Louis Theroux visits families with autism

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 19, 2012

I’ve always been a great fan of the documentaries made by Louis Theroux. I think he’s an incredible filmmaker – almost a genius how he is able to portrait people and make documentaries that stick to the mind. Most recently, Theroux has made a series called Extreme Love, in which he visits families who are affected by severe autism and by dementia. The first one, on autism, was screened on Dutch TV last Friday, and can be seen on your computer screen for the next 60 hours on this website (Original with Dutch subtitles).

The children with autism featured in this episode are all situated on the severe end of the spectrum. I haven’t done any literature review on this, but my hypothesis is that it is very difficult to truly understand for people who do not have a disability, have never had a disability, or who never cared for people with disabilities, how it is to be disabled or live with someone disabled. We need narratives in order to understand, and preferably narratives not merely composed of words, but also of sounds, images, pictures — things that are able to convey not just factual knowledge but also meanings and emotions. Work like the one produced by Louis Theroux and his team offers us a unique opportunity to get a little closer to a world we may never enter. I may be incredibly naive, but I believe that if more people would regularly watch documentaries such as this one, the world would be a better place. If that’s true, then that would be another reason to watch this – apart from witnessing a genius at work.



Philip 09.19.12 at 1:15 pm

It’s true, he’s terrific. He manages to take on all these extreme situations and make them incredibly interesting and powerful but without being sensationalist. Even the most awful people he meets end up seeming fully rounded and human. And he achieves this not from some arbitrary pretense of ‘balance’ but just because, in his films, that just seems to be the reality. A large part of his brilliance resides in the almost blank persona he has around these people. His absence of personality makes people come out of their shells and fill in the gaps. It’s almost psychoanalytical. I remember his film on US neo-Nazis years ago where he refused to answer their question as to whether he was Jewish — he just led them along, using the refusal to provide an answer to explore the question itself and the people posing it. Provoking people with silence.


SB 09.19.12 at 2:18 pm

Thank you for letting us know about this film. I have several disabled cousins in my family who are cared for very ardently by their parents–my aunts and uncles. The differences in the disability of each cousin and the experience of caring for them makes me suspect it depends hugely on the type of disability and the personalities of the people involved what the experience is like. The attitudes in my family vary so much with respect to disability–I’d say the intense love of the parents for their child is the common thread however.

One of the thing that now shocks me is the idea so many people seem to have that a person with dementia’s life is not worth living. I unconsciously assumed it myself–maybe because it is so commonly assumed in bioethics– until I came to know some older people in my family with dementia. Now I find the idea sickening. There is a very critical need for people to understand disabilities first hand, from the perspective of those who know and love them. I think it might be that cognitive disabilities challenge our assumptions about what makes a person part of our community or what makes a person a person. If you love someone with a disability, I think you may start to know how impoverished some people’s views on this can be.


David Moles 09.19.12 at 9:26 pm

Does Theroux talk to any autistics or people with dementia, or just to the people around them?


Colin Reid 09.20.12 at 12:33 am

“Het is niet toegestaan om deze aflevering vanaf uw huidige geograpische locatie te bekijken.”

:( (I am in Australia; maybe it works elsewhere.)

This link seems to work though (original, no subtitles):



Ingrid Robeyns 09.20.12 at 6:03 am

Colin, thanks for this – I didn’t know this, how disappointing. I suppose it means you can’t watch it via the link I included in the post for any IP-address outside the Netherlands.
But many thanks for providing another link !

David Moles: yes, he tries talk with the children themselves (and to those who have great difficulty talking, he communicates in other ways) — and he also talks to teachers and parents. To my mind, Theroux comes across as having a great intuition about how to approach these kids. Somehow he just seems to be able to find the way to communicate with them, and to make them feel at ease (even with a kid which had to be placed in institutional care because he was severely aggressive towards his mother).
I haven’t seen the episode where he visits families with dementia, but there is no reason to assume he isn’t also (trying to) talking to people affected by dementia themselves. It’s just the way he makes his documentaries – Philip (#1) described it exactly how I experience Theroux’s work.


Laleh 09.20.12 at 10:56 am

Wow. You are not kidding. That was by far the most extraordinary, moving, and effective portrayal of disability I have ever seen. That he finds the humour in the situation, and alway with such profound respect for the dignity and humanity of his subjects is just mind-blowing. Thanks Ingrid. I am now going to go blow my nose and wipe my tears.


Brussel Sprout 09.20.12 at 6:50 pm

Just watched the autism documentary – thank you for the link.

It was interesting how very uncomfortable Theroux became when high-functioning Nicky had done his own research and was reading out Theroux’s bio/website.

It was an amazing film: he literally is documenting what he has encountered, no judgements, no glib politicisation or agenda, just engagement and bearing witness to the situations in which the families had found themselves.

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