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Documentary focuses on Valley couple’s fight to save autistic son

PHOENIX — There is some exciting news Thursday morning for a southeast Phoenix family.

A movie about their lives has been added to the list of films that will be shown April at the Phoenix Film Festival, which takes place at Harkins Theatres at Scottsdale Road and the Loop 101.

“Be with Me” is the story of Lori and Jim Cairns and their son, J.R.

J.R. was 2 when Lori took him to the doctor in 1996.

“She told me to go home and make sure that he liked his room, because he was going to go in and never come out,” Lori said. “She said he would probably be in an institution by the time he was 17.”

J.R. was diagnosed as autistic and mentally retarded. After their initial shock, Lori and Jim decided to fight for their son. Lori began to use what was then a new therapeutic approach called applied behavioral analysis. She brought experts to Arizona to work with J.R.

The results have been nothing short of a miracle.

J.R. is now 20, and is living a normal life. He graduated with honors from high school. He is living on his own and attending college while also working at a local restaurant. An avid golfer, J.R. is working this week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale.

One in 88 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism. Dealing with the affliction can devastate families, but Lori hopes that J.R.’s story and the documentary will give people hope.

Michael Terrill is the film’s writer, director and producer.

“It’s a story of family and therapists coming together, and they had the best outcome possible,” he said. “If you met him today, you would never know that he had that diagnosis.”

The film took two years and $60,000 to make. It is already making an impact with audiences.

“Be with Me” won the best drama documentary (short) award when it debuted in October at the Atlanta International Documentary Film Festival. Two showings in the past two weeks have drawn big crowds to the Harkins Valley Art in Tempe. The Cairns’ story is also set to be screened at a film festival in Richmond, Va. Michael and Lori will head to Greece next month, where it will be shown at yet another film festival.

Terrill is pretty proud of J.R., and of the movie.

“This is not your typical autism documentary,” said Terrill. “You will come in. You will cry. But you will leave the theater happy. That’s what we want for everyone.”

The following video is a trailer for the documentary: