A "profound experience": Local filmmaker dad reveals motivation behind his short film about an adorable autistic hedgehog

The makers of Sam The Hedgehog are currently raising funds to complete the film.
The makers of Sam The Hedgehog are currently raising funds to complete the film.

Sam The Hedgehog is a locally created film about a hedgehog raised among sheep. Sam appears to be the odd one out in his family but as a metaphor, Sam is representative of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The film was conceived by Johannesburg-based animation studio MAAN Creative and writer Julia Smuts Louw and seeks to shed light on the experience of autistic children and their caregivers. The creators hope to “bridge the divide between the autistic community and the so-called ‘normal’ rest of us”.

"1 in 59 are autistic"

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, and people who are on the autism spectrum think, behave, play, socialise and experience the world - particularly with their senses - differently to their neurotypical peers.

“In South Africa, accurate figures are hard to obtain to determine how many people may be on the spectrum, however, we can estimate that it’s about 1-2% of the population. This is an estimate based on global statistics as well as the statistic that 1 in 59 are autistic,” explains Sandy Klopper, National Director at Autism South Africa.

Also read: Local mother on raising a child with autism: ‘Never give up on your child’

We spoke to Michael Clark, co-director of Sam The Hedgehog and co-founder of MAAN Creative, about what this film means to him.

He told us that initially, he was simply an animation director looking for a story worth telling.

"It kinda snowballed from there"

“I then met David O’Sullivan, a local radio host whose son is autistic, and my wife happened to be his therapist. A seed was planted to do an animation of sorts for autism awareness,” he says.

“Soon after that, my business partner, Johan Scheepers, who is a fantastic character designer, came up with this idea of a hedgehog character who is autistic - what a great metaphor! And it kinda snowballed from there.”

Michael, a dad and an uncle himself, shared that “soon after we started tinkering with this little hedgehog character - my nephew, Johnny, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).”

“This brought the whole topic very close to home very suddenly and was quite a traumatic time for our wider family, particularly his parents. Being a dad myself and knowing it could have been my own son, certainly made it a far more profound experience.”

Rita du Plessis working on Sam the Hedgehog
Director Michael Clark and animator Rita du Plessis working on Sam the Hedgehog 

Also read: On World Autism Day, let's rethink the way we see disability

“It also deepened my understanding of the topic,” he said, “and the experience of people with ASD as well as the people around them.”

Sam's story is really the story of Sam's mom, Mrs Mouton, he told us, and the journey she takes as a parent from denial of the fact that Sam is a hedgehog and not a lamb, through devastation and finally to acceptance of his hedgehog-ness, but also valuing him for that very hedgehog-ness.

"An incredible response from the autism community" 

Of his own kids, Michael says they are constantly a source of inspiration. “Everyday there is a fresh treasure trove of story-telling material to draw from. From funny gags to emotional hiccups. And they think I am some kind of superhero because I am making a movie! If only everyone thought of me so highly,” he shared.

The film is currently a work in progress, and has already garnered an incredible response from the autism community. The producers are currently running a fund-raising campaign to raise enough money to move into the next phase of production.

Their final goal is to make the film globally available, free of charge, to boost awareness and acceptance of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Watch the trailer here:

Share your experience of autism with us, and we could publish your story. Anonymous contributions are always welcome.

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Read more:

WATCH: Boy (4) with autism sings Old Town Road in 'miracle' video

The costs of learning difficulties: How to budget if your child needs help

This dad rewrote the report of his daughter with autism and we are in tears

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