FORT HOOD — While trying to obtain a diagnosis for her son’s autism, Shelly Huhtanen was brought to a level of desperation she said no parent should go through.
Her son Broden, now 7, was diagnosed at 26 months old, and Huhtanen said it took about eight months of visiting doctors and wading through Tricare policies to get to it.
To raise awareness of the challenges of the military’s medical system and create positive change, Huhtanen has become a strong advocate for autistic military children, and the family’s story is one of 20 featured in a documentary to be shown in Harker Heights on May 30.
In the film, “The United States of Autism,” Huhtanen said she and her husband, Lt. Col. Mark Huhtanen, deputy commander of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, hoped to show how much they love being an Army family, but that the life does come with unique challenges when there is a special-needs child involved.
“We are leaping forward with state laws, but military families can’t just go to their senator. We have to go through the Armed Services Committee,” Huhtanen said. “We are climbing a mountain, not a hill. We wanted to be in the documentary to show the mountain we have to climb to change our services.”
The footage was filmed at Fort Hood in 2010 and Huhtanen said she has only seen the portion involving their story, not the entire film. She was pleased with what she saw, and is looking forward to not only seeing the rest of the documentary, but also sharing it with the community.
“(The film) looks at people from all different backgrounds. I’m so thankful they didn’t forget about the military,” Huhtanen said. “There are no racial, economic or social boundaries when it comes to autism.”
That was exactly what filmmaker Richard Everts said he was trying to capture as he traveled 11,000 miles in 40 days to interview families.
“Each person brought something of the American experience,” he said.
Everts was inspired to make the documentary by his autistic son, and was able to make it a reality through a grant from PepsiCo. The film premiered to a soldout crowd in New York City on April 5 and has been shown in about 30 theaters around the country.
“Really, there’s two audiences that we’ve really tried to capture,” Everts said. “One, is the families affected by autism. ... At the same time, we really wanted to target people who have an inkling of information ... and want to get some more info without having to spend months and months pulling that together.”
For the screening to happen, Huhtanen still needs to sell more than 60 seats in the next five days.
“What I love about the film is it shows how resilient we are as a nation,” Huhtanen said. “Yeah, it’s tough, but look what people are doing.”