“Change doesn’t happen unless you make it happen.”—Marlon Brando
I am an actor on the autism spectrum and I’m out about it. So when my Theatre History professor suggested I write about acting and autism, I recognized both the opportunity and the enormous responsibility in penning my thoughts about actors on the autism spectrum and the roles available to us, so far.
Autism has hit the last few generations like a tsunami. When I was diagnosed in 1997, the incidence of autism was one in ten thousand. Now, it’s officially one in thirty-six. Reflecting this social change, audiences are seeing more characters with autism in all forms of entertainment. Nevertheless, autism is still not well understood. Much of the public thinks of the condition based primarily on the 1988 film Rain Man, in which Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbit, was not so much autistic, but actually a severely disabled savant. Although autism can be as severely disabling a condition as savant syndrome, it can also express on a spectrum from extreme shyness to social gawkiness to genius. As autistic musician, author, and Adelphi University professor, Dr. Stephen Shore, aptly points out, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
In the three decades since Rain Man, a wider range of autistic stereotypes have emerged in the spheres of media and entertainment—from the silent, less functional character, Moose, in Tectonic Theater’s Uncommon Sense (played by autistic actor Andrew Duff), to the unusual pairing of savant-skills with a high-functioning autism diagnosis portrayed by neurotypical actor Freddie Highmore in television’s The Good Doctor. To date, there are more roles with autism in film and television than there are on stage, but very few of these roles have been played by actors with autism. Mickey Rowe is one example of an actor with autism who landed a lead in regional theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This is not to dismiss some exceptional portrayals of autism by neurotypical actors. Claire Danes, for example, did an excellent job playing Temple Grandin in the film, Temple. Across all three venues—theater, film, and television—there is a wider range of possible roles that could be portrayed to show the many faces of autism. It is still the case in 2018, however, that most autistic roles are generally not cast with autistic actors.
Audiences deserve to see that autism does not come in just a few flavors and that autistic actors are capable of brilliant performances. What’s often missing with neutotypical actors portraying non-neurotypical characters on stage and screen is authenticity. The complaint of most audiences familiar with autism is that neurotypical actors tend to miss the eye cues that go with autism body language. For a person with the condition, learning how to make eye contact is a major hurdle. It’s actually distracting and sometimes physically painful for a person with autism to have to look and listen at the same time. We listen with our whole bodies and sometimes even dim the visual system in order to hear better. But, we learn eye contact to fit in to the neurotypical world. It would follow that someone who’s had the experience with this nuance would bring an extra depth when playing an autistic character. On one hand, many casting directors may not be aware that trained actors with autism are out here and available to play autistic roles. Beyond that, many actors on the autistic spectrum are adept at playing roles of all kinds.
In his HowlRound essay entitled “Our Differences are Our Strengths: Neurodiversity in Theatre,” autistic actor, Mickey Rowe, describes how he wanted to hide his condition prior to being cast in Curious Incident. We’ve seen a similar tendency with gay actors also feeling the need to subvert their sexual orientation to fit a heterosexual stereotype. In approaching an audition, I definitely consider that issue of disclosure, since there is still so much about autism that makes people uneasy.
I believe that actors should be judged on the merits of their ability to perform. Certainly, I applaud the performances of neurotypical actors successfully portraying autistic characters, but the general complaint of audiences intimately familiar with autism is that most neurotypical actors just miss something about the physicality of autism when they play an autistic character.
EMPATHY: One erroneous assumption about people with autism is the belief that we don’t have the capacity to empathize. Because of this, we supposedly can’t bring emotional depth to a character. I disagree. Many children with autism don’t have the language to describe their emotional experiences. This does not mean that they don’t feel deeply about what is going on in their lives. Generally, the experience of autism as a child can mean scary and unsettling special education classrooms, not getting selected for teams, not getting invited to birthday parties, and often getting bullied. Trust me, you feel it when these things happen to you. It’s very likely that the actor who has had these experiences also has the depth of emotion based on life experience. In fact, acting is what has taught me to explore my feelings and to seek to understand the feelings of others.
COMMUNICATION: Then, there’s an assumption that people with autism can’t communicate. Okay, wait a minute! Students with autism spend so much time in their lives practicing communication skills—skills that would actually benefit neurotypical people, including social-emotional language acquisition and manners. Think about it. Just look at how neurotypical children often treat their classmates with differences on the playground. So, okay, someone on the autism spectrum may miss a few clues from the social context from time to time, or bluntly offer an honest unedited remark, but we tend to be hyper-aware that we might be missing something. This keeps us vigilant. In a New York Times article, Mickey Rowe described that he had brought notes for his conversational interview, he was clearly making the effort to correct for any perceived deficit on his part in order to make sure the neurotypical person interviewing him was as comfortable as possible.
On the flip side, because children with autism often use mimicking as a social strategy, by the time they grow up, if they are able to function in a social-emotional context, they likely have become master mimickers. In fact, people like me are always looking to imitate neurotypicality as best as we can. I could argue that we’re more tuned in to act like what it might be like to be neurotypical than a neurotypical actor would be tuned in to what it’s like to act autistically.
Sure, sometimes, some people on the spectrum exhibit unusual behaviors. But, it’s not always the case. As long as those behaviors don’t interfere with that actor’s ability to perform, it’s shouldn’t be an issue.
Many children with autism tend to rely on scripted responses when learning how to communicate. This is why acting classes are so helpful for young people on the autism spectrum. They have the added benefit of teaching social interaction and social language via scripts. In fact, some of the actors who have made it into the limelight got there by way of acting camps for the developmentally disabled. Coby Bird, for example, who was just featured as an autistic teenage patient on television’s The Good Doctor, developed his acting skills through The Miracle Project, a nonprofit offering performing arts opportunities for young people with autism, founded by Elaine Hall, a top Hollywood acting coach.
Like Ms. Hall, my parents had to come up with innovative ways to connect the world for me. In my own case, it was an acting camp that cleared up a flawed understanding on my part about how talking worked. I wasn’t catching on to dialoguing in conversation. I’d do all the talking or you’d do all the talking. In my acting class, Kid A would say a line, Kid B would respond, and Kid A replied to that and so forth. By camp’s end, my language glitch was repaired. As a bonus, my inner thespian was released. My parents recognized that exploiting this passion was a great way to help me learn about the social world. It helped me to learn social-interactive language skills. And, on the way, I developed skills as an actor.
Theatre leads the way for humanity. Autism isn’t just peeking under the curtain here; it’s ripped the curtain down. It’s insisting on being invited to play. The moment for seeking out and finding neurodiverse actors is now. I invite and encourage producers to keep an open mind about actors on the autism spectrum, to consider that, in addition to roles about characters with autism, we can play different roles outside of the usual “autism archetypes.” Give me and other non-neurotypical actors a chance to show you our relatability, our wit, our intellect, our vulnerability, our spirit. We just might surprise you.