The 28-year-old not only lives independently at First Place-Phoenix, a residential community that supports those with autism, Down Syndrome and other neurodiversities, but she does administrative work at Christ Lutheran School and, in 2021, embarked on her latest venture at Grand Canyon University. She’s part of the inaugural cohort of the LOPES Academy at the Cardon Center, a two-year, inclusive Christian university experience for individuals with moderate intellectual disabilities.
She also recently added another accomplishment to her resume: She’s one of the featured voices in a documentary.
Eaton appears in the documentary “In a Different Key: The Movie,” which expands on the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for general nonfiction, “In a Different Key: The Story of Autism." The book is by former ABC World News Tonight and Nightline producer Caren Zucker and former network correspondent and producer John Donvan.
PBS picked up the film, which is being featured through Jan. 10.
Eaton had the opportunity to appear in the documentary through her friend and fellow First Place resident, Mickey McGuinness, Zucker’s eldest son.
“She was filming it there and asked if I wanted to be in it,” said Eaton, who said being in a film “was always one of my lifelong things." But she also wasn’t sure how much of her life she wanted to share.
“I was a little hesitant to go out that big with my story,” she said. But after watching the film, “I loved the conversation around it (autism).”
Zucker began reporting on the condition in 1996 after her son’s diagnosis. She didn’t think enough information was out there for parents, so she asked Donvan, a producer with her at ABC at the time, to work on some projects. In 2010, they co-wrote a piece for Atlantic magazine called “Autism’s First Child,” which became a finalist for the National Magazine Award. And Zucker produced a six-part series on autism for PBS the following year.
But Zucker wanted to do more. She still didn’t feel as if the story of autism was reaching the general population.
The documentary takes a historical look at the condition, introducing audiences to 89-year-old Donald Triplett, the first patient diagnosed with autism, and the tiny community of Forest, Mississippi, which has embraced and protected him.
It touches on the dark past of autism, when parents were advised to institutionalize their children, and when the medical community took a critical look at mothers and how their actions might have contributed to their children's challenges.
But it also focuses on what has happened to give those in the community hope, particularly the steps parents have made in the fight for their children, including winning the right for them to attend public school.
The film asks, simply, "What is autism?", and features the voices of Zucker, her son Mickey and other parents and adults living with autism.
For GCU’s Eaton, that means jumping into her second year at the LOPES Academy. She and her fellow academy participants are about to start the internship phase of the program.
She shared with her family over the holiday break how much she has learned at GCU, such as how to talk to co-workers and managers, how to greet people at your job and how to advocate for herself.
When her internship starts this spring, she will be doing statistical data entry of old sports rosters from the 1990s to today. And she’ll be supervising study hall for student-athletes.
“I’m so excited about it,” said Eaton, a former Special Olympian and a diehard sports fan, though she said her strengths lie outside of the sports world.
“I quickly was like, 'You know what? I’m not an athlete. I’d rather just go in front of crowds and talk about autism and talk about my journey to work.'”
And Eaton has been such a passionate advocate when it comes to autism, giving speeches about Best Buddies and autism awareness. She said she wants to help make Arizona more inclusive for those with disabilities.
“The big thing I always tell people: I can’t stand when people say I can’t do something. I want people to know that there’s nothing that I can’t do. Because I need a little assistance here and there doesn’t mean I can’t do what I want to do,” she said, including be in a documentary.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
“In A Different Key: The Movie” can be viewed on PBS through Jan. 10.
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