AUTISM PLAY MAKES A PRO­FOUND CON­NEC­TION

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Priscilla Gil­man

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.”

Joan Marcus Boneau/Bryan-Brown

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.

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