Ahwatukee Foothills resident Lori Cairns knows what it’s like to receive a disappointing diagnosis about the mental health of her toddler. She also knows it’s possible to overcome that diagnosis. Now, through a new documentary, she’s sharing her story of hope and success.

“Be With Me” tells the story of Cairns’ son, JR, from the point of view of family members and past therapists that worked with him over the years to overcome autism. At 2 years old Lori was told JR was autistic and mentally retarded and would most likely be institutionalized by the age of 17.

“They told me and his father he was mentally retarded, autistic, take him home and make sure he likes his room,” she said. “For me it wasn’t acceptable to just throw him in his room and lock the door.”

JR’s parents refused to give up. They did research, found a plan and brought therapists with a new and different approach to autism to their home to work with JR. It worked. By kindergarten JR was mentally up to speed with other kids his age. Today JR has graduated high school, drives, plays golf and is living a normal life.

Writer and director Michael Terrill met Lori at an unrelated business meeting and said he felt an immediate connection.

“I was really intrigued to find out what Lori had done, how she had done it,” Michael said. “The more I learned the more I thought this is just a story that needs to be told, which is exactly how Lori had been feeling for some time.”

Cairns said the movie could not be made until JR was OK with the project and the family was sure his old diagnosis would not come back to haunt him. With support from friends and family and Lori herself co-producing the film, the project went ahead. It took 18 months to film, between interviews with family and past therapists and scenes filmed with a child acting as JR, but Lori says all the work was worth it.

“I learned so much about the filmmaking process,” she said. “Making a movie is exhausting and exciting. I will never watch a film the same way again.

“The last day of shooting, when it all came together — that’s when I truly realized this is much bigger than me. Much bigger than JR. Much bigger than all of us. This film... this story... can make a difference in the world.”

The film is a celebration of what can happen after an autism diagnosis, the producers said. While the story is emotional it has an inspiring ending.

“Be With Me” is about 45 minutes long. It debuted on Oct. 12 at the Atlanta International Documentary Film Festival where it won “Best Drama Documentary.” It will also be shown at the Richmond International Film Festival.

The film will be shown to the public in Phoenix on Thursday, Jan. 23 at Harkins Valley Art on Mill Avenue. One-hundred percent of ticket sales from the showing will be donated to a local autism charity, Square One. For tickets, visit bewithmedocumentary.com. Tickets to the showing are limited, but Terrill said if the showing goes well he would like to have more showings of the film soon.

“I think when people get this diagnosis there are a lot of parents who get into a fetal position and don’t come out,” Lori said. “You hear a lot about the negative side but not a lot about the positive things that can happen. I hope when people see this film they’ll begin to understand what can happen and maybe parents will start to view their children a little differently.”

For more information on the documentary, visit bewithmedocumentary.com.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or ahurtado@ahwatukee.com.

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