Within White Pines Productions, an Elkins Park theater company, several kids spend the better part of a week in a dimly light room watching anime, drawing anime, and dressing as anime characters.
The anime camp — the second this summer by White Pines — welcomes kids on the autism spectrum, including Gabe Robinson, 11.
“I like Spirited Away, Totoro, Dragon Ball, Case Closed – also known as Midnight Conan, and many more,” said Gabe, breathlessly running through his list of favorites.
Gabe is bright, talkative, smart, and engages quickly — he shook my hand as soon as I entered the room. But he has a hard time reading other people, picking up on social cues.
Anime is helping, said his parents.
“Autism is a complex thing, but communication, working collaboratively, seeing the world in a more holistic way,” said his father, Christopher Robinson.
“How you process the world in terms of social interaction,” said Gabe’s mother, Sandra. “Art helps him process socially.”
This camp was created by Heidi Morein, a graduate student at Moore College, on the notion that kids with autism are prone to like anime. That notion is not grounded scientifically, and there are no formal studies making that connection.
“It just seems to be that a large number of kids drawn to anime have Asperger’s or are on the spectrum,” said Morein, who has a teenage son with Asperger’s syndrome. “That’s very anecdotal. Pure observation on my part, and others.”
Legions of devoted fans
Anime, a Japanese animation style recognizable in early television cartoons such as “Speed Racer,” “Gigantor” and, more recently, “Pokemon,” is found in countless videos with less mass appeal but extremely loyal fan bases.
One of its more sophisticated and adult products was the film “Spirited Away,” a story of a girl lost in an abandoned amusement park who has to outsmart demons and ghosts to rescue her family. It won an Oscar when released in the U.S. in 2001. In Japan, it grossed more than “Titanic.”
Why people on the autism spectrum would be particularly attracted to anime is anyone’s guess. Some theorize that anime plots tend to be very meaty — complex enough to engage intellectually — while the emotions are simplified. The characters are drawn with distinctively large eyes, plainly registering happy/sad, fear/friendly, anger/love. There is no irony in anime.
“It comes with a very well-articulated set of rules and personalities,” said Ellen Charap, whose 12-year-old autistic daughter is a fan. “They are not too shallow, but are also inflexible. You know what each character is going to do. So it’s comfortable for a kid who is not good at reading social cues. “
Another thing that sets anime apart from other forms of visual entertainment is a robust community of fans. Every major city has an anime convention, attracting thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of fans. The largest conventions draw more than 100,000 people. For people socially isolated by their neurology, this is a vast ocean of friends.
“I didn’t realize what a phenomenon it was until I went to Zenkaikon,” said Morein of the annual event at the Lancaster County Convention Center that attracts about 5,000 people. “There were some people that would sit in the audience and listen attentively, but rocking back and forth, or playing with their fingers or their hands. You would see some of the hallmarks of the spectrum.”
She’s not the only one to notice.
“I see a lot of autistic kids, and tons of attention deficit and anxiety disorders,” said Barbara Reigal, who works directly with convention participants as part of Zenkaikon’s operations team. “Kids with a lot of social anxiety — it’s a good mix of a lot of different things.”
How many attendees have neurological problems? Again, anyone’s guess — some say 20 percent, some say half. Next spring, Morien wants to conduct a formal survey of Zenkaikon attendees to get hard numbers.
Making that human connection
Anecdotally, anime conventions can help those whose neurological conditions make it difficult for them to socialize. A roomful of people sharing the same, nearly obsessive interest makes for the largest, easiest ice-breaker.
“When I was waiting in line for an autograph — I wasn’t bored for a minute because I was talking to people who shared a hobby with me,” said Morein’s 16-year-old son, Julian, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. “That’s great, to make a human connection with people who share an isolating hobby of watching media.”
Organizers of anime conventions notice the percentage of those with social anxiety issues or neurological problems at their events, and react accordingly. The relatively young J1-Con, a fall anime convention in Philadelphia, works to keep the conventioneers free of conflict.
“They feel at home. They have common interests,” said Jason Richardson, founder of J1-Con. “Every one I’ve seen who has different situations — different social struggles — has been at peace when they come to my event.”
“There’s a different set of behavioral issues involved here,” said Bonita Jo Morrison, who works the merchandise/information table at Zenkaikon. A crowded convention floor can easily overstimulate somebody with neurological issues, she said.
“It’s not rocket science, it’s really just common sense — just show a little more patience than you would with the average person,” she said. “Plus, you have to have an ability to recognize who has special needs, and who is just being a jerk.”
Correction: In the audio version of this story, Heidi Morein is described as having 10 years of psychiatric social work. While she is currently persuing a master’s degree in education at Moore College of Art and design, she does not have a decade of background in the field.