“Deej” tells story of nonspeaking autistic, redefines notion of inclusion

In another era, D.J. Savarese, a non-speaking autistic chronicled in the documentary “Deej,” would spend his life in silence in an institution.

Abandoned by his birth parents, victimized in foster care, Savarese was eventually adopted by an Iowa couple, who insisted that he be mainstreamed in school.

In May, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College with a double major in anthropology and creative writing, and he’s a published poet, in addition to his role in the making of the movie about his life.

“We decided that the only way we could make a film that had an interior point of view, in other words, a story from the inside out, D.J. providing the words and perspective, was for us to do this as partners,” said Robert Rooy, the director, co-producer and videographer on “Deej,” which will screen at the Wayne Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 7, as part of the On Screen/In Person documentary film series.

It was Rooy, whose film and TV credits include work as an assistant director on Lonesome Dove, Honeymoon in Vegas, Minority Report and The West Wing, who first reached out to the Savarese family when D.J. was about to start high school.

At the outset, Rooy figured he would spend some time over the next couple of years, getting a feel for “how he navigated through a regular high school despite the fact that the only way he can communicate is one finger at a time on a keyboard, and just how he managed to matriculate through a public high school.”

It didn’t take long, though, for Rooy to realize that there was a lot more to the story.

“It was obvious that he had visions of a lot more than just making it through high school. He felt that his mission was to fight for kids like him,” said Rooy, who then made it his mission to dive headfirst into the story.

D.J.’s parents, Ralph, the chair of the English department at Grinnell College, and Emily, the former assistant director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Florida, adopted him when he was 6, and insisted from the outset that D.J., who they were told was profoundly retarded, be mainstreamed in public school.

It took him until fourth grade before language really clicked with him, that he began to understand how letters added up to words, how words then added up to sentences.

Fast forward to ninth grade, then, and he’s already thinking about college, which is nothing short of remarkable, and he wasn’t done yet.

“He wanted to pursue college as part of his own mission, and to advocate for kids like him, because his conviction, and I have to say, mine, too, is that all too often, children like him are sort of categorized as being only a certain level of intelligence or capability, and are taught only to that level, just not challenged the way typical, so-called normal, children are. And in the case of D.J., that was certainly true,” Rooy said.

The film shines a light on autism and inclusion through the life of Deej.

“We have labels like low functioning and high functioning, and they’re really misguided, and they can really restrict a person’s rights,” Rooy said. “D.J. is a case in point, because he acts differently than most people, and sounds differently in terms of some vocal sounds that he makes. A lot of people would write him off as being quote-unquote low functioning, and instead you have someone here who is a remarkable poet, and he just graduated with honors from one of the most esteemed colleges in the United States.

“Besides benefiting D.J. that he was mainstreamed into regular classrooms, I think it benefited all the kids who went to grade school, middle school and high school with him, because their perception of someone who looks like and sounds like D.J. is radically transformed by virtue of having him as a fellow student. We have a tagline to the film: inclusion shouldn’t be a lottery. That’s what D.J. really believes devoutly, and he’s made a believer out of me as well,” Rooy said.

Story by Chris Graham

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