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What Happened when Her Son was Diagnosed with Autism

I’m thrilled to introduce screenwriter/director, Lisanne Sartor to all of you.

Lisanne’s short film, The Six Letter Word, about an unlikely mother coming to terms with her young son’s autism after an unexpected encounter with one of her johns, features a breakout performance by Rumer Willis and is currently making the rounds at film festivals worldwide and adds intimacy to the autism cause.

Here’s a peek at the trailor:

If you enjoyed that, Lisanne has written and will direct the feature version of that short and this August will shoot her next short, a comedy called “Prick” (www.facebook.com/prickthemovie).

Please check out her “Prick” crowdfunding campaign at www.funddreamer.org/campaigns/prick-a-short-film to give Lisanne that extra-needed boost. Let Lisanne tell you more:


The following is Lisanne’s story about how her son’s autism diagnosis helped her kick Mother Shame to the curb.

It might help you too. Lisanne writes:

“I’m a lapsed Catholic. Guilt is supposedly in my blood. Yet my high school yearbook ‘what if’ reads, ‘What if Lisanne had a conscience?’

I didn’t worry that swigging wine while hanging out a station wagon window topless meant I’d go to hell. I specialized in teaching Sunday school with a hangover. Guilt had nothing on me.

Until I had kids. And with them came the motherload of guilt.

I adore my two boys but they’re a handful and I often fantasize about escaping alone to a sun-kissed beach to sip martinis.

Damned if that fantasy isn’t quickly invaded by two bright-eyed monsters I can’t live without. When those monsters were toddlers, I discovered that I could read to them for hours, but ask me to pretend to be an orangutan or play with action figures and I was outta there.

I love board games and cards (I come from a long line of card sharks) but have you ever tried explaining gin rummy to a two year old? Drool and gin rummy do not go together. Unless you’ve had too much gin.

I realized I didn’t like playing with my kids.

My guilt was spectacular.

Every time I told the boys I had to clean, cook, write or make a phone call instead of play, I felt awful. Not awful enough to be Owl when they played Winnie the Pooh, but awful enough to feel I was paying penance for my sins.

Anthony_Six_Letter_Word_Photo_Twitter_PageThen my older son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age seven.

He’d always been a dreamy child with speech, sensory and boundary issues that we dealt with via therapy.

However, his grandmother’s death, combined with a new school with a more socially complex environment, launched him into a downward spiral where we often couldn’t reach him.

We plunged into IEP’s and evaluations and therapists and – our To-Do List was literally endless.

My younger son, always a volatile child (who would later be diagnosed with ADHD), began melting down multiple times a day in response to our overtaxed household. Who had time for guilt?

Evidently I did.

Play was now an integral part of my older son’s therapy and the best way to reach both my boys, soothe their chaotic emotions, and let them know that we were there for them to guide them back to themselves, to us.

But I sucked at playing. I hated it. So I didn’t do it. And I felt guilty about it, so that made everything okay, right?

I avoided play therapy by working, making meals, cleaning the house, setting up appointments. All this had to get done and if I didn’t do it, who would?

I watched our wonderful therapist being silly, goofy, funny, warm and loving – all the things I feared I’d never be when I played with my boys.

My husband, who in five minutes can make eating spinach into a game for twelve kids, threw himself into play therapy.

I felt pangs of jealousy as I watched him, but I was also relieved. The boys had two loving parents, one of whom had could play with them. That had to be good enough.

During that first year, we also played board games and read together a ton.

My son was never as engaged during these activities as he was when he made up worlds, characters and plots with us. Then, his speech became clearer and he pulsed with ideas as each story played itself out. He was himself again and so much more.

Our younger son began to tantrum less, to let us redirect his anger into silly guessing games, I Spy and wrestling. Our boys started to come back to us.

Guilt was getting old.

I gingerly tried imaginative play with them, but never quite fell into their rhythms. They’d correct me or, worse yet, ignore my hesitant efforts.

Instead of pushing my insecurities aside and soldiering forward, I retreated to practical things. Both boys became more enthralled with our therapist and Dakota and less interested in me.

They were thriving. I was lonely. Guilt is a shitty companion.

One day, I mentioned to our therapist that I thought my family saw me as a conduit for household machinations instead of as an actual person. She delicately said, “You know, when I interact with you, I have too many wonderful adjectives to describe you. Funny, silly, interesting. But the kids don’t see that person, because you’re always somewhere else, even when you’re in the room with them.”

She was right.

By relegating myself to the keeper of the practical instead of playing with my boys, I had removed myself, not just from their imaginative world, but from them.

I was becoming a stranger to them, just as my older son had once become a stranger to us.

I kicked guilt to the curb and played with the boys that day.

I didn’t have any breakthroughs. I still felt foolish, awkward and inadequate. But when my older son looked me in the eye and hugged me, when my younger son belly laughed as I tickled him, I knew exactly what the point of play was – communication.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t good at it. It mattered that I tried.

I would get better with time – or I wouldn’t. But without play, I would not reach either of my children, one captive to his spectacular imagination, the other to his gripping anger.

In the years since my son’s diagnosis, I’ve made a surprising realization about play. It’s still a four-letter word that doesn’t thrill me. It probably never will.

But what I did instead – felt guilty while I worked, organized, cooked, cleaned – isn’t enough when you have a child on the spectrum. It’s not enough when you have any child.

When my family fell apart, though the practical may have helped keep us afloat, play is what kept us together.

Guilt has nothing on me.”

Lisanne HeadshotPic

After graduating from Yale University, Lisanne Sartor moved to LA to be a writer/director but was waylaid for seven long years when she became an assistant director via the DGA Training Program.

She left ADing to get an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, where she won numerous screenwriting awards. Her original produced screenplay, “Cleaverville,” aired on Lifetime Television.

She’s written and developed projects with various companies, including the DeAngelis Group, Hearst Entertainment, and Roth-Arnold Productions.

She recently wrote and directed her award-winning short “Six Letter Word” (www.sixletterword.org) via the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. The drama about autism has screened at forty-nine film festivals throughout the world, including the Telluride Film Festival and the American Pavilion at Cannes.

 



3 comments

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  1. Liv
    Liv 26 July, 2014, 15:24

    A lapsed Catholic. Me too. I know all about guilt. I’m pretty sure my grandmother invented it. I understand completely – being in the room, but not there. A very poignant piece.

    Reply this comment
    • Shannon
      Shannon Author 28 July, 2014, 19:30

      Liv thanks for you sweet comment. My dear friend Lisanne is such a menshe. I say that with neither of us being Jewish. Perhaps we should have been.

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