Director brings reality of autism to the big screen

When you see characters with autism in a movie or on TV, chances are they’ll fit a certain mold: “Highly gifted, intelligent, quirky, socially odd,” says film director Janet Grillo. “But no matter what happens, they’ll go on to work in Silicon Valley or something, and they’ll be just fine.”

As the parent of a son with autism, however, she knows this depiction is far from reality. “Most people on the wide spectrum of autism are unable to live independently,” says Grillo, who lives in New York and is a film professor at NYU. “Many are functionally nonverbal.”

“Jack of the Red Hearts,” out Friday, is about the unusual case of a girl with autism (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, boys are almost five times as likely as girls to be diagnosed as autistic). The film’s main character is Glory (Taylor Richardson), an 11-year-old with severe autism, whose caretaker (AnnaSophia Robb of “The Carrie Diaries”) turns out to be a teenage grifter, much to the alarm of Glory’s parents (Famke Janssen and Scott Cohen).

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Grillo’s son with her ex-husband, director David O. Russell, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. He’s now 22 and residing in an assisted-independent living program in New York.

“He’s not like the [nonverbal] child in this movie — he’s mildly impacted,” she adds. But his independence is still hard-won; he has had two decades of intensive therapy. “He will probably go on to find a mostly independent life, but he’s still going to need support and services,” she says. “And I was always keenly aware of how fortunate we were to have all of these therapies at our disposal.”

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