Theatre and the global dialogue surrounding autism

by Andy Paris

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

The following includes excerpts from a presentation delivered at the Flying High With Autism Conference in Pensacola, FL, organized by Anita Lesko.

For three years now my wife Anushka Paris–Carter and I have been writing a play about living on the autism spectrum, under the nurturing umbrella of Tectonic Theater Project. Through our own life experience and meeting with other autism families and many, many people on the spectrum; speaking to clinicians, psychiatrists, therapists and researchers; going to autism research conferences and reading countless books, articles and blogs; a very complicated and perpetually moving picture of autism has begun to form. The challenges of autism are well documented; the successes and triumphs somewhat less so. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person on the spectrum… you’ve met one person on the spectrum.” So how to share the active discovery of a single concept, with as many variables as stars in the sky?

Autism is one of those things in life which, if it isn’t pointed out to you, you may never recognize its existence; but once you are introduced to it, you not only never forget it, you recognize it everywhere. Autism is defined by innately human behaviors, only in clusters, more or less. It is in the nature of autism to exist as an internalized experienced. Much of the disability part is language-based. So words do not come easily. Even on the speck of the spectrum which concedes an aptitude for learning and repeating words, so often the pragmatic “let me explain this to you so you can understand it” side is obscured, or blurred—perhaps by prosopagnosia (face blindness), or lights that look as bright as the sun, or an annoying sound that only you can hear occupying your mind like a migraine to the point of not being able to articulate anything at all much less something as complicated as a need and in a manner that is clear or dare I suggest polite. So in working to conveying the arc autism has taken over the years, and the effect in those diagnosed and those that are near and dear to them, we have come to realize that language, though necessary to some extent, falls short; that words, in the world of autism at least, are just as arbitrary and slippery a concept as well—autism.

So how to cross over? How to involve and appreciate and externalize the internal complexities of a body and a mind we claim to know the nuts and bolts of, but are in reality set apart from its energy, and the true nature of how we know what we know, and how we stay alive, thinking all our subconscious thoughts and replicating and replicating our DNA all the time all the time. Cell replication is a tricky business it turns out. Anything can happen. Our little protein-making genes, with all their (computer modeling metaphor coming!) programming and data collection and transfer, and sometimes… mutating.

And all this means to us really, on the outside… is that the 24-year-old who’s flapping in the corner, who is thirsty but can’t ask for a drink of water or is desperate but too angry or anxious or disregulated to go to the bathroom, may simultaneously be devising a system of organization that will revolutionize the way information is stored. Or she may be merely hungry. Or not thinking anything at that particular moment. Or tired. Or just desperate to use the toilet. And her parents? Her parents are desperate too in a way, and happy, and sad, and striving, and grieving, and so proud. Always guessing at… what’s going on in there? What is she seeing or hearing or feeling? What does she desire and care about?

Does the theatre and the artistic community have a role to play in the global dialogue surrounding autism? Autism, as a concept, is relatively new and currently evolving in its construction. It is a complex, individualized experience. And we are still learning its language and physicality. It is unclear to me how much the scientific community is able to connect with the general public in terms of being able to relate the complexity of its findings. Everything seems to me to become boiled down and oversimplified. Many people have taken to the modern airwaves in the form of social media. This has had its successes. Word spreads fast and there is the possibility of a daily presence, if you can reach enough Twitter followers and invite enough ‘friends.’ But social media has its pitfalls. It cannot successfully avoid the sound bite mentality that can limit the discussion surrounding autism. Also, social media mirrors some of the social misunderstandings that occur around autism, in that the subtleties of human interaction become blurred in the cyber-sphere; misinterpretations, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and sometimes downright offensiveness all play a role in social media on a minute-to-minute basis.

