Thinking in Still and Moving Pictures

I've always enjoyed creating movies with the classes of children with autism I've worked with. I established an annual routine as a classroom teacher where we would set one term aside to create a nearly feature length class movie, allowing ourselves a good span of time to really sink our teeth into all the auxiliary facets of creating a movie. We established a budget, project managed the creation of props and deadlines for parts of the script to be be completed. We assigned tasks around the class - who wants to compose the soundtrack, who can help with set design - and pulled together as a united collective.

While the myriad components that go into making a movie are by themselves a terrific way to meet classroom outcomes - particularly for our students with autism, they provide an awesome opportunity to explore a range of social skill and communication goals - the big outcome that drove our investment in these movie projects was the opportunity to genuinely celebrate and explore the special interests that each of our students had. We might have been creating a historical drama or a science-fiction epic, yet regardless of the theme the project was fuelled the whole way through by the opportunity for our students to consider what they were really passionate about, to share that passion with their peers and to find, with great delight, just how many of their peers were interested in the same things.

Our movies have featured homages to many of the special interests that our students are passionate about - Minecraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, all varieties of dance music, Pokémon, aviation, dinosaurs - woven strategically throughout the content of the narrative. You can download a free book I created as part of Apple's "One Best Thing" showcase, titled 'Reaching All Learners: Utilising Student Interests to Empower Accessibility', to see an example of a movie lesson plan I put together, utilising the iPad as the core tool to bring a classroom movie to completion. And while this pedagogical intention is in itself something that I feel needs to be a crucial part of autism education - that of respecting and utilising student interests - it is the vehicle of the project, the movie making itself, that so often finds particular resonance with our population of students. 

Recently a colleague and I have been running iPad movie making workshops for young people with autism, in collaboration with community and education groups. While most all children in my experience are quite taken with movie making and photography given the highly accessible, immediately visual and concrete nature of this media, there is something very particular to the learning and processing strengths of those with autism that align very strongly with the action of capturing the world through a lens. I remember years ago watching archival footage of a very young Tim Page, now well known as a music critic and author of 'Parallel Play: Growing Up With Aspergers', as he discussed his early love of creating movies, and thinking about how the visual processing strengths and unique social communication styles associated with autism were being so directly engaged through his description of the joys of the movie making process.

I've had students with autism at movie making workshops tell me how much easier it is for them to talk to others when they are interviewing them from behind a camera, rather than face to face, and how much easier they find it to engage with an event, like a music concert or party, when they can frame the scene within the parameters of a viewfinder. I consider, too, the students with autism I have taught in 'flipped classrooms' where they were much more eager to engage with a video recording of me teaching numeracy rather than actually watching me live in the classroom teaching numeracy. There is something about the immediate, spontaneous, uncertain nature of live, unpredictable instruction, that is much more a cause for an anxious reaction, compared with the concrete, contained, preordained existence of recorded media. Certainly we know this to be true of video modelling, video and computer graphic supports to teach emotive expression recognition, and a host of other similar interventions. 

It is this element of the movie making experience - the framing and containing of the world and the sense of ease that individuals with autism have reported - that I think has fascinating implications for the education and support of our students. We already use visuals as key supports in the social support of our students with autism, whether it be through the construction of Social Stories to instruct and guide through new routines and protocols, or in using Comic Conversations to debrief about challenging incidents, or in any number of the ways we render the abstract world concrete through assigning visual media as a sort of executive functioning compass. I feel that the potential here is very strong for utilising movie making for the purpose of supporting student well being and enhancing the mindful consideration of aspects of the daily world in our students with autism.

Consider the phenomenological implications for the way students engage with movie making, of the direct, objective observation of immediate objects around us - with reference to the workshop we ran this previous weekend, it was fascinating to look at this style of footage students recorded, such as the steady shots of leaves gently moving, of clouds passing over the sky, of close up focus shots of graffiti on a wall, or a sheep chewing on grass. We taught students how to use Time-lapse photography, where you choose one focal point to keep the camera on and it quickly snaps a number of photos and then puts them all together in a continuous stream of movement. Many of the shots that students were taking were of objects and locations that they told us they had never really considered before, or had seen in passing but never taken the time to really look at. In some ways it felt like a way for students to step out of the daily patterns of school life and allow for contemplative considerations of new locations and new perspectives. This is an interesting pedagogical trajectory to pass through, as a move from a strong utilisation of student interests in movies through to a process of more generalised contemplation of spaces outside the general realm of student focus.

Later, some of the students edited their shots into a movie that had funny captions over the top, giving comical descriptions of the areas and objects they filmed. This, while seemingly moving away from a mode of mindful 'contemplative consideration', was a delightful result in that the students were able to generate wonderfully creative insights into the spaces they had filmed, and they ended up creating something very similar to a recommendation by Carol Gray in her 'Gray's Guide to Bullying' (read a good document summary of some of the ideas here), in which Gray recommends creating a school map with students in order to identify and establish safe places where they can play in order to avoid placing themselves in vulnerable, unmonitored areas. Through film, the students in our workshops created motion picture maps of their school and local area in which they identified spaces they had little previous experience, and they investigated these spaces and - through this process - I consider that there are significant further possibilities we can engage to utilise movie making as a tool to address these well being needs amongst our student population. There are obvious connections here to the premises of social explication in the Secret Agent Society program, and food for thought when considering enterprises like The Other Film Festival

You can check out some video tutorials I've created that show some of the techniques we used recently in our iMovie Making workshops - Part 1, and Part 2.