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Student’s Doc Highlights Life as a Sibling of Someone with Autism

Nick Rocca ‘23 knew he wanted to make a documentary of his friend Dylan Whalen after seeing how he cares for his nonverbal brother, Ty.  

“The goal of the documentary is to shine a light, not just on kids with autism or adults, but to really show the families and the siblings,” said Rocca. “[Dylan] has always been a responsible kid. That’s a big part of it. He’s told his parents that he will take on Ty’s care after they cannot. I was really impressed by that, and I wanted to make sure that’s a big part of the documentary.”

Rocca, a Visual Media Arts major, is making Team Ty independently through his eponymous production company Rocca Films, and not for a class. Fellow Emersonians Ted Rhalter ‘23 and Gordon Chan ’23 worked on the film. Rhalter helped shoot interviews, and Chan is creating music for the documentary, which Rocca is excited about because this is the first time he’s able to use an original score.

The Rocca and Whalen families have been friends for more than a decade, but Rocca had never seen behind the scenes of what it’s like to live with Ty, 14. In preparation for making his film, Rocca watched several documentaries about people with autism and special needs. Rarely did they focus on how it affects the siblings of people with autism.

Two brothers sit on the floor together.
Dylan, left, helps his brother, Ty. Dylan became a certified personal care assistant when he was 14 to learn how to help his brother.

“Dylan had to grow up fast and miss a lot of his childhood to become responsible for Ty, and learn things like how to take him to the bathroom and feed him,” said Rocca. “A lot of it is just getting services they need for Ty. They have people who come to the house. … It’s even just learning how to teach him basic things like living skills.”

Dylan said he was excited when Rocca approached him about making the documentary.

“A lot of people want to push it away – [the documentary] embraces the relationship, embraces how things aren’t always the same as everybody else’s situation, and how I have to live with [Ty] with special needs and how he lives with special needs,” said Dylan.

Dylan, who’s turning 17 in May, became a certified personal care assistant in Massachusetts when he was 14. For Dylan, that means helping feed Ty, bathing him, brushing his teeth, or helping him use the bathroom.

“I always wanted to help people with special needs. With Ty I know how much it means to help. I want to help other people from learning from him,” said Dylan, who wants to study neuropsychology to better understand how the brain works. “I thought it would help the family.”

Melissa Whalen said Dylan has influenced other kids to be more comfortable with people with special needs.

A brother helps his brother brush his teeth.

“Teenagers don’t react well,” said Melissa. “But because [Dylan] is positive and so good to his brother and others, they don’t get scared. He says, ‘Just say hello’ or ‘Give him a high five’ and that makes people comfortable with Ty.”

Rocca has produced a compelling trailer for Team Ty and is working on the full documentary, which he thinks will be about 15 minutes long.

“We can’t wait to see the final project,” said Melissa. “People have said they didn’t know Dylan had a brother who is autistic. I’m hoping it shows his hard work. He’s given up a lot of summer days.”

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