I am not a professional scientific researcher. But theatrical research is not bound by many of the same rules as scientific research. Many people– autistics and non-autistics alike (if one cares to distinguish)– talk about autism as if it is one thing, a singular condition of existence, able to be defined. And yet the definition of autism has changed so much and the parameters continue to be fluid. What would it mean then, to take a live performance that presents truthfully a tapestry of different lives on the spectrum and their experiences, to every community in America: a performance in which some of the stereotypes are broken down, where the conflicts amongst autistic and between the autistic and neurotypical communities (if you care to distinguish them) are played out in all their glorious complexity? What would it mean for all people to have everyone’s radar perked for autism?

We will be working for three weeks in July with a team of designers and performers all locked into the Gym at Judson, continuing to work toward externalizing some of what we’ve known and discovered. What we find will premiere in September of 2015. If not before.


Andy Paris has made a career of developing new works for the stage and screen, including THE LARAMIE PROJECT:10 YEARS LATER, THE LARAMIE PROJECT (EMMY nomination), GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCARWILDE, by Moises Kaufman, OR,, by Liz Duffy Adams, Lucie Tiberghien’s THE QUIET ROOM, INNOCENTS, by Rachel Dickstein, The Talking Band’s THE NECKLACE, Matthew Maguire’s PHAEDRE and Deb Margolin’s INDELIBLE FLESH. As a writer/director: LARAMIE: 10, GOING PUBLIC, an original play about our education system; THE AMERICAN FAMILY at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival; THE FANMAKER’S INQUISITION, co-adapted with his lovely wife Anushka Paris-Carter from the novel by Rikki Ducornet; GOLDSTAR OHIO, which he directed at The Cleveland Public Theatre; MIGRATION at the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU; Faith Pilger’s THE STAGES OF BURNING; and THE CORPORATE CARNIVAL, for The Women’s Project, in which he also performed at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center. Currently he is co-writing SQUARE PEG ROUND HOLE, also with Ms. Paris-Carter, a play about living on the autism spectrum. Andy has performed in countless other plays in New York, regionally, and in Europe. Regionally, he has been seen at Denver Center, The Huntington, Playmaker’s Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Rep. Theatre of St. Louis, Hartford Stage, Theatre Virginia, Berkeley Rep and La Jolla Playhouse. Favorite roles include Berowne in LOVE’S LABOURS LOST, Keppler in Richard Goodwin’s TWO MEN OF FLORENCE, directed by Edward Hall, and all of the male roles in A SLEEPING COUNTRY, by Melanie Marnich, directed by Mark Rucker. FILM/TV credits include LARAMIE (HBO) and LAW & ORDER (NBC). He has also been the recipient of two AUDIE Awards for his audiobook narrations. Andy was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and is a graduate of NYU.

  • Michele

    Keep opening our eyes Andy.

  • Ken LaZebnik

    Thank you for sharing this post and the work you’ve been doing in developing the play. Coming at the subject from the inside — and you clearly have those insights and understanding — is admirable and I’m sure your piece will add to the tapestry of work being done in this arena. I wanted to share a bit of my own experiences: ON THE SPECTRUM is the third play I’ve written about living on the spectrum. It was commissioned by The Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis and premiered there in November, 2011, directed by Jack Reuler. It was subsequently produced by The Fountain Theater in Los Angeles, under the direction of Jacqueline Schultz. My interest in the topic is highly personal; I have two nephews and a niece who live at various points on the spectrum. Many of the other pieces about autism (including my two earlier plays, VESTIBULAR SENSE and THEORY OF MIND) have one autistic character, navigating through the world of the neuro-typical. Or they portray the experience from a parent’s point of view. I was interested in exploring an emerging social movement, largely based online, which looks at autism as a difference rather than a disability. ON THE SPECTRUM tells the story of a young man with Aspergers who has passed as neurotypical who falls in love with a much more heavily affected young woman, who advocates for being openly and proudly autistic. It’s a love story, in essence, but two out of the three characters are on the spectrum, so it tries to tell that story from the inside. At Mixed Blood, Jack cast actors who are on the spectrum and so there was an additional level of working from the inside. I hope your production goes well and would love to get updates on its progress. Ken LaZebnik (klazebnik@stephens.edu.)

  • Margo Dierdorff

    Always a pleasure reading your words, and the feeling that our voices are being heard <3