Thursday, February 9th, 2012
Margret Ericsdottir, of Iceland, has a 14-year-old son named Keli. Keli has severe autism and cannot speak. (That’s Keli in the photo.) In 2010, Margret made a documentary about her son and her quest to understand what’s happening in her son’s mind and other children like him. You can watch the trailer here.
Through a stroke of luck—or fate—involving both the First Lady of Iceland and the wife of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair—”A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism” ended up being narrated by Kate Winslet. As Kate says in the March issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “I knew I couldn’t just lend my voice to this documentary and go home.” She forged an immediate friendship with Margret and Keli, and together they created the Golden Hat Foundation to raise awareness about children and adults with autism—specifically those who are nonverbal and whose abilities are mistakenly believed to be severely limited.
I was honored to meet Margret yesterday at an event hosted by Ladies’ Home Journal (our sister publication) to spread the word about the Golden Hat Foundation. Its first high-profile project is a book called The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism, out March 27. The book was all Kate’s idea and the premise is simple: She’d send one of her favorite hats to celebrities, who had to take a self-portrait with it and provide one quote that was important to them. She got everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Conan O’Brien to Leonardo DiCaprio to Michael Phelps to Meryl Streep to participate.
The book contains a breathtaking section featuring the first thoughts communicated by nonverbal children, which were articulated on a letterboard used to spell out words. Keli’s: “I am real.” An 11-year-old girl named Carly’s: “Teeth—hurt—help.” Keli now writes poetry on his letterboard, and among his poems is one about a hat who speaks for a boy with autism who cannot talk. It’s called, of course, “The Golden Hat.” (And in a bizarre coincidence, Kate didn’t know about that particular poem when she came up with her book idea.)
Margret was effusive in her praise for Kate Winslet, calling her “a light in the darkness.” She said that with Kate’s help, the Golden Hat Foundation is progressing rapidly (“nothing moves slowly with her”). She also shared a wonderful video clip from a visit Kate and her children made to Margret’s home in Austin, Texas; they spent Thanksgiving together in 2010. In the clip, Kate is meeting other nonverbal children with autism, mostly teenage boys. One boy, thanks to his letterboard, tells her she’s beautiful; she gives the camera a wink and a thumbs’ up, and repays the compliment right back to him. We saw footage of Kate giving Keli a big bear hug when he told her he loved her—and we all laughed, since Margret had told us that Keli really, really doesn’t like being hugged. She said it was a struggle for Kate not to embrace Keli for their book cover shoot—but if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see that Keli reached out to hold Kate’s hand.
Aside from helping society understand how intelligent nonverbal kids with autism can be, Margret and Kate have a more tangible goal: to build assisted-living campuses where children and adults with autism can live, learn, and work. I don’t know if anyone at yesterday’s event wasn’t in tears when Margret read an email to Kate that said, in essence, “I cannot leave this place until I know that my son has somewhere to go.”
If you’d like to help support the Golden Hat Foundation, click here. You can pre-order the book here. And for those of you who will be in NYC on World Autism Day, Monday, April 2, you can meet Margret and Keli at the United Nations Bookshop for a book signing. (Wondering how Keli will sign books if he can’t write? His mom wondered the same thing. His answer, via letterboard: “Stamp.”)
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