For the majority of its 53 minute runtime, ASD Band: The Movie offers a straightforward, fly on the wall account of a band writing and recording songs while preparing for the first live gig. This might sound like a criticism, or at least faint praise. If the documentary were about another bog standard rock group who has seen this kind of cinematic treatment countless times before, that would probably be my intention. Considering the state of autistic representation in both music and film, though, giving this particular band the classic rock doc treatment is one of the most revolutionary choices that director Mark Bone could have made.

It is immeasurably refreshing to be able to watch talented autistic artists hone their craft and talk about their life and work without the omnipresent weight of having to educate a potentially uninitiated audience and represent the entirety or autism crushing every second of screen time. And the members of ASD Band truly shine in the scenes when they don’t have to be anything but themselves, whether it’s drummer Spenser navigating multiple scenes, keyboardist and piano prodigy Ron working in a genre that doesn’t always demand precise skill, guitarist Jackson integrating his special interest in 1950s rock into his work, or singer Rawan finding her literal and metaphorical voice through her music. It’s a genuine pleasure to be able to watch them write songs, work on arrangements, and juggle the demands of life versus art with relatively few autism cliches clogging up the viewing experience. The lack of patronizing plucky background music dousing any of the moments that could be considered quirky or strange to the uninitiated is particularly welcome.

Which makes the documentary’s brief forays away from the rock doc formula and into more stereotypical Autism Content all the more frustrating. I understand why these moments exist in the film, and I don’t necessarily fault anyone involved in it for the choices they’ve made in terms of what content they filmed, how they filmed it, what made the final cut, and how they scored it. General audiences might love their episodes of The Good Doctor and Young Sheldon, but their understanding of autistic people remains in its infancy, which forces autistic people—and the people who might want to help tell our stories—to dedicate at least some percentage of their efforts to the most basic education and obvious details. These same audiences have also proven themselves incapable of empathizing with autistic people or characters on screen. In these circumstances, anyone who wants to source enough funding to make a feature, secure screening and broadcast opportunities, and potentially find an audience of any size is probably going to have to spend some time drawing attention to what makes autistic people different, addressing our struggles, and highlighting (or prioritizing) what the non-autistic closest to us are thinking and feeling. Often accompanied by a few notes from a melancholy string section.

[media description: Trailer for the rock documentary ASD Band: The Movie]

None of these elements are particularly glaring in of themselves. The camera’s closeups on the musician’s stimming hands are respectful and relatively subtle. Everyone’s reflections on their past and hopes and concerns for the future are completely valid and are treated as such. It doesn’t stop me from longing for a time when these details won’t be quite so compulsory for any piece of media that involves autistic people, though.

Until that day, the silver lining of these growing pains is that they offer useful insights into how the effort to represent what makes autistic people different can sometimes overshadow the ways in which we’re really not that alien. Or how much circumstances and bias can change people’s perception of what counts as symptoms, needs, and other concerns. In ASD Band: The Movie’s case, this issue is reflected in a few small scale details that probably won’t be noticeable to anyone who either isn’t autistic or hasn’t spent a lot of time genuinely listening to and interacting with us. Most glaringly, there’s a moment where a person in the film who, as far as we know, isn’t autistic starts performing a pretty classic stim. While the autistic stars’ stims are documented in detail, this movement happens without any extra attention being drawn to it. I’m not sure anyone on the production end even noticed that it was happening or could have recognized it as stimming. It’s just another movement that a human being makes. Maybe someday that will be how autistic stimming is treated, too.

I also find the lack of greater context for ASD Band and where they fit into music—and how autism in general factors into popular music—intriguing. For one thing, there are a number of openly autistic musicians at almost every level of fame of rock, ranging from members of smaller outfits like The Vines and Menswear to Courtney Love and David Byrne. (Stop Making Sense, widely considered one of the greatest rock docs of all time by music and film connoisseurs alike, is also a film about an autistic musician.) It’s possible that those rock stars might have different support needs than some of the musicians getting the spotlight in this documentary, but I think that’s also a matter of perspective.

As someone who nursed a special interest in music as a teen and spent a large chunk of her adulthood working as music journalist, I can assure you that there are musicians of every neurology who don’t function at what society would typically classify as “normal.” A lot of them require significant support from other people and don’t actually live that independently. We just don’t consider it support when it comes from managers, staff, friends, lovers, groupies, street teams, and all of the other benefits that are supposed to come along with being a musical genius. A lot of those musicians also have parents who are worried about their futures and whether they’ll survive on their own, but we just accept that as a common pitfall of the profession and don’t think it belongs in a profile of the artists themselves.

But these problems run much deeper than any hour-long documentary and are greater than any film could fix on its own. For all of its minor faults, ASD Band: The Movie takes at least one step forward for every well-meaning stumble back and ASD Band do themselves and their fellow autistic proud with the platform they’ve been given. Here’s hoping they’ll have even more chances to express themselves and be themselves in the future.

Promo image for the movie ASD Band, showing the four band members partially backlit by low sun. Several film award logos in black are over their heads. At the bottom of the screen in large white letters is text reading "ASD Band: The Movie".]
Promo image for ASD Band The Movie