Story by Brian Berusch
One day in June of 2006, Laird Hamilton crossed the English Channel on a stand-up paddleboard after having bicycled through the rain from London to the coast; he then biked all the way to Paris. He did it solo, with only a boat and van trailing alongside, as friend, filmmaker, and honorary “family member” Don King shot video of the crossing.
Remarkable as that feat was, it would pale in comparison to the challenge Hamilton, known as a surfer of unsurfable waves, would undertake five months later. In October, Hamilton enlisted Maui pal Dave Kalama, another legendary waterman, to set out on an incredible journey: the two planned to paddle the entire Hawaiian Island chain. From South Point in Kona to the lighthouse in Kilauea, Kaua‘i, they would bike across land and paddle across sea, day and night—more than 450 miles in total—and they would do it in a week.
The next film depicting Hamilton’s superhuman strength and willpower, you might assume? Not exactly. Hamilton signed on to help King—with whom he had worked on films such as Riding Giants—with a project that affected the waterman so deeply, he opted to put his body through anything it would take to raise money for the cause.
That cause is a film called Beautiful Son, and it’s a journey with the Kings and a handful of people who face autism every single day. King calls the film “a shared personal experience” in which he and his wife, Julianne, divulge the frustration and dedication that go into raising their son, Beau, who is afflicted with autism. [picture 1]
“Beautiful Son is a very personal film,” says King. “And it shows how little we know about autism . . . and yet how much hope there is for healing those with it.”
“If this was just something we were doing for ourselves, we probably would have done it a little differently,” Hamilton admits. Starting the first leg, an overnight bike ride, after flying five hours from California was less than ideal. “But I look at what Don does every day—raising a son with autism—and I kept thinking, I have no right to complain. I have two healthy kids and all my faculties. I can keep going.”
Labelled by the medical world as a developmental disability, autism is a complex condition that affects the brain’s social and communication functions. To a greater or lesser degree, the autist has difficulty relating to other people and the outside world. King explains that 1 in 166 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism—a figure that has increased 10 times over the last two decades.
A compelling look at an often-misunderstood condition, the film may spark some debate stemming from King’s opposition to the widely accepted classification of autism as a psychological disorder. “There are obvious physical issues, yet they fail to be scientifically recognized,” he says.
“Autism is everywhere,” says Hamilton, who has a few friends with autistic children. “If we get the word out, we show people what Don and Julianne have discovered in their film, it improves everything, just by spreading good, positive information.”
“Plenty of times you want to give up on both efforts [paddling and coping with a family member’s autism], and you just can’t. You gotta keep going. That’s how Laird and Dave felt, and it’s how I feel. You just gotta finish,” says King.
Both Hamilton and Kalama zeroed in on a particular leg of the journey that was extraordinarily challenging. The evening they left O‘ahu to paddle across the longest stretch of sea—to Nawiliwili Harbor on Kaua‘i—was ominous. The sky was dark, the air thick with the approaching threat of rain.
“This kona squall hit us. It went from a moonlit paddle to pitch black and blowing 20 knots in our faces,” says Kalama, who admits he briefly thought they were done for. “We had planned for 16 to 18 hours. With the rain and wind, we were slowed by half. I was thinking, there’s no way we’re gonna do this for 36 hours.”
“We were even having a hard time keeping the boat near Laird and Dave,” recalls King, who has seen his fair share of challenging shoots, having worked on several big-wave surf flicks.
“For a few minutes I wondered, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” says Kalama. “But then the storm started to die, and I had it set in my mind, there was no turning around.”
“There was this crowd of families that greeted us on the beach on Kaua‘i,” says Kalama.
“They brought their kids down who had autism. They put lei around us. There was something so tangible about what we had just done. The kids were so happy. The mothers were smiling and crying. It was extremely powerful. The suffering we had experienced was washed away almost immediately—and all the reasons I did it were staring us in the face.”
“I don’t really think people understand the magnitude of what they did over here,” says King.
A few people did. After seeing a report on KGMB 9, the owners of Pflueger car dealerships on O‘ahu called Hamilton directly and asked where he could send the check in support of Beautiful Son. Hamilton’s sponsors—American Express, Oxbow, and Toyota—offered funding as well.
The focus of the film is a heartfelt journey of the Kings’. They explain how a regimen of vitamins and behavioral therapy has aided in what they call Beau’s “healing.” The film then delves into a cross-country journey to see what other families—who challenge the relatively small amount of research available on autism—are doing about attempting to heal their children.
One subject touched on in the film is the controversial theory that mercury poisoning was responsible for much of the autism diagnosed in the early 1990s, according to King. The filmmaker learned in front of the camera that mercury—an element found in small doses of nearly every child vaccine and inoculation—was found in children’s systems at well-above dangerous levels. The reason? When all the vaccinations added up, the mercury levels rose. So much so, that Russia, Japan and most all of Europe have banned the use of mercury in vaccines, according to King.
King maintains, and expresses eloquently throughout his film, that the idea of treating autism as a physical condition is both real and new.
“There are biological applications that have proven to work. They just need to be cultivated and spread,” he says. “By sharing our experience, we hope to open the door for further research.”
Beautiful Son is currently being edited. King hopes the film will air on PBS in Spring 2007.