Through their intimate portrait of an inspiring mother and son duo, Filmmakers Kelby Wood & Katy Krauland discuss the misconceptions, societal notions, and treatment possibilities associated with autism and autism intervention
Kelby Wood: RECOVERING RUFFIN is a short documentary following Ruffin White and his mom, Mary Jane White, as they navigate Ruffin’s autism diagnosis, therapy, and the afterlife. The story is significant because it combines the depths of a mother’s dedication, the early struggles of a young boy with autism, and the rewards that their early intervention and hard work brought.
Katy Krauland: What I find particularly compelling about Ruffin’s story is not just how successful the treatment was for him, but also as Kelby mentioned, how resourceful Mary Jane was in getting Ruffin the treatment that he needed pretty much immediately after his autism diagnosis. She was so smart in figuring out ways to do the therapy with the limited resources available to them in their small town in rural Iowa that goes to show how persistence, a bit of ingenuity, and a D.I.Y mentality can really pay off. I think it’s inspirational and offers a lot of hope for families that might feel like they don’t have the necessary tools to help their children succeed.
How did you come across Ruffin’s story?
Kelby Wood: I first came across Ruffin’s story in 2014, I was working in the autism field and as soon as I heard Ruffin’s story and his success, I wanted to meet him. Little did I know, I wouldn’t meet him for a few more years. Thankfully, Ruffin and his mother were interested in meeting us too and they were incredible sports throughout the entire process.
What compelled you the most about his story and recovery?
Kelby Wood: I think the combination of where Ruffin started and where he has ended up was what initially most compelled us about Ruffin’s story. Upon meeting him, we just saw the very good-natured and brilliant roboticist. Little did we know until after seeing his mother’s home movies that there was so much more to Ruffin’s story.
Katy Krauland: Ruffin and Mary Jane are both so lovely, and when you see them together it’s really obvious how much affection they have for each other. For me, a really special part of this story is the bond between the two of them -- what Mary Jane sacrificed to ensure that Ruffin had the best chance for a “normal” life, and in turn, the immense gratitude and loyalty that Ruffin has towards her; so in addition to being a story about Ruffin’s recovery, I’d say it’s also a very touching portrait of the relationship between a mother and son.
How is Ruffin’s story unique?
Kelby Wood: I think Ruffin’s story is a great time capsule of how autism therapy was run before tablets, zoom meetings, and the internet. Mary Jane had to physically mail her therapy tapes across the country to receive feedback on how their therapy was going. It’s also a great reminder of how the hard work of parents, therapists, and the individuals themselves can improve themselves exponentially. Of course, not every child diagnosed with autism will become Ruffin but any improvements socially, educationally, or behaviorally pay dividends in the future success of a child.
Was it an intentional choice to begin the film with Ruffin describing his work in robotics? How do you think that affected how the rest of the film was framed for the audience?
Kelby Wood: From the early stages of the edit, we always had Ruffin’s present-day introduction as the lead into the film. Maybe because that’s how we as filmmakers first met him. I think meeting him as a robotics Ph.D. student paints Ruffin in a certain light. You can’t help but make assumptions on how and where he was raised, the schools he went to, etc. However, when we reveal his autism diagnosis and the severity of his case growing up, it’s a reminder that in life, it’s impossible to know how someone’s past has shaped their future.
Katy Krauland: Everything having to do with Ruffin’s robotics lab is also, of course, very fun and visually interesting. Ruffin obviously loves what he does and is quite good at it, and it’s cool to introduce him to the audience as the brilliant roboticist that he is and then to sort of peel that back and get a deeper look at the challenges he faced earlier in his life.
Did you consider including autism experts or did you always want it to be a very personal account of Ruffin’s life with few subjects?
Kelby Wood: Naturally, we had to leave out some of the experts on autism we interviewed. I think this led to a tighter, more focused story of Ruffin and his mother. To be honest, experts can sometimes be dry (sorry to all the experts out there) on film. We figured it was better to keep the film as condensed and personable as possible.
Katy Krauland: We spent a very long time editing this film and what you see is, of course, only a tiny fraction of the footage that we have. As we were structuring the film and narrowing our focus, it was pretty apparent from the beginning that Ruffin’s story was so special that the more personal account would make the most compelling film.
Who is your target audience?
Kelby Wood: I think our target audience would be parents, educators, and therapists who have children with autism or are working with children with autism.
Do you plan to make more films relating to autism?
Kelby Wood: Autism and mental health are two subjects that I would love to make films about again. However, these are just two of many issues I’d like to explore. Films with a rich archive and interesting characters are always exciting to me.
Why is Ruffin’s story urgent to be seen and heard? How does it challenge preconceived notions surrounding autism and autism intervention?
Kelby Wood: The current statistic of autism diagnosis is 1 in 54 children in the United States and the numbers have been rising year after year. This means as diagnostic rates increase so does the urgency for a story like this to be seen.
Katy Krauland: Additionally, Ruffin’s story shows how life-changing early intervention therapy can be for children diagnosed with autism, so I think it’s really important for people to see that. Also, I think there’s this preconceived notion that children and adults with autism are somehow “weird” or “not normal”, and luckily I think that stigma is changing with increased awareness, so I think that the more the general population knows about autism and the different therapies available, the better.
Do you have any expectations or hopes for the film’s outreach? How do you imagine the film's impact to be?
Kelby Wood: It’s cliche to say, but if RECOVERING RUFFIN can just impact one family, one therapist, or one educator it would be worth it. But I think it’s a cliche for a reason. It’s true. I hope it can ease some of the anxieties around an autism diagnosis and inspire viewers to work hard during their therapy sessions if they are working with those with autism.
Katy Krauland: I hope it brings some comfort to families who are affected by autism and again, I think that the more we can destigmatize this label, the better. As a more general note, I think that one of the best things we can hope for as filmmakers is that our film will inspire empathy towards those who have different circumstances from ourselves.
What do you hope audiences take away from RECOVERING RUFFIN?
Kelby Wood: I hope audiences take away that an autism diagnosis is not a death sentence. There are many families who have children with autism who live perfectly normal lives. However, once there is a diagnosis, the work starts with assembling a therapy team, gaining access to resources, and paving a brighter future for individuals with autism.
Katy Krauland: We know so much more about autism and early intervention therapy now than we did back in the early ‘90s when Ruffin was diagnosed, so as Kelby said I hope that audiences understand that an autism diagnosis isn’t the end of the road but rather the beginning. Also, we all do -- to a certain degree -- shape our futures, and I hope that the proactive approach seen here in this film will inspire others to look at ways that they can work to improve their own lives.