Braeden Reed is like a regular 7-year-old kid in many respects. He's got light blonde hair, blue eyes, and a lovable grin. He lives on Daniel Island with his doting parents, attends second grade at the local elementary school. But he's far more important than he could possibly know.
As an autistic child living a relatively normal life, he's a testament to the positive effects that intense, long-term therapy can have on the disability. As a smart cookie who needs no extra assistance in the classroom and will probably enter the school's gifted program, he sets a good example for his fellow students. And as a co-star in the new feature film Dear John, he's drawing much-needed public attention to autism and the hard-working people who treat it.
In his house, Braeden is doing what any normal kid would be doing, bustling around his spacious living room, playing with his latest toy. On this occasion he's taking pictures of everything with the Nintendo DS he got for Christmas. Click! He's got a shot of the fireplace. Click! A snap of the mantelpiece, still seasonally trimmed. Click! There's a shot of his mom, Adrienne.
She sits patiently watching him. They've just been to the park, so she hopes Braeden will have "got his wiggles out." That's not the case. He's full of beans for the next hour, chatting, wriggling, and rolling around as he looks through a scrapbook with mom. Braeden comes across as a little immature, somewhat hyperactive, but otherwise an ordinary kid. But if his mom and dad hadn't acted quickly five years ago, he might have turned out very different.
Right before he turned two, Braeden was diagnosed with autism at MUSC. Adrienne and her husband Kevin were told that their child would probably be unable speak, or at least hold a conversation. They learned that autism is a developmental disability that affects social and communication skills. Many autistic children find it difficult to talk to or play with others, and they find it hard to comprehend why. They also have trouble dealing with changes in their routine and can become withdrawn or obsessed with specific objects or body movements.
When Braeden played ball, he didn't understand why he wasn't as good as other kids. "He wanted to connect, and he was frustrated that he couldn't," says Adrienne. "He likes things to be in a certain order. If you tell him you're going to the ballpark at 4 and it rains, he doesn't understand that things can change." Braeden has rituals and patterns that he always adheres to. There are no gray areas in his life-view, only black and white. He excels at things that require logic, but imaginative and abstract concepts are very tough for him; sometimes when his younger brother plays pretend, Braeden urges him to stop. "You're not a fireman! You're not an astronaut! You're Danny!"
Adrienne feels lucky that the autism was spotted early. Under the guidance of local nonprofit organization Carolina Autism, the Reed family did some "early intervention" and figured out what Braeden needed help with. But this wasn't the kind of disability that could be taken care of with a once-a-week trip to a doctor.
"Braeden's case is unusual," says Phil Blevins, executive director of Carolina Autism, "because he and his family have worked very hard to overcome the disabling features of autism. I don't know what would have happened if his family hadn't helped him when he was very young. His mom stayed home and worked alongside us on his Applied Behavior Analysis therapy."
A whole team of people had to become involved in the life of Braeden, his family and his school teachers. According to Blevins, "If everybody isn't involved, that can really set back the child. Everything we've gained in therapy sessions can be undone. It's difficult for parents to go about their day and do this too."
Carolina Autism was founded in 2000 by autism experts Blevins and Alan Rose, who is now administrator of the nonprofit agency. It serves people of all ages, reaches hundreds of people every year, and is consulted by groups across the country. "It's about getting what the child needs," says Adrienne. "It's a huge puzzle because everyone's different."
The therapists worked on Braeden's strengths and weaknesses through games and exercises. Cooking and measuring helped him visualize alternate possibilities. Even regular trips to the playground were an essential part of growing his social skills through playing with other kids. The goal was to get him to want to play with them. Braeden preferred being on his own or with his parents. For the most part, the kids he interacted with took his disability in stride.
"We did tons of therapy," Adrienne says, "but I think a lot of his improvement has to do with Braeden and luck." The combination of expertise, diligence, and good fortune led to an opportunity that many actors would give their guts for — a prominent role in a Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation.
