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Autistic Identity: In History, In Theater.

For those who don’t know, I am autistic and I tend to wear that on my sleeve. I have recently realized that it might behoove me to figure out what exactly being autistic means, from a historical perceptive. As a result, I have recently been doing a lot of research about the history of autism. I have recently been doing a lot of thinking about the history of autism. During this time, I noticed a narrative that was happening in this history, and it occurred to me that, I think this narrative potentially parallels a narrative about autism’s place in the theater community. By looking at one of these narratives, I was wondering if maybe I could revel something about the other. Conducting an exploration of sorts. Seeing if one informs the other, or not.

Through most of autism’s history, the primary advocate for the autistic community has been the parents of autistic child. Across the board, the first cases of studied autism were in children, starting with Leo Kanner’s landmark articles about Donald Triplett. Naturally then, most early issues in the autism community, steamed from the perceptive of children’s issues, developmental and otherwise. Therefore, the most passionate and effective advocates for these children, more often than not, were their parents.  These brave parents fought for their children, fought for them not to be institutionalized, fought for them to be able to go to school, and fought for them to be able to have the same rights as their non-autistic peers. Fighting established order after established order to do right for their children.

However, while I cannot stress the importance and bravery of these parents work enough (and I’m doing a real disservice to the scope and complexity of their story), there was an unforeseen consequence of this advocacy. Because this work was so parent driven, and so childcentirc, it never allowed room for self-advocacy in the autism community. And for much of its history, autistic people didn’t really have a voice in their own community. And that came with a lot of problems.

Jim Sinclair was the first person to point this out in a public way. And he does so in a very scathing manner. In 1993, he makes his landmark speech, Don’t Mourn for Us (reading which I would recommend to anyone). In this speech, which he presents to a room of parents, he calls out some of the problems that were a result of parent led advocacy. Primarily he attacks the, at the time, unchallenged rhetoric around curing autism, and seeing autism as a disease, as opposed to an identity. This is the first time we get the idea of autism as identity, and from that notion, other very important milestones are birthed. Including Judy Singer’s concept of neurodiversity, and Ari Ne’eman’s founding of the Autism Self Advocacy Network.

So in short. Parent led advocacy was wildly successful, and important. Giving autistic people a footing in society and the proper resources to help families navigate having a child with a different Neurological make up. However, as a result of this work, the identity around autism was completely ignored, and autistic people were left lost in a community that was meant to be their own.

So that’s a lot (actually it was an unfairly short version of what’s a lot), but what does this have to do with theater? This is where I get cautious. I think there might be a parallel between the narrative above, and where autism stands today in than theater world.

It seems to me, that when autism is discussed in the theater world, the vast majority of the conversation falls into three categories. Autism friendly performances, education of Autistic people through theater, and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Like the parent driven advocacy of the previous narrative, all three of these things serve a very commendable service, and ought to be applauded. Autism friendly performances give autistic people access to art they may not have otherwise had. Theater education helps inclusivity, as well as helping autistic children with social skills. And, we’ll get to Dog in the Nighttime, but first let’s deal with the other two.

I want to reiterate, this is important work, and I do not wish to criticizes anyone who engages with work that is so valuable. However, these works cannot be the sole places where autism and theater intersect. And it can really feel at times like these are the sole things that define where the two intersect. One deals with the intersection of autism and witnessing theater, or autism as audience. The other deals with the intersection of autism and education, as well as autistic people being welcomed into the theater. But, to no fault of either of them, neither deals with what it means to be autistic in the theater community. Neither deals with what our specific role as autistic people in this community are. This work is important, but there has to be room for the identity of autism to be part of the discussion. Which I suppose, in part, has to deal with the question of, what is the role of autistic stories in the theater?  Which leads me to…

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime”. As some of you may know, in the past I have been very critical of this play (and book). Now that some time has passed, I realize retrospectively, that this play has immense value. It puts unheard voices on stage as subjects, it does it’s best to portray them as three dimensional characters, and, above all else, it is really well written. I had clearly misplaced some difficult feelings I was having at the time. However, though slightly misplaced, I think those feelings were not entirely unwarranted.

This play is fine when discussing it as a story about autism. The problem arises when it is the definitive story about autism. And honestly, that’s what it feels like right now. This problem is somewhat outside the power of the production, so it’s tricky to navigate. Autism is such a wide spectrum, and as a result, we hit a problem when this one, very specific depiction of autism, defines the entirety of the autistic experience in the theater world. Now don’t misunderstand me, they should strive to be specific, autistic people are just as different to each other as any other character is to another. Specific is good. But like I said, the fault is not necessarily that of this production. The production just happens to exist in a theater world where autistic voices, aren’t really defining the identity of autism. Just as when autistic people had very little say in defining autistic identity during parent advocacy.

And it doesn’t help when, in this definitive story of autism, the person who wrote the source material, the person who wrote the script, the director, the person who plays the autistic person, are all people who are not autistic.

And in theory, that’s fine, to an extent.  After all, to deny we can tell stories outside of our own experience, is to deny the power of theater itself. But it would be a much easier pill to swallow if this show wasn’t seemingly the only mainstream autistic story that the theater has to offer.

So, does this parallel work? Is the narrative here one of a series of noble actions, that while still invaluable, cultivate a community in which autistic identity hasn’t had the opportunity to grow? Or do we have two different narratives, with two different sets of problems? Or maybe one of them isn’t even a problem at all?

Honestly. I don’t know? I don’t know the answer to that. I hesitated to write this because, I have no answers. But I think this is precisely why I needed to write this. Sometimes arguments have to be made definitively, presenting itself as truth, and that has value. But sometimes, perhaps it is ok to present something that only might be true, or might not be. Maybe this idea is spot on, maybe it’s way off, maybe some of it is spot on, and some of it is way off. But maybe there is value for me to just put it out there, and see what happens. Because if I don’t, then I stay just as lost as before. The only definitive I have, is that the autistic voice is a valuable one. And that being autistic is part of who I am, and therefore it must be a part of how I engage with theater. So therefore, I must put it out there.

And that, is all I’ll say for now…


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