National Campaigns Manager, Jess Leigh, talks about the making of a powerful new film, our latest film in which autistic actress Holly shows the world how too much information can feel.

Understanding the problem 

Before we launched our Too Much Information campaign, we asked more than seven thousand autistic people and their families what they wanted the public to understand about autism. This is what came out on top:

Autistic people need extra time to process information.

At the same time, it also came out as the thing they felt the public were least aware of about autism. There was a big and important job to do.

Launching the second year of our biggest ever campaign during World Autism Awareness Week 2017, we wanted to make a powerful film which helped the public to understand that autistic people can need more time to process information. That it can feel like everything’s building up, like being asked a million questions at once. That it can feel as if your brain is too crowded – and about to explode.

Testing early ideas

Given the lack of current awareness, we started by taking a selection of ideas for the film to a 'cold audience' – people who had no affiliation with autism. We wanted to find out which concept for a film most brought to life this key learning about processing time for them, and made them respond empathetically. 

I felt sorry for them. They weren't understood and people weren't giving the time they needed. Such a cacophony of questions...

Focus group participant

It wants us to change the way we deal with people. It’s saying slow down and be more measured in what you're saying.

Focus group participant

Finding our star

We knew we were on the right path. We just needed the right star. It was really important to us to cast an autistic actor in the lead role. We promoted an open audition, and dozens of autistic boys and girls sent in their audition films. 

We loved watching all of them, and there were a few who stood out, including one twelve year-old budding actor who called herself ‘Jolly Holly’. In the final round of auditions, Holly dazzled us with her acting abilities. What’s more, she and her mum Jo spoke with such understanding based on their experience of Holly’s need for extra processing time and what that feels like. They had a real passion to help more people understand. We had our star.

Holly's audition tape
Holly’s audition tape

Showing autism accurately

Next, we wanted to make sure that every detail of our presentation of autism was accurate. Every little detail needed to feel life-like and authentic to drive the right response and help people to truly understand. We also wanted to explore how processing time might be experienced differently by autistic girls.

So we gathered a group of autistic young people for our second focus group, including two teenage girls.

Autistic focus group   
Our autistic focus group

Here are some of the experiences shared at our autistic focus group:

I try and speak but it comes out wrong and I’ll start playing with my hands and then just walk off.

Izzy, autistic focus group

Anxiety comes in, especially when people expect a quick response.  I worry that they’re sitting and waiting for me and then that anxiety makes it even harder to respond.  It can feel like a never-ending cycle…

Being rushed makes you anxious which just makes processing what’s been said so much harder.  My processing time gets ruined and afterwards I’m left thinking about what I should have said... I’ll start pacing, avoid eye contact, and do light rocking and flapping.  Too much and it all leads to meltdown.”

Dana, autistic focus group

These insights, as part of an in-depth focus group, proved vital when it came to shooting the film. As one final test, we asked a group of parents of autistic people for their thoughts on the film – we wanted to make sure the scenario felt realistic from their personal experiences.

I love the idea of concentrating on the questions. I constantly speak short and sharp sentences to my son as I am aware he struggles with too much information.

Out in the public this isn't so easy, if we are on public transport people may ask him two or three questions and then give a funny look or make a funny comment if he doesn't answer.

Parent

The portrayal of the child processing information in this film sounds pretty much spot-on. We find that our son does need a fair bit of processing time. The beginning part on the bus seems the most relevant.

Parent

Shooting the film

Now we just had to shoot the film… at an ice rink. On a moving bus. With a dog…!

Holly was superb, as you can see from the film. She told us during filming, "If just one person sees the film and is more understanding of autistic people, I’ll be happy."

Holly being directed by Tomas in Make it stop
Holly and our Director Tomas


Holly on set with Fred the dog
Holly on set with Fred the dog

Holly on camera
Holly on camera

The bus scene
The bus scene

Holly and her mum, Jo, on set
Holly and mum Jo, watching playback

Holly with her family
The whole family came to be involved in the shoot. 

We were so impressed with Holly’s acting abilities, and heartened how her face brightened every time she got to act. We asked her how she felt about being in the film.

The whole thing with the questions feels like real life. I’m really happy you’re making this film as I want more people to understand how it feels to have autism.

She told us what people could do to help when someone is getting too much information.

People can do really simple things to help autistic people, like not rushing someone to respond to a question or giving them space if they’re feeling overwhelmed or having a meltdown. Small changes can often make the biggest difference.

Our thanks to everyone who helped shape the film.

Which small change will you make to help reduce the overload?

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