Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars is a feature-length documentary from 2010 which focuses on children with autism in Taiwan. The schmaltzy-title notwithstanding, this is a clear-eyed and frank look at the challenges of raising – and being – a child with autism.
From the opening quotation with points out the autistic tendencies of both Newton and Einstein, it is clear that the documentary will take a celebratory tone, despite the difficulties it portrays. It remains true to this line throughout: from the very start the struggles of raising autistic children is presented in the context of the firm friendship it has engendered between three parents from across Taiwan. When behavioural episodes inevitably appear, we generally see calm and experienced parenting step in to mediate the situation, with only occasion lapses in judgement that are quickly resolved with an apology.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars pays the three children in question, Mox, Cheng, and Yujian, the compliment of entering their world as far as possible. One creative way this is achieved in the first part of the film is through animation. Mox’s notebook, full of Star Wars sketches, is brought to life by animators and allowed to dance around him as he explains the scene. Later, the children play outside, glowing lines superimposed on their imaginary light sabres and sketchbook mechs filling the yard. When a parent emerges to bring the kids in for dinner, the intrusion feels oddly incongruous: a fleeting snapshot into how the children might see things. Later, one of the three sits in a classical concert, distracted by a bubble floating around the auditorium. The camera obligingly follows the gaze and tracks the bubble. It’s a touch of empathetic grace.
These creative roads into understanding are all but forgotten by the middle of the documentary; a pity for my money, as it feels this could have been developed to great effect. The middle third also temporarily drops the structure of the three good friends and their sons by introducing a fourth family: Yeland, a young adult with autism, and his mother. Yeland, Taiwanese but raised in the US, has severe autism, affecting his understanding and his speech. Despite this, he has a job, is a talented artist and a valued member of his church. His mother, highly driven, describes her change of attitude as she realised she couldn’t “fix” her son, but had to learn to accept him as he is. Despite this, we see her working very hard to guide Yeland. At one point she effectively forces a catechism from his lips in the middle of the Louvre, in a scene I personally found uncomfortable to watch. When we later hear him talking extemporaneously and nonsensically, it is easy to understand her desperation to goad him into some kind of coherence.
Though the Yeland story, which includes a moving appeal for acceptance on the part of his brother, is worthwhile on its own terms, I couldn’t help but feel Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars would have benefited by keeping its focus on the three boys of the first act. I would also have appreciated hearing more from the fathers, who we do see interacting with their children but never talking to the camera. Perhaps they weren’t willing, but their insights would have been fascinating. How do they cope, lacking the hugely beneficial support group the three mothers enjoy?
The most interesting parts of the documentary for me were the times that the kids’ emotional struggles were allowed free play and we could see a conflict develop and eventually get resolved through patient adult guidance. Much of the approach is painstakingly going through the details of the situation to help them to see precisely what went wrong and it’s impossible not to admire the level of patience and observation that their teachers and parents employ to be able to do this.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars clearly sets out to demystify autism and create understanding in its audience. In this it succeeds. At one point one of the parent relates the advice she received that no matter how much her son learns, whatever he can express is still far from what he feels. This documentary should be applauded for bringing us closer to understanding what cannot be expressed in words.