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Review: 'Neurotypical' an engaging look inside autism

The key to "Neurotypical," Adam Larsen's engaging film about autism from the inside, is in the title, a word that some "on the spectrum" use to describe people the world calls normal.

It's a word with a little attitude built into it: "That is so neurotypical," no one here actually says — though some of the autistic speakers do indeed regard the nonautistic with something of the amused, bemused pity with which Spock once beheld Kirk.

"I look at neurotypical life," one tells Larsen, "and I'm sorry, I really don't want to be one of you." Another, befuddled by the phenomenon of small talk: "I thought most of the rest of the world were idiots with no thoughts."

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Premiering Monday on PBS as part of the documentary series "POV," its interest, from both sides, is anthropological, not clinical. There is some talk of medicine — parents weigh the pros and cons of putting their daughter on drugs, an autistic activist cautions against "chemical straitjackets."

But Larsen's interest is in how people with different world views get along. (Sometimes, as in one mixed neurotypical-autistic couple, who manage to stay delighted by their differences, very well; sometimes, as in another, who feels that his wife's recent Asperger's diagnosis gives her an unfair advantage in their relationship, less so.)

Shot largely in Virginia and North Carolina, because that's where the filmmaker is from, "Neurotypical" — which does not identify any of its subjects or speakers until the end — runs on the testimony of the autistic and those who live with them. There are no expert voices, except as experience equals expertise.

If Larsen's subjects don't present the full range of what for good reason is called a spectrum — only language-challenged 4-year-old Violet is incapable of reflecting upon her state of mind — we get a sense of varied experience, of humor and of desire: "It is possible," says one young autistic woman, "to be romantically involved with other people. Just because Temple Grandin doesn't do it doesn't mean it never happens."

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Some reveal their strategies for coping in the rarely straightforward straight world, masquerading when necessary, as "pseudotypical," finding ways to put the rest of us at ease. These can be amusing; one repeats the last three words of his interlocutor's last sentence, to signal interest, and has developed a workable methodology of neurotypical flirting. ("But I really don't know what I'm doing," he admits.)

The point, which is never stated but the whole of Larsen's film embodies, is that we are all on some sort of spectrum, whatever our diagnoses or lack of them, each with a uniquely wired brain and an individual way of interpreting the world and coping with it, and each with a gift. ("I believe that oddness results in cultural content," says John, a fiddler with Asperger's.) However much we seem to speak the same language, we are all foreigners, struggling to communicate.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'POV: Neurotypical'

Where: KOCE

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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