Alex George Pickering
‘Heard’: A Love Letter to My Son and the Call for Greater Neurodiversity in Cinema
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
I always wanted to be a dad. Watching my beautiful son Ethan come in to the world, turning heads and lighting up every room with his infectious smile, was one of the greatest feelings I had ever experienced. At the time, I had no expectations other than for him to be a happy and healthy child. And to my great relief, he mostly was. Top percentile for height, a hearty appetite and—if a father might gloat a bit—quite a handsome little guy.
At the same time, I recognized that there was something very unique and special about him. From a very early age, he was analyzing and cataloging everything around him. After just one showing, he could lay out his set of wooden letters in alphabetic order. By age three, he was typing out not only words, but full sentences with punctuation. When we gave him a toy globe, he took it upon himself to memorize every country on earth. It became clear pretty quickly that he possessed higher than average mnemonic skills often found in children with neurodevelopmental challenges. That Ethan could read and spell words before he could actually verbalize them was both a blessing and hurdle that would define his early childhood. To this day, his capacity for speech is limited to only a few select words, and he communicates primarily via software called Proloquo2Go on his iPad “Talker,” as we call it. This language delay combined with certain sensory seeking habits observed in him led to his eventual diagnosis of having an apraxia of speech due to non-verbal autism.
I went through a whirlwind of emotions upon receiving this news. Following his diagnosis, my wife Lindsay and I worked closely with Regional Center and the special education team to fulfill all of Ethan’s needs: an assistant technology specialist, occupational therapist, speech language pathologist, apraxia specialist and more. That Lindsay herself is a dedicated school psychologist who works regularly with children with special needs was a huge positive for us. In short, we were quick to respond with every resource under the sun to help Ethan succeed. However, I still worried about how favorably or not the world would perceive him. How would I share this information with friends and family? Would they see him always in a different light than the friendly, loving, happy-go-lucky kid that we always knew him to be?
Looking back, much of my concern likely came from episodes in my past in which I dared to disclose one of my own personal (and physical, for that matter) challenges. Not a lot of people know that I had emergency surgery on my left eye at the age of two from a developmental anomaly called hyperplastic primary vitreous, which left me with severally impaired vision and a classification of “legally blind” in that eye—though I can thankfully still see out of it. As a result, I developed a chronic condition called nystagmus in which both of my eyes occasionally oscillate from side-to-side. To this day, when writing my scripts or reading on my Kindle, I tend to blow up the text to the largest size (or “old man font,” as it’s been derisively called) simply to avoid aggravating this phenomenon. Back in high school, college and grad school, however, I often had to buckle down and read traditionally small font to the best of my abilities, which I managed to do with some special focusing measures, not unlike a reader overcoming dyslexia, even though my diagnosis was eligible for reasonable accommodations. In fact, one of the few times I did exercise this right for extended time on a test, I was met with a series of loud groans from my classmates. Given my reputation as a high performing student who would even become Salutatorian of my high school, my asking for extra time seemed exploitive to many. I even recall a classmate who doubted my entire story about my left eye, and so I never told it again. Nor did I ever make use again of my legal rights to extra time beyond those few scorned instances.
None of this history is meant to curry sympathy for me. I couldn’t be happier with the health that I have mostly enjoyed in life (save a few digestive hurdles, but that’s another story) and grateful for the degree of eyesight that I’ve still managed to maintain since my childhood procedure. But it would be remiss of me to downplay how much the ableist condemnation of my accommodations as a young adult affected my processing of Ethan’s diagnosis. When relying on special education services, would he too face ridicule or derision? By the same token, I worried that simply telling others that Ethan had autism would lead to his mischaracterization. As I have learned from my psychologist wife, a child with an apraxia of speech due to non-verbal autism is only one sliver of what the term autism represents. Here again comes the preconception trap. We all have them, our homegrown ideas of what a certain word or phrase means or represents. In Ethan’s case, anyone who knows him is familiar with his overwhelmingly gregarious personality. In his classroom, on the soccer field and even among his circle of friends, he is arguably the most social and bubbly attitude there is, the first one to initiate play and the last one to want to leave the party. However, there is a stereotype about autistic children that paints them all as socially introverted with one broad brush stroke. While there are certainly kids on the spectrum who wrestle with rigidity or maintaining eye contact, I have come to realize that autism is a big tent term, and the challenges that one child faces do not necessarily reflect those of another. Ethan certainly has his barriers to overcome, but I also want the truth about him, his sparkling personality and overall jovial nature, to be realized too and not thrown into one giant bin of preconceptions.
Here is where the feature script Heard as both a compelling writing project and cathartic exercise for me personally came into being. Truth to be told, it was Lindsay who first suggested the nugget of an idea: a child with Ethan’s diagnosis surviving in the wild. From there, I added the thriller wrapper of bandits ambushing a father and son pair in the woods, setting the table for a life or death escape adventure based around my real-life relationship with Ethan. Heard is a father-son story in the truest of senses, with a nearly fifty-fifty commitment to both characters. The flaws, the mistakes, the misbegotten good intentions that define the fictional father Stephen Mayfield—a man who learns against all odds how to truly hear his non-verbal son—are very much a portrait of myself, as much as Owen Mayfield is the mirror image of Ethan at a slightly older age. In effect, writing this story was my way of working through those complicated feelings that came with learning of my son’s diagnosis. It was my way of letting the world know that Ethan is indeed special. It’s a love letter to him and all the families of children with special needs, letting them know not only that their stories matter, but how their stories are told matters too: with authenticity. This isn’t your archetypical Hollywood autism story, where the character is often portrayed as either a victim without much personal agency or an emotionless, one-dimensional super computer. Truth, tragedy, love, the messy ups-and-downs of family conflicts, all of it is baked into this 100+ page document. To say that I truly found my voice with this script, the story that was burning inside of me all along, would be reason enough for me to write it, but there’s so much more to offer. Beyond what the story can do for advancing neurodiverse characters in cinema, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to give a voice to an underrepresented community. Since my earliest talks with production companies, I’ve been very vocal about my preference for a child actor with non-verbal autism to portray the co-lead character of Owen Mayfield. Heard is more than just a riveting, heart-stirring adventure story for me. It’s a vehicle for long-overdue change.
As recently announced in The Hollywood Reporter, after 17 awards (including winning Shore Scripts' drama category and making runner-up in the ScreenCraft Feature Competition), I was pleased to learn that my feature screenplay Heard was the winner of the 2021 Script2Comic Contest. The competition focuses on turning scripts into both a published comic book/graphic novel and eventual movie. Partnering with Mosaic Media Group, the management and production company behind The Stand, Bad Teacher and Talladega Nights, I am proud to say that Heard is now in development as a feature film project as we simultaneously adapt it as a comic series with Scout Comics. Since I first began penning the story in 2020, Heard is finally becoming a reality, and I couldn’t be more grateful for everyone who supported the story and vision.
In the meantime, Ethan and I are joined at the hip like BFF’s. We play soccer, tee-ball and mini-golf in the backyard and Mario games on Nintendo Switch. We read together, explore the world together, all of which challenges me to be a better father to him and (as my wife and I recently announced) his little brother to come. In fact, I truly believe that writing Heard made me a more emotionally equipped dad—such is the power of writing. And it is my sincere hope that the coming adaptations of Heard will likewise reach an audience that will feel moved, entertained and, in some cases, forever changed.