"Yes, they can!" Is the powerful, positive message behind SWIM TEAM, an award-winning documentary about an all-autistic swim team that comes out later this month. The film follows the progress of the New Jersey Hammerheads, a competitive swim team founded by Mike and Maria McQuay. The McQuay's autistic son Michael, now a young man who has graduated high school, was the inspiration for the team, and his journey both as a swimmer and into early adulthood makes up much of the film. Michael's story is joined by the stories of other members of the team— notably Robbie and Kelvin, both autistic boys whose stories unfold as the season progresses.
What I really loved about this film was the focus on spotlighting the accomplishments of the autistic children and young adults. They work hard in the pool—and in daily life—and this movie celebrates their triumphs while not shying away from their challenges. There's also a lot of very important real-talk about being teens and what it means to come-of-age as an autistic young person.
Many of the team members are interviewed throughout the film, and it's refreshing to get their perspectives on their own hopes and goals. There are also many parent interviews, the substance of which is sometimes familiar territory—there are tears when discussing the early years; worries about the future; honest reflection on the challenges of helping autistic kids find independence; and, some very heartening thoughts on the positive benefits of swimming.
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As a mom to a high-support autistic boy, I found a lot of common ground in Mike McQuay's reflections on their journey. He says: "When Michael was younger, we were told he'd never be able to talk or change his pants or do many other things; but, we said he would do more and we were not going to give up on him. He can do something; we just need to spend time with him and help him."
And the McQuay's hard work—both from the parents and from Michael himself—pays off. I won't spoil the ending, but Michael's—and the entire swim team's success—is really lovely to behold.
SWIM TEAM will play at IFC Center in New York for a week, July 7 through July 13, and for a week at Laemmle Monica Film Center in LA starting July 21. It will also be broadcast on PBS's POV in October, and full information about the film and upcoming screenings can be found at www.swimteamthefilm.com.
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan, where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com.