Autism is a word that in today’s schools and society we hear quite often. Our own hometown of Kankakee has, for years, supported Autism Speaks through the Kilbride Family Classic, now known as the Run for Autism.
And through supportive programs such as the Merchant Street Art Gallery of Artists with Autism, the public gets a chance to better appreciate the talents of a population that affects more than 3.5 million Americans, according to the Autism Society.
You might be wondering how autism and film are related as your local film critic is writing this story.
The answer is not only an easy one, but an inspiring one: Jennifer Karum. Through Chicago networking, Karum connected with me about a web series, “Conrad,” she created and recently premiered at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Through numerous conversations and a formal interview recently, Karum shared her thoughts about growing up and her current accomplishments. Here’s what she had to say.
Pamela Powell (PP): Tell me about growing up with a diagnosis of autism and how you think this has affected your career path.
Jennifer Karum (JK): Childhood was very challenging for me, especially because autism wasn’t fully understood and many people didn’t know how to respond to the differences. Many times I was made fun of and avoided, and even sometimes, it would result to me being physically and emotionally abused.
It’s not easy to share, but it truly impacted my life in ways I can’t explain. Self-worth was definitely a magnitude of these issues and to this day, behind the laughter and smiles, I still struggle with self-worth. Despite all of this, I get up every day like it’s a new day, and try, try again.
Luckily, I found joy in performing arts, so growing up I engaged in that quite a bit. My parents were very focused on me getting the necessary help to allow me to live as normal of a life as possible with normal childhood experiences. It was hard for them. I would behave in ways that people didn’t understand, but I always had a good heart. It was very tough for both of them and embarrassing all the same.
I have grown a lot from where I have started, and I’ve surpassed many expectations that were set in front of me. I am just lucky to be where I am now.
PP: What first interested in you in filmmaking and acting?
JK: When I was younger, I would watch TV shows and wish I was like those actors, especially the show “Full House.” I emulated what I would see others do, and my parents knew I loved to dance and sing, so I was enrolled in such classes growing up, including acting classes at the Piven Theatre.
I auditioned frequently for local shows and school plays and would be cast. It was something I loved; the camaraderie, the performance, being on stage with all those lights; I just loved being able to shine. I still do. And the camera, too. I would write scenes from movies I loved and then film with friends on home VHS cameras. I never really thought I would be involved behind the camera, until “Conrad.”
PP: Tell me about “Conrad” and the premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
JK: I actually was in a program dealing with anxiety and focusing on self-worth and learning to accept myself, and one of the focuses was getting involved in something I’m passionate about. I had been pushed to the mainstream jobs like sales, but it was exacerbating my anxiety with the constant quota filling and I hated it.
I mentioned it to my therapist and even pointed out my love for crime drama shows like “The Blacklist,” “Homeland” and “Law & Order,” and I mentioned my desire to find a bada — detective role. It was funny because her response was, “so go do it!” So I did.
I literally went home and jumped on Facebook and saw a post for a “bada — detective role” and I thought it was a sign. I auditioned, got cast, and partnered with the creator to build “Conrad.”
He knew production, I knew acting, and we decided to collaborate. The team has been incredible and everyone has brought something to the table. We don’t give up. When raising money for our screening event, restaurants and locals were great about offering discounts and gift certificates in an effort to secure funding for Autism Speaks.
With screening it, we knew we had to show our cast and crew, and The Gene Siskel has always been a great place. We called them and submitted our materials, worked out a great deal and made it happen.
PP: Tell me about the main character, Katy Conrad, your character.
JK: When writing “Conrad,” I didn’t realize how much the main character parallels with my own life. Everyone doubts her, and she insists she is going to pursue what she believes despite everyone else.
PP: How do you handle your autism in relation to your career, connections and amazing accomplishments?
JK: I would say it’s been a blessing and a curse. I am great when meeting new people and getting them excited about something. My emotions are heightened, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. I get more excited than most, but it’s a genuine excitement. I am extremely motivated and dedicated in everything I do.
Sometimes “too dedicated” but I can’t stop until something is completed. So I save productions and teams money and I get things done. It’s great, but it can also trigger anxiety if I don’t feel I am doing well enough — sometimes because I don’t read the nonverbal [cues].
It requires more communication from others, which some people aren’t too used to doing. But the energy and drive does help when securing locations, negotiating catering, getting a good deal for equipment and bringing on the most talented. So it works both ways.
PP: What advice would you give to parents of children with autism and anyone who wants to get into the field of filmmaking?
JK: Early intervention! The minute my parents noticed something wasn’t right, as I was not responding to communication, crying when I was held and liked dark rooms and corners, they took me to the doctor.
I spent the early part of my life in hospitals, but also programs to help me learn what most children acquire through experiences. It’s been a journey as I’ve learned things later than most and I’ve developed a little slower than most, but I do develop and have grown immensely.
Everyone has their opinion, just stick to what you feel is best and encourage your child, don’t discourage or shame them for their behavior. Nine times out of 10, they don’t realize what they are doing without proper loving and supportive communication. Anxiety is a big part of it, and curtailing and helping to work through it is important.
Karum has the drive, ambition and personality that will not only make you smile, but inspire you in your own life. She concluded the interview by saying, “I am very open and ready to share my experience in detail and if anyone ever wants to talk, or has questions and or just grab coffee, I would love to help encourage them as best as I can. If my experiences can motivate others, well I’m always up for it!”
I think we could all learn a lesson in life and our outlook from Karum.
Learn more about the new, upcoming series at www.conradseries.com