At first, Kate Winslet thought it would be just another job. Cherie Blair, the wife of the former prime minister of England, Tony Blair, had sent the Oscar-winning actress a documentary from Iceland that needed an English-language narrator. Called A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, it was about Margret Ericsdotir’s journey to discover whether her severely autistic eleven-year-old son, Keli, would ever be able to speak. What Ericsdotir learns—not only about her own son but also about so many kids who are nonverbal—is astounding.
Winslet watched the tape. “To say I was moved sounds so very basic. I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she says. “I was being asked, as an actress, to use my voice for children who have no voice.” Winslet flew to England, where she was introduced to Ericsdotir, to record the narration. “I knew as soon as I met her that we would be friends. I also knew I couldn’t just lend my voice to this documentary and go home.” Since A Mother’s Courage was released, in 2010, Winslet has helped launch the Golden Hat Foundation to raise money for and awareness about autism. (The title refers to a poem by Keli, who wrote about having a “golden hat” that allowed him to speak.) This spring she will also release a coffee-table book, The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism. It is a series of self-portraits by celebrities—everyone from Meryl Streep to George Clooney—sporting Winslet’s jaunty trilby; they were told to say whatever occurs to them while wearing it (see excerpt at right). All proceeds from the book go to the cause.
In a candid, poignant and at times funny interview, we spoke with Winslet about her mission and why she’s speaking out for children who can’t speak for themselves.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about children with autism?
That they are not capable of understanding anything, that they are completely locked in their own worlds and aren’t paying attention to anything around them or that they are disinterested. Even those closest to them sometimes believe that. And so often that proves not to be the case.
There is a moment in the film that is absolutely shocking: Keli, who has been assumed to be of low intelligence, starts spelling out words leter by leter and asks his teacher if he can learn to play the piano, because he’s been making up songs in his head since he was little. I know. Amazing. One of the hallmarks of autism is that it’s difficult for some people to integrate their senses—to see and hear at the same time, for example. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been listening. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been seeing. Once I realized this—that many autistic kids have the same thoughts and feelings as a typically developing child but can’t express them—it cut me inside. My daughter Mia watched the film with me—she’s eleven now, but she was eight at the time—and she said to me, “Wow, Mum, imagine if I couldn’t even tell you I loved you.”
Read the entire interview with Kate Winslet at our sister site, Ladies’ Home Journal
Check out a slideshow from Kate's book, The Golden Hat