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Sensory overload

14 August 2015

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“HOW was your day?” Addressed to your average teenager after a day at school, it is not a question likely to evoke much of a response. Addressed to a 13-year-old with autism, it might — as in the case of Joe — provoke intense frustration, and even meltdown. This most banal of questions, it seems, can challenge a whole way of thinking.

Between the Ears: How was your day, Joe? (Radio 3, Saturday, repeated from June last year) was devised and produced by Emma Kingsley, whose son, Joe, was the main protagonist. He is unlike the “neuro-typical” adolescent, not just because of the way he reads the world. He recognises the annoyance he feels, and what triggers it, and responds to his mother’s suggestion of making a programme about him with a cry of: “That would be absolutely perfect!”

With the help of the writers Michael Barton and Wendy Lawson, both of whom have something like the same condition, and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, the autistic mind was analysed through this one question. Barton recalls how, getting home from school, he would exchange a brief “hello” with his mother, then spend 45 minutes on video games. This was his ritual of decompression from a day full of complicated social interactions.

As Professor Baron-Cohen explains, even Joe’s return home will be full of small changes that need to be reconciled: the window is now open; the bins have been moved; there is a sweet wrapper on the floor. It is difficult for a child to deal with a question as massive as “How was your day?” when there is so much information to accommodate.

Nowadays, instead of “How was your day?”, his mother asks what Joe had for lunch. Thus begins a process of informational download that is both communicative and cathartic. What more could one hope for in a conversation with a teenager?

The phrase “a mind-bending displacement of perspective” might well have emanated from this Between the Ears feature, but in fact came from the lips of a Hollywood producer, Lynda Obst, in describing the process of putting a film project together. Every day, it seems to come together — the right actors, the right script, the right time — and, every day, it collapses.

What she was describing, to the presenter of The Business of Film with Mark Kermode (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), is known as “development hell”: that period, sometimes lasting more than a decade, when a film languishes, under discussion, but unmade.

Like everything in the film industry, development is expensive. Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage were reputedly paid $10 million each just to keep their schedules free for a Superman film that was never made. But it can also be creative. During the 13-year period that Under the Skin, the bizarre hit of 2014, was in development, the emphasis of the film shifted entirely from a standard Brad Pitt movie to one with Scarlett Johansson as an alien with a fetish for wearing human flesh.

Of course, for some, a lifetime in development hell might have been better than the film’s 108 minutes of pretentious titillation.

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