where it falls in this debate: to film writer, producer, and director Elizabeth Horn (who is also the mother of an autistic child), to the parents interviewed in the film, and to the doctors consulted therein, it is clear that autism is a biological sickness. From this point of view, then, this inspirational film shows how recovery from this sickness happens in practical terms.

Overall, the goals of this film are two-fold: 1) inspire and compel lawmakers to award “urgently needed funding to help more children get detoxification, immune support, and targeted educational therapies”; and 2) as Horn said in an interview with the Autism Society of America: “In the end, I tell people that I wish everyone could get on what I call the ‘autism recovery bus’: all of us working together, the government, the researchers, the pharmaceutical companies, the clinicians, the parents […] I hope we can all find the strength to be positive and proactive. The only way we are going to change things is by having a vision of what things should be, seeing what the best case scenario is, which is what Finding the Words is about, and making that vision a reality for all of us. My goal was to make a film that had the power to help people believe. The most important thing we can all do is believe that our children can recover.”

Horn carefully constructs her case by following the stories of eight children who have recovered from autism. The documentary is organized into twelve chapters. In these chapters, Horn uses stirring music, stark text, arresting medical and scientific graphs and images, compelling before and after video footage and photographs of the autistic children, thorough parent interviews, and interviews with doctors, academics, and therapists (occupational, speech, and behavioral) to make her points.

Before the first chapter, a black screen fills with white lettering that tells a grim tale about the rising number of children who are diagnosed with autism. Even the wording of these statistics reflects Horn’s view of autism as a disease: “In 1908 1 in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism; in 2004 autism was stealing away 1 in 166 children.”

The documentary then lets the viewer meet some of these stolen-away children. Chapter One, “A Perfect Baby,” introduces the viewer to eight families. Parents recount how they had the “perfect baby” who slowly began to show some of the classic warning signs of autism. They go into more detail about these signs in Chapter Two, “Warning Signs.” As these children lose speech, discontinue eye contact, and exhibit self-stimulatory behaviors, inconsolable screaming, poor digestive health, erratic sleep habits, parents tell of their despair and anguish. Home video clips, photographs, and emotional testimony from these parents make this a riveting introduction to the rest of the film. There is also a heavy emphasis here on the correlation between vaccines (especially the MMR) and rising incidents of autistic behaviors.

Chapters Three and Four, “We Need to Do Some Tests” and “The Diagnosis” respectively, describe the medical establishment’s usual reaction to parents who suspect autism. Most parents are brushed off by their pediatricians; some are given shocking prognoses (“she’s autistic, she’ll need to be institutionalized, deal with it”); and most are told very few helpful things. From there, the parents rally and turn to alternative medicine for more answers. The film explores “What is Autism” in Chapter Five. This segment features a roundtable discussion involving researchers, doctors, and clinicians. These experts, many of whom have autistic children themselves, define autism, discuss it as a disease, and talk about ways it can be recovered from. There are highly credible figures present, including a pediatric neurologist from Harvard Medical School and other respected professionals. This discussion is not only informative within the context of the film, but it also helps advance Horn’s mission of getting through to lawmakers. As Horn explains: “One of the people at that discussion was Dr. Margaret Giannini, who is the director of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office on Disability. She entered those talks thinking autism was a genetic disorder, a lifelong disability. When she left, she insisted that autism be redefined as an illness and that we all must do everything we can to help these children get well. She walked out with renewed hope for our children.” This can-do spirit is echoed in the final chapters of the film.

Before looking at how to recover from autism, however, Horn makes a final point in Chapter Six, “Epidemic?” Here she argues through interviews with professionals and displays of statistics that autism is indeed an epidemic. After this chapter, it is clearly established that autism is a disease that is on the rise, then the film turns to the nuts and bolts of recovery. “Looking for Hope,” “The Diet,” “Healing the Body,” and “Training the Mind” (Chapters Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten respectively), all detail the ways in which children are recovering from autism. This includes starting a gluten- and casein-free diet, doing detoxification treatments, and working on educational therapies like speech, ABA (behavioral) therapy, play therapy and many other methods. The parents are interviewed again, but footage of the remarkable improvements in their children does most of the convincing in these sections. Of note here is the idea that healing the body, or treating the underlying medical conditions that accompany autism, can help the mind grow and develop significantly.

Chapter Eleven, “Saving Our Children,” takes the insights of the previous chapters and discusses the need for “simple, cost-effective solutions that can be broadly disseminated” and then pleads for more funding so that as many autistic children as possible recover. Practical tips for both parents and professionals are offered. This chapter revisits the purposes of the film and it stresses that we should: “have a lot of hope, because these children do recover!”

This message is carried into the last chapter, “Recovery.” Interviews with therapists and parents and footage of the children playing, laughing, talking, and singing show the incredible progress these eight children have made. The final clips are of Caroline, the child whose mother was told to “institutionalize and deal with it,” singing “Castle on a Cloud” from the musical Les Miserables.

Watching the incredible changes in the children in this documentary will make most anyone believe that recovery is a very real possibility for many autistic children. As a mother of an autistic child, I can’t watch this final clip and not sob with all the promise, hope, and possibility this child’s voice offers to so many other children like her.

This film is an exceptional resource for parents, educators, and academics. It could be used by medical professionals hoping to learn more about autism, professors and graduate students of Disability and Disease studies, anthropologists studying both the rise of autism and the construction of it as a disease (following the work of Anthropologist Roy Grinker in his book Unstrange Minds). It would also be helpful in Early Childhood Education classes, at autism conferences, and as a recommendation for parents who have just gotten their child’s diagnosis (who need both hope and practical tips in this very difficult time). For more information on this film or to order a copy, visit: