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Autism and the Theatre: The Case of The Curious Incident

While theatre fans tend to make it a point to see as many musicals and theatre performances as they can throughout the year, the end of the year is when it seems that the rest of us catch the bug as well. After all, whether you live in New York and get to see The Rockettes or live elsewhere and make sure to catch a local production of The Nutcracker (yes, we realize this is ballet, but it’s as popular as any other seasonal musical theatre production) or A Christmas Story, this time of the year is pretty ideal for attending the theatre.


And yet, as any parent with a child dealing with an autism diagnosis can attest to, the flashing lights and bombast of a musical production can be downright overwhelming. So what’s an autistic theatre buff to do?


While the organization the Theater Development Fund has put on autism-friendly versions of The Lion King and Wicked, their latest production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the first whose content is actually about a young boy who is on the autism spectrum.


So what does an autism-friendly theater production look like? Well firstly, while the original version of The Curious Incident featured numerous lights and loud sounds, these have all been either turned down and muted so as to not overwhelm the audience members. Gone are the strobe lights and abrupt plot changes and the houselights are at only 30% of their normal strength, creating an environment where the audience can arguably feel right at home while losing themselves in a truly engaging story.


Originally conceived of in Britain—where these productions are referred to as “relaxed productions”—the play details the struggles of a young man named Christopher dealing with autism while trying to make sense of the world around him. As such, many of the audience members struggle to decide if they see themselves represented on stage, with some totally connecting with Christopher while others do not, but still relish the opportunity to have a cultural experience that they can connect with.


After all, the cultural options for families with a member dealing with autism can be relatively slim, with train exhibitions and museums shows long being the preferred medium for families to expose their child to culture. And yet, the theatre offers a truly singular opportunity for the autistic individual as she or he is challenged to put his or herself in the position of the protagonist seen on stage.


In fact, not only is this not the first autism-friendly production ever performed, but there has even been a musical about autism that was put on by a group of autistic young adults. This can be seen in the eye-opening documentary Autism: The Musical in which five children who are on the autism spectrum spend several months in LA writing and rehearsing a stage production designed especially for autistic audience members to place themselves in the roles of the protagonists.


So while there is still a significant lack of cultural outlets for families with autistic children, the theatre not only presents a medium the whole family can enjoy, but also creates a cathartic experience that both autistic and neurotypical individuals can relate to.