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Autistic Artists Should Be Telling Autistic Stories

Theatre is a powerful force. The stories told onstage shape how an audience views their friends, children, and colleagues. It can be a great place to form an empathic connection with others and learn stories from different perspectives. However, when stories are put into the wrong hands, they can cause these perspectives to be seen as strange, leading the audiences to exclude those people in their everyday lives.

The autistic community has lived that experience for years. Through a variety of different media representations, autistic people have been othered and dehumanized by the non-autistic community.

Theatre is no exception. One of the most well-known plays about autism is Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (based on the book by Mark Haddon with the same title). This play portrays an accurate intersection of autism and trauma, but it also showcases a lot of autistic stereotypes. These stereotypes are exaggerated when put next to the ensemble of neurotypical characters in the show, making the autistic main character, Christopher, seem different from them. The audience sees Christopher as “other,” and the play makes no attempt to show the audience the humanity that also exists inside of Christopher’s disability.

This dynamic was only furthered when non-autistic actors were cast as Christopher. According to Fearlessly Different by Mickey Rowe (the first openly autistic actor to ever play Christopher), casting teams would often claim they cast non-autistic actors because “autistic people couldn't handle the demands of the show.” Others have said it’s because “the story isn’t about autism.” Perspectives on autism have slowly shifted in the years since Curious Incident premiered. Since Mickey Rowe played the role in 2017, a variety of different openly autistic actors have played the character. There have also been strides for representation outside of Curious Incident. In the fall of 2023, the first openly autistic actors to play autistic characters on Broadway debuted in How To Dance in Ohio.

However, what is missing in both of these examples is an openly autistic director. (How To Dance in Ohio did have several autistic people on the creative team who helped with the on-stage representation). While having actors with lived experience is crucial in being able to have authentic representation, how can you tell a story about that lived experience without an autistic person at the helm? Stories about autism need openly autistic directors to lead them. While I have no doubt that there are plenty of autistic directors, there are very few that are open about it. I am one of three that I can name off the top of my head, and I only discovered the other two recently. It led me to ask: Why aren’t there more openly autistic directors, and why aren’t they telling these stories?

In 2023, I became the first openly autistic person to direct Curious Incident in a professional setting. Through my experience in directing this play, I’ve gathered some answers to my questions and found out why having autistic directors is crucial for telling autistic stories.

There’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”

While there have been more autistic actors cast in Curious Incident in recent years, it is certainly still not the norm. But an openly autistic director is more likely to cast an openly autistic actor in autistic roles. We’re more likely to understand how important it is to have authentic casting and lean in that direction.

There’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” It’s meant to show that autism is a spectrum, so each autistic person will have a different experience. Having multiple openly autistic people in the rehearsal room will lead to a wider range of perspectives, which can lead to developing a more universal message about a piece. When directing Curious Incident, I was firm from the beginning that I wanted an openly autistic actor to play Christopher.

While there was some initial pushback from the production company, I didn’t waiver. We cast Katherine McCrackin, who is both autistic and physically disabled, as our genderswapped version of the character, Chris. If I had not pushed for authentic casting, no autistic person would have been cast in the role.

An actor crouches onstage reading a letter.

Katherine McCrackin, Geof Newton, and jon Baril in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens at A Common Thread Theatre Company. Directed by Megan Lummus. Assistant directed by Amanda Holbrook. Costume design by Carolyn Olsen. Lighting design by Roxanne and Pete Nute. Photo by Colleen Locke.

During the course of the rehearsal process, it was beneficial to have Katherine in the room.

Because we had a shared experience of autism, directing her was easier than directing non-autistic people. I could say to her, “Okay, here I want you to stim in whatever way makes sense for you and the character,” and she would understand. I’ve heard that this is not always the case for directors when they try to portray autism on stage. For example, one director gave an actor a list of autistic “tics” (he meant to use the term stim) to portray, and almost all of them were based on stereotypes, leaving the actor confused and unsure. The actor and director didn’t have a shared understanding of the autistic experience, and weren’t able to communicate effectively because of that.

Katherine also helped me to see parts of the show that I didn’t before working with her. She helped me uncover the trauma that existed alongside Christopher’s autism, and we worked to find the reasons behind it. This was crucial in helping to develop the story I wanted to tell with my Curious Incident. I knew I wanted to do something different with the show, which has been done a thousand times, largely in the same way. The message for this Curious Incident became clearer when Katherine and I deepened our conversations about the way we looked at Chris, and our shared autistic experiences. I didn’t see an endearing story of a boy helping his father come to terms with raising an autistic child, as is often portrayed. I saw a story of a young autistic person learning how to navigate a society that wasn’t built for them. Through the staging of the show, it then asked the audience to examine the part they play in making society unwelcoming to autistics.

One of the ways I did this was through the ending. The show ends with Chris asking her teacher, Siobhan, if she can do anything because she was able to go to London on her own. It’s usually staged to demonstrate that if Chris can do anything, so can the audience. However, throughout the show, no one helps Chris do anything. So, I made the directorial choice to stage the ending in a way that showed a reality of being autistic. At the end, Chris and Siobhan are doing their final scene and the rest of the ensemble are standing in a semicircle around them. Before Chris says her final line, Siobhan walks away.

Chris then goes to each of the characters, as if asking for help. As she goes up to them, they turn their backs to her one at a time. She is left with no one to ask for help. She looks at the audience and asks them, “Does that mean I can do anything?” Before the audience can answer, the lights go to black and the show ends.

A group of actors standing around a central actor sitting on a rehearsal cube.

Milton Rocha, Caroline Hubbard, Kristin Fehlau, Katherine McCrackin, Nicki Ramshaw, Geof Newton, jon Baril, and Isabel Alexandre in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens at A Common Thread Theatre Company. Directed by Megan Lummus. Assistant directed by Amanda Holbrook. Costume design by Carolyn Olsen. Lighting design by Roxanne and Pete Nute. Photo by Colleen Locke.

