While formal dances can be a source of anxiety for many teens – questions abound from what to wear to whom to bring – they can be particularly daunting for individuals on the autism spectrum.
“We all know what it’s like to be scared, we all know what it’s like to go to your first date or your first dance, and for these individuals, it’s magnified,” filmmaker Alexandra Shiva tells PEOPLE. “Just saying hello to someone is scary.”
Shiva’s documentary, How to Dance in Ohio, airing Monday night on HBO, follows a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum as they prepare for an intimidating rite of passage – the prom.
This particular prom, held in Columbus, Ohio, is the creation of psychologist Dr. Emilio Amigo, who has been holding formal dances for teens and adults in his social therapy group for over five years.
“We wanted them to be exposed to celebrations, parties and get togethers,” Dr. Amigo explains. “And myself being Cuban, I grew up with everyone dancing and having fun at parties and so I incorporated that into our treatment program.”
Dr. Amigo and his team spent four months preparing their clients for the prom, giving lessons on everything from slow dancing to asking others to dance to locating bathrooms and exits in a new location.
“We spent a good four months preparing everybody for the event because it was way, way out of their comfort zone – like another universe,” Dr. Amigo says. “So we just broke it down in terms of communication, dancing, how to relate to one another, how to dress, just everything from the most simple detail.”
The documentary focuses on the experiences of three high-functioning young women with autism in various phases of their lives as they navigate these lessons. Sixteen-year-old Marideth Bridges, a high school student who loves encyclopedias, 19-year-old Caroline McKenzie, a college student who studies Japanese and dates another client of Dr. Amigo’s, and 22-year-old Jessica Sullivan, an employee at a bakery that hires people with autism.
Shiva says she was drawn to telling the stories of these three young women as “there was something about the invisibility of girls on the spectrum.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while autism affects 1 in 68 children, boys are almost 5 times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
“We expect girls to be really social,” Shiva continues. “So what happens when they’re not?”
The film explores this question as we see the three young women navigate challenging social situations and display varying levels of desire for connection.
“They all want to date and figure out how to do that, so I think they really encapsulated that coming of age for girls,” she continues. “The thing I actually didn’t know going in is how much individuals on the spectrum want to connect.”
At the dance, these desires for connection are met in myriad ways, from one subject’s simple act of saying ‘hi’ to another being named prom queen.
“I wanted to tell this story so that the viewer is alongside these individuals through this process and then really gets to experience what a triumph it is,” Shiva says. “And sometimes that the triumph is small, but it can feel huge.”
Dr. Amigo says he believes the triumphs displayed at the dance will carry over into other parts of his clients’ lives. “I think too many of them felt they were not qualified to have that experience,” he tells PEOPLE. “And we kind of blew that out of the water. I think it just opened up doors in their minds like, ‘Wait, I can go to college, I can get a job, I can have a relationship, I can socialize.’ There’s nothing that they can’t do.”
How to Dance in Ohio airs Monday at 9pm on HBO.