“Deej” is a remarkable film about autism, family, the presumption of competence and the right of each individual to access communication and to be included in our schools and communities.
Directed by Robert Rooy, the film follows DJ Savarese, who is autistic and nonspeaking.
When we first meet DJ, he is a student attending mainstream classes at his high school. He communicates using AAC. I especially appreciate a scene early on in this film where DJ answers questions on his AAC device while his mother supports his typing. Many people do not understand that autism can impact the way we (autistics) move our bodies. The need for support can be met with disbelief and even hostility. There is so much misinformation out there about autistic people who may at times need assistance while typing. I am really glad that this was included in the film to help dispel those myths and to show the importance of these accommodations and in presuming competence.
DJ shares his experiences, hopes and fears through his poetry in beautifully animated sequences, by animation director Em Cooper. The oil painted animation is soft and muted and perfectly highlights DJ’s powerful words and poetry.
Films about autism that are not about how other people experience us being autistic are pretty rare. In “Deej” we learn how DJ navigates the world as an autistic person with intense sensory experiences and communication challenges. The film does a good job of giving DJ a platform to talk about these things without being exploitative or disrespectful to him.
We watch DJ graduate with honors from high school and apply to Oberlin College, a school that he chose because of their progressive and inclusive history, and the challenges and realities of these experiences. We also learn about DJ’s life before he was adopted by his parents. If you plan to watch the film, you should know that there are frank discussions of child abuse, DJ’s traumatic experiences with his birth mother, as well as his time in foster care.
The film does a really good job with showing that an autistic person is worthy, however, not only for the things they can do or what they might achieve some day. We see DJ, an autistic person, who is a friend, a classmate, community member, valued and loved son, grandson, and cousin. A person who is simply given the same things that any other kid is given because his family loves him, believes in him, and knows it’s the right thing to do. The fact that DJ might need more support or accommodation to do these things is never seen by his family as anything other than a fact of life.
The part of this film that I love the most is seeing the relationships between DJ and his family. There is love, happiness and mutual respect. We don’t see that often enough in media, where the narrative surrounding autism is nearly always negative and where parents are so rarely encouraged to nurture their autistic children with love and acceptance. So, that’s why I feel this film is also about family, or at least the kind of supportive and loving family that I wish more people could experience. I have read before that family is the child’s first model for what inclusion looks like. Our families teach the world how to treat us and what we deserve by their actions, and I feel like this is a family that really lives and understands that. It was a really lovely thing to watch.
I recommend this film to anyone interested in learning more about autism and the importance of presuming competence. I really love “Deej” because it is not a film about “overcoming” autism or disability. This is a film about a person who has been given an opportunity that too many autistic people are denied. DJ’s talents and achievements are realized because he is supported, included, and presumed competent. Maybe not every autistic person will achieve the things that DJ has, but every single one of us has the human right to communicate, to be included, to be accepted, and to realize our full potential.