Telefilm staples Patty Duke and Melissa Gilbert have already co-starred in three TV movies and team up for a fourth, a morose "specific case history" about an autistic boy who identifies his sexual abuser through the controversial technique known as facilitated communication.

Telefilm staples Patty Duke and Melissa Gilbert have already co-starred in three TV movies and team up for a fourth, a morose “specific case history” about an autistic boy who identifies his sexual abuser through the controversial technique known as facilitated communication.

Already the heated subject of TV newsmagazines, this example of the technique features an autistic child punching out words (however badly misspelled) on a computer, with the facilitator holding (guiding?) his arm. The vidpic, in a postscript, denies that it endorses facilitated communication, but everything in the drama points to just that — a supportive stance.

Duke plays the teacher/facilitator, Gilbert is the autistic child’s tense, overprotective mom and Bradley Pierce is her non-verbal, head-banging son who constantly contorts his fingers. Pierce’s credible performance must have been a challenge for director Michael Switzer, who subtly pulls in the reins.

While Switzer and writer Robert Inman manage to give the boy life, they are not so successful with Duke and Gilbert. Duke’s all-knowing, idealistic, near-patronizing demeanor wears on viewers’ patience, and Gilbert, particularly before she begins to soften her edges, is a nervous, nagging presence.

This is another women’s picture in which the males don’t come off too well. In this case, the secret abuser (Peter Spears) is the boy’s live-in adult roommate and aide at a special institution for retarded and autistic children.

While the production should have considerable import for parents and teachers of such children, it is otherwise tough going. Where its broad truth sinks in is in the hard choice the parents make to send their son to a boarding facility.

Typically for these stories, the father (Markus Flanagan) has more or less split and left the rearing of the child to the mother. But the moment of actually leaving the boy at the institution, because he’s unmanageable at home, and the veil of guilt and terror that crosses the mother’s face when she realizes a stranger will take over her child’s life, plunge to the nub of the drama.

The school is beautiful and spacious, with lavish grounds, and yet the vidpic says the state pays the bill. In real life, however, the state does not pay for these educational paradises. They’re for people who can afford them, not, as portrayed here, for an out-of-work mother and a construction worker dad.

Cries from the Heart

(Sun. (16), 9-11 p.m., CBS)

Production

Filmed in Pasadena and Los Angeles by WildRice Prods. in association with Grossbart-Barnett-Iezman Entertainment. Executive producer, Joel S. Rice; producers, Joan Barnett, Jack Grossbart; director, Michael Switzer; writer, Robert Inman; production, Michael Novotny.

Crew

Camera, Robert Draper; editor, Robert Florio; sound, Edward Tise; music, James McVay.

Cast

Cast: Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert, Bradley Pierce, Markus Flanagan, Lisa Banes, Roger Aaron Brown, Peter Spears, Shelley Morrison, Joe Chrest, Troy Evans , Terrie Snell.
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