Sparks' novel Dear John is about John Tyree, a restless young man who joins the Army in his search for a sense of purpose in life. He falls in love with Savannah Curtis, a wide-eyed college student on spring break. As the War on Terror begins, John feels duty-bound to re-enlist instead of settling down with Savannah. Over the next six years their love is tested to the limit as Savannah falls in love with someone else — and has to write the ultimate "Dear John" letter.
In 2008, director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) began work on filming the adaptation, financed by Relativity. Channing Tatum (Step Up, GI Joe) was cast as John and Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!, Big Love) as Savannah. Much of the book is set in the Carolinas, and Charleston was chosen as the major location for a combination of aesthetic and tax incentive reasons. For smaller roles and background work, the filmmakers considered local actors.
"It's a question of economics," says amiable co-producer Marty Bowen, who is also an executive producer of the Twilight saga. "You can't just bring in actors from LA. A lot of our extras were students from the College of Charleston." One young man was picked from a coffee shop because he defined the look Bowen was going for. "What better way to show authenticity than to find a guy with a deconstructionist Beatles haircut, dressed in khaki pants, with his shirt falling out a certain way."
Bowen and Hallstrom kept up their adherence to authenticity when casting Alan, the autistic six-year-old boy befriended by John. They approached Carolina Autism to teach a child actor how to feign the disability. Blevins immediately gave the Reeds a ring and said, "This is going to sound crazy, but could you bring Braeden to an audition?"
It wasn't something Adrienne would have done on her own. She'd never entered her sons for pageants or modeling contests. But she thought a movie role would be neat, so she took her eldest to the production office. As soon as he met the director, Braeden crawled onto his lap, took the soft-spoken Hallstrom's glasses off, and stayed for a couple of hours, proving he could "behave very well." The spritely sprog understood that it was important for him to obey Hallstrom, whom he aptly described as "the boss of the movie."
"Braeden had a unique joy and charm," says Bowen. "We compared that honesty and joie de vivre to kids who were trying to play autistic. The alternative felt forced. Braeden was a good actor, perfect for the role."
Braeden's logical cognizance suited the step-by-step filmmaking process. "He breaks everything down," says Adrienne. "That could have something to do with why he excels at acting." But although the boy knew what was expected of him, it was still tough to get him out of his everyday routine, not knowing what to expect and waiting around for long periods while shots were set up. He was never predictable, and he rarely delivered a line the same way twice — which made him a risky choice to be in a multimillion dollar movie.
"A lot of times on set, Braeden improvised parts," recalls Blevins, who was on hand to assist with the boy's needs and is credited as Autism Consultant. "Lasse would tell him what to do, and he did what he wanted to do." The nervous Blevins was ready to step in and correct the boy, "but Lasse enjoyed it when he broke from the script and did his own thing."
Fortunately, Braeden's unpredictability suited Hallstrom's organic directing style. "It made the other actors much better," says Bowen," because they had to be prepared to improvise off of the text. It's exciting when that happens."
There was more to Braeden's month of shooting than reciting dialogue. The screenplay called for him to be in a scene with a horse, which Livestock Coordinator Dan Hydrick was wary of at first. According to Adrienne, the hard-nosed Hydrick wasn't comfortable with any child working with a horse, let alone an autistic one.
"Dan was put in charge of seeing if Braeden could go on a horse," says Blevins. "Dan was against it, he didn't think it was a good idea." But over the course of several riding lessons Braeden got used to his horse Honey, and rode her in the movie.
Adrienne watched this progression with pride. "By the time the scene came up," she says, the rough Hydrick was tearfully advocating for a larger riding scene. "The therapy the horse provided was great to see," she adds. "Braeden was so tranquil while riding. He and the horse connected so well together. He did better with the horses than the other actors."
The film had a huge impact on Braeden, both on and off set. Even the simple act of playing with other kids was important. Occasionally, he would stop and think he was doing something wrong, then continue to play. Before he won his role, he would interact with classmates to some degree but he didn't really understand that he was being spoken to, so he would walk away or ignore them. Now his school friends wouldn't let him ignore them, asking him what he'd done on set and who he'd met. This led him to communicate with them, encouraged by their continued interest.
