Opening Friday at the Bethesda Row Cinema, “Far From the Tree” explores the challenges and rewards of raising a child who is different, a child who has Down syndrome, dwarfism or autism. The Allnutts, a Kentlands family, are featured in the new documentary.
Jack is Amy and Bob Allnutt’s third child. The home videos show a beautiful, happy, healthy baby boy smiling and giggling with his parents and sisters. After his first birthday, his parents started noticing changes in their son, changes they did not see with their first two children. Amy vividly recalled playing outside with Jack and noticing a jumbo jet flying low overhead. She pointed it out to Jack. He didn’t seem to notice the engine noise or his mother’s directive to look up at the plane.
As time went on, Jack began perseverating on weird things, unable to break away from what was fascinating at the moment. His language was far below what it should be for a typical two-year-old. It wasn’t long before Jack was officially diagnosed with autism.
At an autism conference four years ago, the Allnutt family was approached by producers and asked if they would be interested in participating in a documentary. Based on the 2012 New York Times bestseller written by Andrew Solomon that People magazine called “a brave, beautiful book that will expand your humanity,” the documentary “Far From the Tree” explores the stories of six families, opening a window into the experience of raising a child who is different from what his or her parents expected. The film depicts challenges and the surprising gifts that come from this experience.
Video crews spent three or four days in the Allnutt home every few months for two years. While it was an exhausting experience, the family was committed to the film’s message. In a New York Times article about the film, Andrew Solomon wrote that the movie “dwells on the intimidating dichotomy of parenting: deciding what to try to fix in your children and what to accept and even celebrate. It argues that many families initially experience despair at diagnoses that end up filling their lives with meaning, that people often become grateful for lives they would have done anything to avoid.”
The film shows all the ups and downs, the challenges and the joys of raising a child with autism. Jack is non-verbal, and the frustration of not being able to express himself was excruciating for him and painful for his family, who desperately wanted him to be able to share his wants, needs, thoughts and desires. The frustration often led to outbursts of aggression, which are illustrated in the movie. Readers will see many familiar sights in the movie as well, including snowy Kentlands streets and Lakelands Park Middle School.
In the movie, Amy and Bob talk about all of the avenues they explored to help their son. They tried music therapy, chiropractor visits, speech therapy, allergy testing, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers, anything to make life better for Jack. They wanted him to be able to talk. Eventually, Jack learned to spell works using stencils. Jack wrote to his parents, “I am trying, and I am really smart.” Through tears, Amy said, “It’s like I was meeting him for the first time.”
Jack will be starting his sophomore year at Quince Orchard High School in September. He is part of a pilot program with four other boys who also use letterboards to communicate. These young men call themselves as “The Real Boys,” referring to how the world is now able to see who they truly are and what they are capable of, rather than just as people with disabilities.
Amy said that her husband, Bob, often talks about how we need to love our children for who they are, and not what we as parents want them to be. Throughout the segment of the movie that features the Allnutt family, it’s amazing to witness Jack’s growth, his confidence, and the pride his family has in his accomplishments. They worked as a team to find a way to let Jack be the best Jack he could be, in a way that worked for him and not how society expects or demands.
Amy is quick to say that autism kicks their butt on a regular basis, and the challenges aren’t gone forever. But their message—and the message of the movie—is one of hope. “As parents we have this image of the kids in our heads, and when we don’t get that image it can be devastating,” Amy said. “It doesn’t matter what happened. It is what it is. He was given to us for a reason and made a difference. He has taught us so much.”
Author’s Note: As an autism mom myself, I remember how not long after my daughter was diagnosed, someone shared with me the poem, “Welcome to Holland.” (I just learned that the poem, written by Emily Perl Kingsley, is featured in the movie along with her son, Jason.) I feel like it’s such a wonderful analogy for what it is like raising a child with a disability. The gist of the poem is this: You’re planning a trip to Italy. You get the guidebooks, learn a few Italian phrases, get ready to ride motorbikes around Rome, eat gelato, and drink cappuccino. Your flight is about to land, when the pilot announces you are about to arrive in Holland. What? You’re confused, angry, disappointed and unprepared. Then, after some time, you realize where you are and what Holland offers: tulips, windmills, Rembrandts. It’s not what you expected or planned for, but Holland is where you are. There are tough days, lessons to be learned, but a lot of magic and extraordinary moments you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.