Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adapting a Message from Sean Astin

"What I Learned as a Goonie, as Rudy, and as a Hobbit Named Sam!"

Note: This is my kick-off to my series on films and documentaries. Although this post doesn't apply directly to autism, I think most of my readers can relate to the positive message delivered by Sean Astin in relation to the top three characters he has played.

Last night I had the pleasure of going to see a lecture by Sean Astin, the actor whose heartfelt portrayals of Mikey (The Goonies), Rudy (title character) and Samwise Gamgee (of The Lord of the Rings trilogy) has touched millions of people. The event drew 750 people and I was thrilled to get there early enough to sit in the second row. Most were college students, but there were a few of us that were Mr. Astin's age or older.

Although the lecture was all about leadership and not related to autism, I feel parents, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and those caring professionals who work can relate to the message he delivered. This is definitely one of those moments where one can take lessons learned from one aspect of life (academia) and apply it to another (being a leader in the autism community).

The major point of Mr. Astin's lecture was how the qualities of his three top characters (he has played many parts) could be tapped into to become good leaders. What he did admit to was that it's often difficult to figure out how to apply those qualities in leadership scenarios.

This perplexed me as well to some degree. After thinking about it for awhile, I saw how parents and other people (there are majors in special ed, speech pathology, psychology, social work, and physical therapy at CMU), could tap into the qualities of those characters to be effective leaders advocating for the cause of autism. Just because I'm still a little perplexed, I will, with as much humility as possible, use my own experiences to illustrate how the qualities can be applied. It's not that I think I'm noble, it's just that I'm tapping into what I know.

Speaking of humility, the down-to-earth Mr. Astin had it in spades, along with a pleasant sense of humor. Of his character Sam, definitely the most famous of the three, the actor said he always is uncomfortable when asked if he is anything like Sam because he feels that "no answer is good enough," and that the qualities that combine to create the amazing character of Sam are "fictitious and unattainable."

It might just be impossible to be exactly like Sam, but we can try. I always saw Sam, my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as an unlikely hero. He was just a tiny humble, hobbit who, unlike Frodo, wasn't "the chosen one." However, if it wouldn't have been for Sam supporting Frodo, then Middle Earth probably wouldn't have been saved. Only together did they manage to make it to Mount Doom. At one point Sam carried the worn out Frodo on his back. In all Sam's semblance of character said something fierce about the importance of perseverance, friendship, loyalty and bravery.

As an advocate for individuals with autism I can definitely relate to Sam and his quest. As a quiet, small person, who is only 5'2", I never saw myself as a leader. However, one day I found myself leading a group of two hundred people on a memorial walk on a sunny afternoon in April (autism awareness month.) The walk was for an eight year old with autism whose funeral had been on Christmas Eve morning.

I won't say I'm anything like Sam, but I will say I had to summon up all my "noblest qualities," which included a Sam-like bravery and loyalty (felt for the boy's parents) that I had within me to accomplish the task at hand. I've always been shy, but I realized, that (like Sam, though I didn't think of him at the time), I could set my fear and doubts aside. After all, it wasn't about me, it was about the eight year old bundle of joy that we lost. The boy impacted many lives, and that was illustrated by how many turned out to remember him.

As for Rudy, it has been a long time since I saw the film, released in 1993. I remember that the story was inspiring and that I got the chills at the end of the film when Mr. Astin's character attained his goal (against great odds) of making a play on the Notre Dame Football field. Rudy, (who Mr. Astin said had a learning disability) was a guy who was told he couldn't attain his both his educational goal of getting accepted to Notre Dame and his athletic goal of being accepted as a walk-on on the football team. However, he accomplished them anyway.

Of Rudy, Sean said that "everyone has a right to be educated." Of the three, this is the role that I think parents of individuals with autism can most likely relate to. We all want our children to be educated and to be treated fairly. I especially noted this when I saw how popular the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) help desk was at our autism resource fair. People drove as far as five hours from the upper peninsula to consult our IEP expert.

Right now, although there are wonderful autism schools in urban areas like Chicago, there are vast rural areas that lack the appropriate resources to properly educate a person on the spectrum. It's going to take a lot of leadership (and noble qualities!) to accomplish the goal of meeting the educational needs of children with ASD in rural areas.

As for higher education, I realize that not everyone on the autism spectrum will be able to go to college, but I think we'll see more people with ASD attending colleges in the future. I just hope that higher education will be ready and willing to accommodate the probable influx of people with ASD who will seek out degrees.

College educators and administrators should realize that like the character of Rudy, people with autism and Asperger syndrome and others with disabilities, can attain similar goals against similar odds. In my opinion, we have a long, long way to go in terms of autism and education. This includes elementary education, secondary education and higher education. Like Rudy, we need to ignore the naysayers, set goals and then obtain them.

Last but not least, we have Mikey, the adolescent from the movie The Goonies. This was the first major role that Mr. Astin had. He said the best aspect of playing Mikey, aside from the water slides, was going through the gates of the studio everyday to work "on the 50 million dollar film" and seeing his name at the top of a display. (Any twelve or thirteen or thirty year old would be excited about that, I believe). Of his character, he mentioned Mikey's "burning curiosity" and "reverence." In particular, he mentioned the reverence that Mikey had for "One Eyed Willie," the pirate who left the treasure behind.

Like Mikey, professionals and parents, are also looking for treasure. Our treasure is called progress. Most of us are overjoyed when our charge with autism accomplishes a long anticipated goal like being able to ride a bike, communicate a need, or even make a friend. However, we all must have the burning curiosity to figure out how to reach the individual with autism. We must find out everything we know about the topic, and also try to find out everything we can about the individual we are working with. However, it most important we have reverence for the individual with ASD while we seek out that treasure. We need to treat people with autism more like Mikey treated 'One Eyed Willie' and less like 'Sloth' Fratelli's family treated that rather unusual character.

In all, to me those three characters that Mr. Astin Played were noble individuals who achieved a goal that affected the quality of life, not only for themselves, but for the characters around them. Middle Earth was saved, The Goonies were able to stay in their homes, and Rudy inspired a stadium full of fans at a major football school to cheer him on.

As people interested in helping individuals with autism, we too can be noble and help improve the quality of life of individuals on the autism spectrum. Mr. Astin did his job by aptly bringing noble, inspiring characters to the big screen. Now, it's time to do our jobs. There is a lot to be done...

Additional Note: As a Gen X'er also born in 1971, a mom and a wife, I also identified with the actor as well as his characters. When asked of his biggest accomplishment, he mentioned his three children first. When asked of his biggest role model, he said it was his wife. Aw. How can you not love the guy? : )


Casdok said...

Sounds very inspiring and i think you adapted his message and i can certainly relate.

Stephanie said...

Wonderful post, Julie! I think you did a great job tying Sean's speech and film roles into concrete lessons that people (or parents of kids) on the ASD spectrum can learn from the actor's work. Kudos!

Jodi said...

Hi Julie,
You did a great job adapting what Mr. Astin spoke on. All people can be leaders/advocates if they can only believe in themselves and step out. Your message is inspiring. I personally also believe that leaders make sacrifices in honor of others and there is nothing greater than this. Obviously you have done this and again it is inspiring. God bless you Julie!!