Between takes, Braeden would do his schoolwork, hang out with his doubles, and play with Blevins — his favorite memory of filming. By the time his scenes were shot, he'd made an indelible impression on the cast and crew, leaving with his scrapbook packed with photos and comments from Bowen, Hallstrom, and the stars. Click! There's a shot of Braeden on Honey, with Amanda Seyfried riding alongside him. Click! He's posing with Henry Thomas (E.T.), who plays his "movie dad." Click! He's standing with his two doubles; the first time he saw them he cried, concerned that his mom would "take the wrong Braeden home."
Shooting continued on the movie through the end of 2008, with the Lowcountry doubling as Africa, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe for John's tour of duty. Blevins was on set with Bowen on one occasion when the producer asked him about Carolina Autism and the success of its money-raising efforts. "I told him we were very bad," says Blevins. "We spend our time working with kids, not going out looking for money as much as we should."
In June 2009 many families who had been paying for therapy with Medicaid lost that funding. Budget cuts meant that the state couldn't match Federal Medicaid funding as much as in previous years. As a consequence, families lost out on therapy and Carolina Autism's budget got smaller. "If a family has some means, we can work out a sliding scale and determine how much they have to do to help us," Blevins explains. "Some we won't be able to serve; we have to pay our rent."
Without funding, many families risk losing their therapy. In July '08, a bill was passed in the Senate mandating that insurance companies pay for therapy, so some families may be eligible for benefits. But Adrienne has found that "most insurance companies don't cover treatment. We spend as much as we can on what works the best. These therapists should be making a lot more than they do."
The producers offered to premiere Dear John in Charleston, with proceeds going to Carolina Autism — as long as the event was carbon neutral. Once Blevins had looked up what carbon neutral meant (it had to be done with zero carbon emissions), he started pestering domestic distributor Screen Gems, making sure the stars could come and getting a date nailed down. Finally, more than a year after the filmmakers left Charleston, they're returning for a red carpet gala event at the Terrace Hippodrome on the 24th, followed by a lavish after-party at the Aquarium. The LA premiere will happen in early February, the month of the film's general release.
"Screen Gems is paying for the stars to fly out," Blevins says, "plus their hotel rooms, stuff to put in the gift bags ... all things we planned on paying for." That will leave more money from the $250 ticket price to go back to Carolina Autism. "We want to provide therapy to everyone," Blevins adds. "We're trying to serve more children that don't have insurance or money. We want to see more kids get what Braeden got."
Since there are so many different levels of autism, not all families achieve the same success. "Just the chance someone would do this well is why we have to provide these services to as many kids as we can. You never know how well they'll do."
The patience and tenacity of Braeden's parents obviously has a lot to do with his improvement. Mr. and Mrs. Reed can't believe that at one point he couldn't talk, and now it's hard to get him to be quiet — proof that parents will benefit if they, as Adrienne puts it, "stop crying, get off their ass, and do something." She thinks that Braeden's role in the movie will be great for autism and early intervention in particular. "So many children won't be able to speak," she says, "because parents can't afford therapy or access to care."
Braeden has never seen a whole feature film, and he may not sit through all of Dear John. He tried to watch E.T. with his mom, but he only lasted 10 minutes. Nevertheless he'll be an honored guest at the premiere. "Braeden was a dream actor because of his interesting, sometimes offbeat emotional responses," says Lasse Hallström. "I was fascinated by his free spirit and his uninhibited performance." The director says that some of the boy's choices were "irrational but ringing true. He's a sweet, smart young man. I look forward to showing his inventive intelligence to an audience!"
The young star attraction says he'd love to do more movies, with two stipulations. First (and most importantly), it has to be fun. Second, he wants to play the role of "Braeden."
"Whatever he wants to do he'll be able to do," says his mom. "The world is wide open for him because of all the hard work that's been done, and what he's able to do as a result." Thanks to Carolina Autism and its fundraising efforts, he won't be alone.