I have a lot of strong opinions about autism in the media.
I sometimes feel like popular media just portrays autism as a stereotype (The Big Bang theory, Rain Man). Other times, when they do get it right, the story isn’t about autism, it’s about ONE autistic individual (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). It’s hard to talk about accurate media representations because there are very few stories about autism itself.
Uncommon Sense, a new play from Tectonic Theater Project, really tackles all of these issues at once.
A fictional documentary-style tale from the company who brought us The Laramie Project, the writers/directors Andy Paris and Anushka Paris-Carter follow the same principles, developing their characters and stories from interviews conducted with real people on the autism spectrum. They’ve done six years’ worth of loving research and the payoff is a story where every moment, every mannerism, is somehow from or based on reality. The goal being to follow the creed of “nothing about us without us.”
I’ll admit, I have a strong emotional attachment to this play to begin with. I was one of the first people Andy and Anushka interviewed (and one of the characters, Jess, is heavily based on me). They found me in an adorably natural way, through the web series, Autism Talk TV, that I did on WrongPlanet.net with Alex Plank and Jack Robison. While Anushka was internet stalking me, her husband Andy coincidentally got a posting to teach at Amherst College, in my hometown. So they reached out. They intentionally stayed away from interviewing more “established” autistic advocates, like those with published memoirs, movies, and book tours. People who, as Anushka put it, “already had a platform. We mostly really wanted to explore the stories of people who don’t have as much of a voice.”
One of the actors in Uncommon Sense, Andrew Duff, is also on the spectrum, and was discovered in the same grassroots manner. During their research for the play, Andy and Anushka stumbled across the video of Andrew’s senior theater project from college, about his experience growing up with an autism diagnosis. They reached out to him immediately to recruit him to come workshop the play in New York City, and he’s been a part of the cast ever since. His character, Moose (based on a real autistic young man nicknamed Moose), is a non-speaking boy struggling to express his identity while still living at home with protective parents.
(Funny enough, some time after I moved to New York City, Andy and Anushka conspired to introduce me to Andrew Duff, and we’ve been dating ever since.)
The story of Uncommon Sense is told through four central characters: Moose, Jess, Lali, and Dan.
Moose is spirited, imaginative, and extremely curious, and doesn’t speak at all. He loves jellyfish and water. The aquarium and the pond by his house are the places he feels most at home. Jess is a strong-willed college student, made shy only by her difficulties with speech and social processing. She loves anime, video games, and neuroscience, and thinks she knows more than her professors (but often doesn’t know when to keep that fact to herself). Lali is an independent teenager with an ironic sense of humor. Prone to self-injury, she wears a helmet, and loves to press herself into corners and play with dry rice. Lali’s severe sensory and motor difficulties make it hard for her to feel comfortable with the outside world, and she does not speak. Dan is a self-identified “aspie” with multiple college degrees, yet he works at a grocery store because and struggles socially. Dan speaks, sometimes too well, using overly proper pronunciation and wording, and is looking for a girlfriend to share his obsessive interests in toxicology, horses, and cats. Though his motor and sensory issues make eating with silverware so uncomfortable that he eats with his hands, even out on dates.
The play itself is a technical masterpiece. The stage is a beautiful bedlam of moving parts, platforms, and doorways. Combined with the masterful lighting and visual effects, the physical setting of the play does an amazing job of portraying how autistic information processing feels. (Fun sensory-friendly fact: the lighting is done almost entirely by projection Because the lights don’t come from the stage itself, they are at no time pointed in the eyes of the audience! Amazing.)
I know I’m not being very concise here—hyuk hyuk, central coherence issues—but I honestly can’t overstate how happy I am with the final product. I had sky-high hopes from the start, and they’ve been met and even exceeded.
I love that the characters who don’t speak are just as powerful, just as relatable, as the speaking characters.
I love that the speaking autistic characters still struggle with their language in noticeable ways, unique to each character.
I love the overt celebrations of stimming.
I love the sometimes not-so-subtle fact that the characters meant to be professionals working with autistic people (a speech pathologist, a group-home director) are both on the spectrum themselves.
I love the play’s use of identity-first language.
I love that even the most fantastic and unbelievable moments are things straight out of the lives of real people.
Please, please come see this play.
Plus, autistic guests are encouraged to be themselves. You can moan, flap, yell, and wiggle all you want in the audience on any night and I promise you the actors will only be overjoyed that we, the spectrumites, are there in the crowd to see our stories told!