Autistic kids star in a new play — and documentary — from the United Arab Emirates

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Aaron Schachter: Awhile ago, filmmaker Tricia Regan got a call from the royal family in the United Arab Emirates. They knew about Regan's award winning documentary about autism in the US, called "Autism: The Musical," and they wanted her to make another one, this time in the UAE. The result is the film "As One." Regan hopes it will help change the way people with disabilities are treated in the Emirates. Tricia Regan: They tend to hide them away; it brings shame upon the family in that culture. And that's not true for everybody in that culture, I want to make that clear, but that's an overriding problem in a lot of the cultures in the world. When a child has a disability, they tend to hide them away rather than deal with the issue. Schachter: Let's play this quick clip from the trailer. [Audio Male Speaker]: Awareness of autism was almost zero, even among physicians. [Audio Female Speaker]: There isn't, you know, a place to really talk about it, and something needs to change. Schachter: Why was there the lack of awareness, do you think? Regan: Well, I think the lack of awareness is really global. I think people tend to think of autism as, you know, a rich person's order, or an American or British thing. I think that this film, just by its very nature, sheds that disillusion. 90% of the population of the UAE is expats. So the 10 kids who are featured in my film are representative of the population of the UA. We had wealthy expats, we had wealthy, local emirates. We have a struggling family, a filipino family, an American family that is a mixed race Mormon family, two Africans, and a Palestinian kid. So the people who came forward for this film were already people who were not ashamed of their children. They were already people who were seeking out help for their kids. It was sort of a self-selected group of kids in that way. And awareness about autism has been growing over the years, but there's still a cultural stigma. Schachter: Okay, and again, from the trailer - I haven't seen the full film - from the trailer, I see a lot of boys. Am I missing something? Regan: No, you're not. We started the program with one girl and nine boys, and she dropped out for reasons you can find out when you watch the film. And then we searched for another girl and we finally found one at the end. Autism affects, I think, boys 5 to 1 more than girls. Definitely, there are more boys than girls, but I think also the Arab culture is very protective of their girls, and were less likely to come forward. It's not like I was suggesting boys over girls; there were not that many girls who came forward. Schachter: The point of the movie, the central focus, is these kids putting on a play. Tell me the story of the play that these kids are performing. Regan: The story of the play is very simple and very sweet. Every kid is a different color, and they represent the different colors of the world; the different colors that are coming together in the United Arab Emirates. And through the course of the play, they--each one thinks they're the best color, they fight, they don't get along, but in the end, they realize that together they are stronger. We needed a play that could visually tell the story because some of these kids are not verbal. Schachter: As you say, this recreates, in a way, a movie that came out in 2008, called "Autism: The Musical." Were there differences between working with the American families and teachers and families and teachers in the UAE? Regan: I would say the only difference that I encountered, was, Americans are very open. They're very quick to talk about their issues and their personal lives, and other cultures around the world are much more reticent. But I'll just say, as different as we all are around the world, there's no difference in how a parent loves their child. That's why this same story can be told anywhere in the world; because anywhere in the world, you're gonna have a parent who is pulling their hair out, because they don't know what to do with their child with autism. They don't understand why this happened, and they want to do what they can to help their child, and there just aren't the resources yet, or the information yet, to fully understand it. We're still struggling with autism. Schachter: Tricia Regan is the director, producer, and cinematographer of the documentary "As One," about autism in the UAE. The film comes out in the fall. Tricia, thanks for speaking with us. Regan: Thank you so much.