How to Dance in Ohio is a documentary directed and produced by Alexandra Shiva, set in a centre for high-functioning autistic people. Over the course of the film, we meet a range of interesting individuals of varying ages; we witness them learning how to interact, how to form relationships and, eventually, how to behave at a formal dance. The documentary is loosely structured, opening on the revelation that every year the centre puts on a challenge for its students and this year’s challenge is a dance. The students are anxious and somewhat mortified at first – they are scared of slow dancing as they are averse to touching other people and struggle to make small talk.
We are initally privy to a selection of group sessions where the psychologist teaches his students the requisite dance and social skills for the end of year formal. Interwoven throughout this are the personal stories of several individuals and their families. We meet Marideth, Jessica and Caroline. Jessica is twenty-two and aims to live independently some day; she is learning that she sometimes projects a superior attitude, which prevents her from functioning well in the workplace. Marideth is sixteen and recites facts from her collection of World Almanacs; her parents are supportive and give her space while encouraging her to participate in as much social activity as she feels comfortable with. Caroline is nineteen and has started a course at community college; on her first day of college, there’s a room change and instead of asking someone for help, she spends the entire hour waiting outside the original room – it’s these deficiencies, this lack of flexibility that scares her parents most.
How to Dance in Ohio is an interesting and compassionate film. The people who live with high functioning autism are portrayed as kind, and their struggles are rendered clear to the audience in a relatable manner. As people with high functioning autism struggle with social cues and highly stimulating environments, they may react in ways that are not socially appropriate, or offensive at times, and How to Dance in Ohio encourages us to be more understanding and inclusive of those on the autism spectrum. It paints a peachy portrait of living with autism, but it fails to explore the more difficult aspects of both being autistic and living with an autistic child – the parents we meet feel far from realistic in that they appear to have a capacity for infinite patience and understanding.
In addition, the narrative arc and character development are quite disappointing. For example, we see some character development with Jess; she works at a bakery for autistic people and is managed by a psychologist, and when her manager scolds her, we feel a tension between wanting to save her and take her back to her mother. We want her to learn the skills she needs to survive in the workforce and we want her to be able to live a normal life, but when she struggles and cries, we are forced to ask how far we should push her and how much we should just accept her limitations as part of who she is. However, in contrast, by the end of the film we hardly know Marideth and Caroline.
The exploration of the challenge of learning the social skills for the end of year ball was similarly disappointing. We see people practising their dance skills on Wii and reading books, but this is no more exciting that watching neurotypical people play video games and read books. In this way, while How to Dance in Ohio has a promising premise, it doesn’t quite deliver. The understanding ascertained of the characters was not intimate enough to be interesting, and there was a notable lack of conflict throughout the whole film. That said, it is definitely a feel-good film, and would be a good educational film for anyone looking to understand more about what it’s like to live as a high functioning autistic person.