University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Pascal Cheng G'79

Film takes autism on the road

Pascal Cheng and Larry Bissonette
Pascal Cheng and Larry Bissonette

Departments / Alumni Profiles

Film takes autism
on the road

PASCAL CHENG G'79   No one is going to mistake Wretches and Jabberers for Easy Rider. Yet the new documentary from director Gerardine Wurzburg could arguably be filed under “road movies” together with the iconic sixties film.

Wretches and Jabberers finds its story not only in the lives of two Vermont men with autism, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, but also in their 2009 cross-cultural journey when they traveled with their assistants, Pascal Cheng G’79 and Harvey Lavoy, to meet other autistic individuals, educators, and advocates in Sri Lanka, Japan, and Finland. The film is a logical extension from Wurzburg’s past work, which includes Educating Peter, an Academy Award nominated film about a boy with Down syndrome in a public school classroom, and Autism is a World, which follows a young woman with autism as she goes to college.

“Our goal was to shine a light on autism internationally. Larry and Tracy’s journey allowed us to portray the global face of autism through the personal stories of six men and women throughout the world,” Wurzburg says.

“Tracy is the one who brought up that we should take our show on the road,” says Cheng. The idea emerged when Thresher, Bissonnette, Lavoy, and Cheng were part of a panel speaking at a conference on autism. “Tracy talked of how he and Larry are like a rock band, ‘only we don’t break our communication devices,’ as opposed to breaking guitars.” (The devices are basically computer keyboards and screens used by Thresher, Bissonnette, and others who have difficulties with verbal communication.)

Thresher dubbed their journey “The World Intelligence Magnified Tour.”

Wretches and Jabberers is a thought-provoking and beautiful film, often finding its most affecting moments in scenes when the new international friends gather and share their thoughts and emotions about life with autism. While Bissonnette is a prolific and accomplished visual artist, he is a verbal one as well. The words he selects and the structure of his expression are startling in their invention, clarity, and often humor. Thresher is a determined advocate, direct in his hopes for what the tour can accomplish: “To move people’s knowledge of disability to a positive place.”

Watching Cheng and Lavoy work with the men they assist is a fascination in itself. Beyond their professional skills, each builds on a deep personal connection developed across many years. When Bissonnette and Thresher become upset or struggle to communicate, Cheng and Lavoy remain preternaturally calm. “We need to show them that we have high expectations,” Cheng says, “that we know they can do this, but also go with the flow when things are rocky and support them.”

Cheng is an educational and communication specialist for the Howard Center in Burlington; Lavoy works in a similar role for Community Developmental Services in Barre, Vermont.

The greater opportunity and inclusion that Cheng has helped create in the lives of Bissonnette and others was just beginning to emerge as a possibility during his graduate student days at UVM in the late seventies. “The special ed program was in the forefront with promoting the ideas of inclusion, and Vermont was really one of the most progressive states in terms of including students with disabilities in regular classrooms,” Cheng says. “I think UVM had a strong role in that, training teachers with that goal in mind. It definitely influenced my thinking.”

Wretches and Jabberers will help to spread a similar message, not just to those in the know about autism, but also to a broader public. Cheng says he’s pleased with how the film captured the World Intelligence Magnified Tour and its potential for creating greater inclusion for those with disabilities, countering a limiting mindset that is perhaps best expressed by Larry Bissonnette—“Fastening labels on people is like leasing cars with the destinations determined beforehand.”

For more information, to watch the movie trailer, and details on screening locations:

Thomas Weaver

Originally published in the Fall 2010 issue.

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