AUTISM PLAY MAKES A PROFOUND CONNECTION
Priscilla Gilman is the mother of an autistic son and the author of a book about her experience, “The Anti-Romantic Child: AStory of Unexpected Joy.” The Times asked her to attend a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Barrymore Theatre and write about the play fromher perspective. “Curious Incident,” based on the novel byMarkHaddon, is nominated for six TonyAwards at Sunday’s ceremony, including one for actor Alex Sharp, who plays Christopher, the play’s autistic hero.
NEWYORK— Did I feel awe at the spectacular staging, admiration for the performances, or pleased with the subtle intelligence of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”? Absolutely. But first Iwas filled with gratitude.
I’m the mother of an autistic teenage boy, Benj, who, like Christopher Boone, the play’s protagonist, is a math whiz and a Sherlock Holmes fan. Since the publication ofmymemoir, I’ve becomean advocate for autistic people. There are aspects of “Curious Incident” that fall back on cliché— that autistic people lack empathy, for example— but the playwonderfully brings the autistic perspective to life.
The entire production is an enormous act of imaginative empathy with an autistic person. The set, a huge three-sided black box with surfaces lined like graph paper, makes Christopher’s mind visual, illustrating the interiority of an otherwise hidden mode of consciousness. The letters and numbers, words and phrases that fill and overfill Christopher’s thoughts and sight are projected, often at dizzying speed, onto the walls. It’s likewatching amovie of the character’s turbulent stream of consciousness.
When Christopher is overloaded or in distress, music pulses and blares, sound effects ring out and lights flash. Idioms and metaphors appear onstage in bizarrely literal form: awomanspeaking of “the apple ofmyeye” has a piece of fruit on her face.
We experience the deluge with Christopher. Andwe can understand Christopher becausewe can seewhat he senses. The intensely “auto” world of autistic disconnection has been transformed into an experience that all can share.
As brought to life by the remarkable actor Alex Sharp, Christopher Boone’s behavior, thoughts and experiencewere deeply familiar to me. His stilted speech and cognitive inflexibility, his counting and drumming as self-soothing mechanisms, his need for predictability and clarity aremyson Benj to aT. Someof his behaviors, however, are things that have subsided or softened in Benj over time.
Seeing Christopher with his hands over his ears, resisting his parents’ affectionate overtures, flying into a panic at a strange sound or an unexpected touch, I kept thinking: This is what Benj was like when hewas 3, 4, 5 years old. His melting down, flinging himself to the ground, shaking in overstimulation, screaming— the play brought back just howdifficult it oncewas to cope with Benj’s intense anxiety. It also mademe newly grateful for just howfar Benj has come. Grateful for all the therapists and teachers who helped— not to change him, not to cure him, but to calm his reactivity so his gifts could flourish.
Similarly, the play doesn’t try to “normalize” Christopher. He’s a hero, but an autistic hero. He achieves what he does in large part because of the qualities inherent in his autism: his extraordinary memory and attention to detail, his obsessiveness, his insistence on honesty. Additionally, he’s not only a remarkable logician but also a dreamer, a romantic with a great capacity forwonder, awe and joy.
For all its pyrotechnical splendor, one of the play’s most valuable aspects is its most practical. It vividly depicts the usual unhelpful ways of treating autistic children: talking downto them, assuming they can’t understand, dismissing them as toomuch trouble, touching them without their permission, screaming at them, not making allowances for the gaps in their understanding of body language, social cues and figurative language.
Characters who unfairly berate, grossly underestimate or haplessly misunderstand Christopher are given their comeuppance. We see the better path by contrast: focusing on strengths and affinities, offering patient, calm coaching and mantras that can be used in especially difficult situations, respecting wishes and honoring interests.
The final thing Iwas grateful for in the playwas, perhaps surprisingly, theway it ended. In the book, we are left with Christopher’s list of goals— to attend college and do spectacularly well, live independently, “becomea scientist”— and then an affirmation of infinite possibility:
And I knowI can do this because I solved themystery ofwho killed Wellington and I foundmy mother and Iwas brave and Iwrote a book and thatmeans I can do anything.
The play alters this by introducing doubt, by making the future wildly provisional. After the same list of dreams, rather than simply asserting his freedom, Christopher poses it as a question to his teacher, Siobhan:
Does thatmean I can do anything, do you think? Does thatmean I can do anything, Siobhan? Does thatmean I can do anything?
Siobhan never answers. The stage goes dark.
The play does not abandon the autistic perspective; incessant questioning and repetition are hallmarks of autistic speech. With this suggestively unanswered question, the play resists a simple, sentimental optimism about Christopher’s future and reminds us of the obstacles theworld can still throwup. That little truthtelling moment mademewant to pumpmyfist because— yes!— autistic people are complicated, capable of compassion, full of boundless possibility. And— yes! — many autistic people face serious challenges in getting to the point of being able to function happily and productively. Both sides must be acknowledged.
The success of boys likeChristopher and Benj, of course, depends on acts of generosity and compassionate understanding of the kind that the play has itself been performing. After the lights comeup and the bows have been taken, Alex Sharp as Christopher returns to the stage and presides over it in an exuberant coda. Like a madcap professor or ebullient magician, he bounds around explaining howhe solved a math problem, then gleefully calls for confetti, which rains downupon the wildly applauding theatergoers.
I think the play has an almost unprecedented potential to educate people about both the struggles and the gifts of the autistic mind and to change thewaywe relate to, think about and value autistic people. Myhope and belief is that people will be galvanized by “Curious Incident” tomake visions like Christopher’s possible in the realworld. Ateacher who sees it might vowto differentiate instruction, a business owner to hire someone on the autistic spectrum, a college administrator to create better transition and support services.
Though Christopher’s revels are ended, his story is “such stuff / As dreams are made on.”
ALEX SHARP, kneeling, stars as autistic Christopher Boone in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which is nominated for six Tony Awards, including one for Sharp.