Friday October 13, 2017

What 'The Curious Incident' reveals about the experience of autism

Listen 8:22

by Sarah Kurchak

On my way to see a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I had an incident of my own at my local subway station. 

I had tucked my umbrella under my arm to fish a token out of my purse.

Suddenly, a woman appeared in my personal space, barking something about watching where I put "that thing" over my headphones.

She stomped away while I was still struggling to form an apology and force it out of my mouth.

"I'd say that it got more about the autistic experience right than most non-autistic work does." - Sarah Kurchak

I physically shook for the rest of the ride.

I was thrown by its suddenness. Rattled by her anger. Furious with myself for my carelessness, and for failing to factor the size of my new umbrella into my TTC routine.

I was convinced this was further proof that I didn't belong in the outside world with the normal population. If I'd been going for personal reasons, I would have turned around and bolted home.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Joshua Jenkins plays Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Brinkhoff/Mögenburg/Mirvish.com)



I was going to see the play, which runs at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre until November 19, because Day 6 had invited me to appear on a segment about it.

The theatrical adaptation of Mark Haddon's popular 2003 novel stars a 15-year-old boy who is heavily coded as autistic. (The word itself is never mentioned in either version, but it is heavily implied in Christopher's literalism, sensory issues and problems with being touched, among other things.)

Day 6 wanted to get my perspective on the play as an autistic writer whose work often addresses autistic representation in entertainment.

"There's something very isolating about watching non-autistics get emotional about takes on your life when you don't often see that level of empathy and compassion extended to the real life versions of these beloved characters." - Sarah Kurchak
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

The stage performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is based on Mark Haddon's 2003 book. (Anchor Canada)

It's so rare for autistic people to be offered a platform like this. 

Non-autistic experts and parents of autistic children are usually treated as the sole authorities on the subject in stories of this nature. 

I couldn't afford to squander the opportunity for myself or for my fellow autists.

So I dragged my tense, trembling body to the venue and I was treated to 2 1/2 hours of the most intense and ingeniously staged theatre I've seen in years.

But while the rest of the audience leapt to its feet to applaud at the end, I was left feeling ambivalent.

Whether it was the lingering stress of my earlier encounter, the challenging nature of the play itself, or the bizarre experience of sitting in a room with a bunch of non-autistics while another bunch of non-autistics perform a fictionalized version of your neurodevelopment disorder, I'm still struggling to process and articulate exactly how I felt about it all.

I'm not even sure what I said in the interview with Brent Bambury that accompanies this post.

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher Boone

The stage comes alive as Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins) huddles on the floor. (Brinkhoff/Mögenburg/Mirvish.com)



If I could set aside my autism and give a straightforward review, I'd say that it did a stunning job of taking an extremely internal narrative and drawing the audience into Christopher's mind, through emotional and physical performances, sensory-overloading set design and clever writing.

If I were simply evaluating its accuracy, I'd say that it got more right about the autistic experience than most non-autistic work does.

It sure nailed the Dantean nightmare that is riding public transit, for example.

Train scene in the The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time

The stage transforms into a subway station during a performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. (Brinkhoff/Mögenburg/Mirvish.com)



But I can't separate my autism from my viewing experience and I care about so much more than verisimilitude when it comes to the use of autism in art.

And here's where my words start to fail me.

I believe I should point out that it's even more rare for autistic people to be included in productions about autism than it is for me to be asked about them.

Maybe I should add that there's something very isolating about watching non-autistics get emotional about takes on your life when you don't often see that level of empathy and compassion extended to the real life versions of these beloved characters. 

All I know for sure is that as I surveyed that standing ovation, everyone started to look like the umbrella lady.

Sarah Kurchak is a Toronto-based journalist whose work addresses autistic representation in entertainment. Click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page to hear her interview with Brent Bambury.

                      


            

CBC policy is to refer to people with autism, not autistic people. Sarah Kurchak strongly prefers to refer to people as being autistic, herself included. We've chosen to honour her preference because this is her work.