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Autism Changed Everything

Autism causeI’m in love with my friend Lisanne Sartor (sorry Henry … actually I suspect you may not mind) first because she had the courage to participate in our #LoveYourBodyNow project, but next because she’s a vulnerable, confessional writer whose work changes me.

Today she tells how her son’s autism diagnosis freed her to find her true passion. An inspiration to those of us still struggling to find our passion.

Lisanne writes:

“If you want to play with the big dogs, you can’t piss like a puppy.”

My Italian-American, New Jersey family uses this adage about as much as they use “Fuggedaboutit.”

And they admire wise-ass, tough women who can play with the big dogs, women like my grandmother, who had a piecework sweatshop in her backyard and ran for local Republican office even though her macho husband was a die-hard Democrat.

As a kid, I wanted to be a big dog too.

So, though I loved writing, musical theater and the arts, when I went to college, I put that “puppy” side of me on hold to start Yale as a chemical engineering major.

I got the first C’s of my life.

Big dogs don’t get C’s.

I switched to fine arts but that didn’t last either because I didn’t believe in my creativity enough to think I could be the best – a big dog. It didn’t occur to me that creativity wasn’t about being the best. It was about finding your inner voice. I switched to English, where I knew I’d excel because my analytic writing skills have always been strong.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was pissing like a puppy.

When I moved to LA after college, though I wanted to be a writer/director, instead, I became a Directors Guild assistant director via the Directors Guild training program.

An assistant director manages film and TV sets. It’s a tough, physical, “big dog” job and I was damn good at it. I have excellent organizational skills, skills I was far more confident about than my ability to write or direct. I was confident I would succeed.

And I did.

I got through the DGA Training Program in a year and ten months without one AD complaining about me and immediately started working. I was successful. But I was also miserable. I longed to create worlds of my own, populated by characters who told my stories.

I needed figure out what kind of dog I truly was.

After seven years, I quit AD’ing to write screenplays at the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program.

I was deliriously happy writing stories I’d dreamed about for years. But when I graduated, the big dogs came back to haunt me.

I had to be the biggest and the best screenwriter. I chased the market, determined to write a commercial screenplay. I’d send my agent my ideas, which I structured around marketability, not my passion for them, and wrote what he thought he could sell.

It didn’t matter if he chose an idea I wasn’t particularly interested in. I went for it anyway. And wrote sterile, uninteresting scripts.

Then my son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

I write that line a lot. It sounds dramatic and hell, let’s face it, it is. It’s also a fact that changed everything in our lives. I can chart our lives by BD (before diagnosis) and AD (after diagnosis).

Not surprisingly, my creative life is not exempt from this chart.

After Diagnosis, I was drowning in paperwork, doctors, IEPs, worry, and fear.

I stopped writing screenplays for a year. I followed my son around with a video camera twice during that year and made mini-documentaries about him, writing pages of narrative to prove that he needed services to draw him out, help him cope, help us cope.

Big dogs no longer had a place in my life.

When my son got the services he needed because of my mini-docs and pages of narrative, I was flooded by a sense of accomplishment and peace that I hadn’t gotten from my work in years.

I realized it was time to take a new approach to my writing and my life.

I began writing a script based on a wonderful children’s book I’d optioned Before Diagnosis – MONSTER MAMA, written by the incredible Liz Rosenberg.

It’s the story of a boy whose mom is a monster and he can’t quite fit in with his peers because of her – or so he thinks.

It’s a story about insecurity, self-doubt, friendship and motherhood.

Oh how I could relate! Writing that screenplay was one of the best writing experiences of my life, in part because of the role my two amazing boys played in it.

When I read the boys the first act, they were riveted in a way I hadn’t seen them in years.

Not only that, they had suggestions that were so great that I incorporated them into the whole screenplay.

Each time I wrote a new draft, the boys read it. In fact, one morning, I woke up to find my older son, pen in hand, reading a draft and writing notes (yes, in Hollywood, everyone’s a critic).

Both boys love this script to this day and talk about not “if” it will be made, but “when.” MONSTER MAMA made me realize just how valuable it was for me to write from my core, not just for me as a person, but for my family as well.

I started to figure out what kind of dog I was.

When I heard about the AFI Directing Workshop for Women Open House, I almost didn’t go.

I was scared. I’d wanted to direct for years and had shied away from it as I had writing, certain I didn’t have the talent to succeed.

But this was After Diagnosis. Nothing was the same, right?

I’d directed a couple of shorts and had loved doing it. Directing felt more right to me than any job I’d ever had, including screenwriting. I forced myself to go to the open house and discovered just how much I wanted to be a part of that program.

I applied, got in and directed a short about autism, the autism cause and parenting I’d written called SIX LETTER WORD.

It’s gone on to screen at forty-nine film festivals, including the Telluride Film Festival and the American Pavilion at Cannes. I’m working on a feature version of that short, which I’ll also direct, and prepping to shoot my next short, PRICK, this August.

I’ve found my inner voice, one that speaks from vulnerability, longing, laughter, sarcasm, anger and pain. Being a big dog had nothing to do with that discovery. I got there with my family.

And I don’t piss like a puppy.

This is not a sponsored post, but if you’d like to know more about Lisanne’s film Prick and play a small part it getting it made, watch the video below. xo S



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  1. AlexandraFunFit
    AlexandraFunFit 7 August, 2014, 14:34

    Good for her. It’s never too late to find your passion. And I’ve discovered that we can have more than one passion at different points in our lives.

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