This and many other directorial choices I made resulted in an engaging show, even for people that had seen a production before, and the autistic people in the audience could see a story that resonated with them. A director who isn’t autistic wouldn't have been able to do it the same way. No amount of research on a disability can account to the experience of living day-to-day with that disability. With the perspective of lived experience, a director can create a show that shares an authentic theme that will resonate with both the autistic and non-autistic people in the audience. Having an openly autistic actor in a leading role can help, but actors have a limited amount of power in the production room. Their perspective can easily be shut down by the director or production team.

Being able to be openly autistic in the Curious Incident rehearsal room allowed this production to be a powerful story showcasing the reality of living as an autistic person. However, it wasn’t easy to be openly autistic throughout the process, and it helped me understand why most people don’t feel welcome to be open about their autism in the theatrical world.

An actor is held in the air by two other actors.

Laura Green, Geof Newton, Katherine McCrackin, jon Baril, Isabel Alexandre, and Milton Rocha in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens at A Common Thread Theatre Company. Directed by Megan Lummus. Assistant directed by Amanda Holbrook. Costume design by Carolyn Olsen. Lighting design by Roxanne and Pete Nute. Photo by Colleen Locke.

While many theatres will tout inclusion and representation in their mission statements, they aren’t willing to put in the effort to implement it. Working with openly autistic directors requires accommodations and adjustments that most producers aren’t used to, and they often don’t create an environment where those accommodations can be asked for. Additionally, education and advocacy are typically put completely on the autistic people’s plate.

While working on Curious Incident, I didn't ask for personal accommodations, but only because I felt unable to because of members of the production team and the board of directors. My assistant director, Amanda, and I made an effort to make the show as accessible as possible for the entire disabled community. For example, we included a captioning system in the show and had audio-visual (AV) descriptions at the top of the show. When I proposed the idea of AV descriptions at a production meeting, no one disagreed, so we moved forward and I told the cast. Later, it was expressed to me that the board of the company had concerns that we were being “too sensitive” about the accessibility we were implementing, and that they worried that the AV descriptions would be distracting for the people in the audience who didn’t need them. A staff member also expressed that they didn’t think it would be helpful for the blind community because, as a sighted person, they didn’t find it helpful. The tone of the conversations made me feel like I could not ask for any accommodations that I needed to make the process easier for me, given how they were reacting to accommodations for hypothetical disabled audience members.

Two actors stand onstange, one in a pink dress and the other in a t-shirt using a cane.

Laura Green and Katherine McCrackin in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens at A Common Thread Theatre Company. Directed by Megan Lummus. Assistant directed by Amanda Holbrook. Costume design by Carolyn Olsen. Lighting design by Roxanne and Pete Nute. Photo by Colleen Locke.

Education about autism was also put on both Katherine’s and my plate. The production team and cast came into the show with an idea of what they believed autism to be. Many cast members tried to talk over me about the autistic experience because they taught autistic children or had an autistic child. There was an underlying tone that said that they did not believe that I was telling the truth about my lived experience. It created a struggle in the rehearsal room, making it harder to tell the story of Curious Incident. Some of them were open to learning more from the perspective of the autistic people in the room, but many were opposed to being told a different experience, or refused to acknowledge that the play was about an autistic person.

This experience with a cast shows how many people aren’t willing to believe autistic people. For people like myself who have relatively low support needs, it's often because they don’t believe that I am autistic. When people assume that their director “isn’t autistic enough” to talk to them about their lived experience, it creates a disconnect that is not conducive to a good rehearsal environment.

Telling authentic, autistic stories can only make the world better, for everyone. 

How do we change these problems? How do we make theatre a space that welcomes autistics? It starts by having more autistic people behind the table. Having autistic directors allows the stories we’re choosing to tell be more authentic. It also allows for those stories to say something new about the way we view the world. When producers make the decision to hire autistic directors, they need to be aware that we will have accommodations, and they need to create a space where we are welcome to ask for those needs. People who are cast in these productions need to go in with an open mind and listen to the autistic people when we talk about our experiences.

For as long as we’ve known about autism, autistic people have been “othered” by society. The stories we’ve chosen to tell about autism treat us as an alienated species that non-autistics are lucky to be able to communicate and empathize with. We can change that. If we choose to hire openly autistic directors, we will also have more openly autistic actors. We could have more openly autistic playwrights, stage managers, designers, and more. If we choose to listen to these autistic people’s experience and allow them to authentically tell their stories, we will collectively take a step forward in building a connection between the autistic and the non-autistic experience. It could show parents that the autistic experience is not that different from their own, and they can allow their autistic child to be their authentic self. It could show employers that autistic people would be an asset to their workplace, not a detriment. Telling authentic, autistic stories can only make the world better, for everyone.

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Thanks for opening up this conversation. I was just recently diagnosed with autism as a 31 year old woman… this last year has been a whole process of reclaiming lost dreams I had to lay down because of having no context about my ND until recently and all the ways that left felt irrationally difficult which I now understand as sensory sensitives and executive function challenges. I grew up in theatre interning as a homeschool student, assisted a professional theatre company for ten years primarily around directing and dramaturgy, and went to Switzerland and France to study with my teacher’s teachers for multiple summers all by the time I was 22. Then I experienced burnout and health issues and relational ruptured with my mentors and ended up stepping away from theatre in ways. I’m now working with supporting people through animist ritual and somatic nervous system work, but starting to circle back towards sensing into creative process again and what drew me to theatre in the first place. This article is encouraging to think that there might be space for openly autistic creators within theatre contexts. 

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