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Family Deftly Rides the Wave Through the Uncertainties of Autism

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The panel answering questions about the film “Rocco Up” last week at the Jacob Burns Film Center. The 22-minute documentary is about nine-year-old Rocco Intonato who is autistic and how his parents supported him using his love for the ocean and teaching him to surf. 

It’s amazing to see the incredible effort and resulting success that comes from helping people with autism.

An inspiring example of that was seen at a special screening of the film “Rocco Up” at the Jacob Burns Film Center last week.

The 22-minute documentary produced in 2022 is about nine-year-old Rocco Intonato, who is autistic, and how his parents, Sara and Ben, supported him using his love for the ocean and teaching him to surf. The film follows Rocco for two years as his confidence builds and he is able to better connect with the world.

Early footage shows Rocco as a baby being gently dipped in and out of the ocean water near Montauk, where his family lives. Fast forward a couple of years and two-year-old Rocco had just been diagnosed with autism, a developmental disability that causes difficulties with communication and interaction along with possible repetitive or restrictive behaviors.

Research last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that one in 36 children is now diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Award-winning filmmaker and “Rocco Up” director John Madere was able to focus on Ben and Sara’s emotional upheaval when they learned of their son’s autism. Viewers are pulled in and feel the initial tension of how the couple grapples with the harsh realities of their son’s condition and how they learn acceptance, opening the door to their limitless love and support.

How the family devotes themselves to Rocco’s gradual adaptation is deeply inspiring and heartwarming.

Ben Intonato is an avid surfer and part of a group known as the Ditch Plains Surfers at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk. Once Intonato can accept his son’s limitations, he shifted his focus and started teaching Rocco to surf. In the film he says “I wanted my son to be as happy as possible, to have as good of a life as possible. He’s my son, he can’t be that different from me.”

Plenty of challenges were experienced during filming, including complications with COVID, difficult weather conditions and days Rocco wasn’t up for surfing.

Last Tuesday evening’s screening of “Rocco Up” was one of the monthly films shown at the Jacob Burns Film Center that is a special sensory-friendly screening, geared to those sensitive to traditional movie theater sounds and darkness.

A question-and-answer session after the film included the Intonatos, Madere, film writer Ruth Mamaril, moderator Sarah Kernion and David Kaufstein, program director for the Nicholas Center in Pleasantville, which provides programs and services for autistic people so they can better assimilate into the community and workplace.

Kernion is a global keynote speaker and a dedicated neurodiversity advocate who has two non-speaking autistic children. Sara Intonato has established a neurodiversity consultancy that helps parents with special needs children.

Kaufstein was accompanied by about 15 young adults from the Nicholas Center, some of whom asked about Rocco’s learning process.

“My mantra is that Rocco can do anything if we throw our timeline out the window and let him have his own timeline,” Sara Intonao said. “It has taken patience and more practice.”

She added that she has seen parents of children with autism exhaust themselves by going through educational bureaucracies to provide special services. Positive change occurs when parents unrelentingly demand it, she said.

Ben Intonato said working with Rocco and teaching him various skills has become an opportunity for him to learn a new way of doing things.

“What we tapped into is that Rocco is the teacher,” his father said. “He needed to teach me something which I could help spread to people. He’s taught me about what makes us different. Children like Rocco are gifts.”

A young man received a round of applause when he raised his hand and said “I just wanted to say that I, too, have autism and Rocco is not alone.”

Another called out “I want to be a surfer, too!”

Ben Intonato said the film is being considered for Amazon Prime, and there is a plan to distribute it to school systems at no cost. The film has won numerous awards for best documentary, best editing and best cinematography.

The film was presented in partnership with The Nicholas Center, BluePath Service Dogs and Pleasantville SEPTA.

To learn more about “Rocco Up,” visit



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