I am 20 years old, a sophomore Motion Designer at Ringling College of Art and Design, and the only sibling to an older brother with low-verbal autism. This article was a special request by my boyfriend, Max. He asked me to share my sibling perspective on the theatrical production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. This play is based on a book by Mark Haddon, and I was treated to this theatrical production during my stay in New York.
When I first was told about this play, I was apprehensive because the main character has verbal autism. My older brother, Anthony, has low-verbal autism with persistent echolalia and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was uneasy thinking about how autism is usually portrayed in the media. I was expecting a lighthearted portrayal of social quirkiness with savant skills that does not reflect what most autism families go through every day. Many on the spectrum are unable to communicate fluently, and can't live independently. I asked my mother what she thought. She said I should go view the production as an art student, and not to limit myself because of my upbringing.
We saw the production on January 6, 2015. It lasted two hours. My initial reaction during the first interval was, “Oh my God. Where do I even begin?” I had been sobbing.
This story revolves around a 15-year-old boy named Christopher who has verbal autism, and savant skills in mathematics. What surprised me about this production is that they don’t glamorize the disorder. They actually address difficult aspects, and it personally affected me. For instance, the story touched on food sensitivity, sensory overload, eye contact, understanding of concepts and metaphors, and most of all, physical contact.
Some of these I have witnessed first hand. Anthony has severe allergies to wheat, eggs, dairy, rye, as well as several environmental allergies that were not addressed until just recently. So, for all those years when Anthony was having behavioral issues, he was actually reacting to foods that were causing him pain.
The way the production addressed sensory overload was through motion design and the usage of sound. The images ranged from overlapping signs at Paddington Station all juxtaposing in a random manner accompanied with amplified sounds of advertisements and people shouting. It was disturbing for me to watch Christopher writhe in pain from all of the competing sounds.
The part that made me break down?
There is a point in the first act where Christopher discovers something about his mother that his father was trying to keep from him. His father gets upset, and starts screaming at him, and then grabs him to get his attention. The character of Christopher hates being touched, and starts screaming and flailing his arms in agony, all the while his father is trying to get him to calm down by restraining him.
That was the specific moment I started sobbing. All those memories of my brother's behavioral outbursts, my parents trying to calm him and sometimes struggling to control their tempers, all came rushing back to me. There are many moments I remember fondly with my brother, but there are others that have left emotional scars that just won't heal. The production was so believable that I had to constantly remind myself that it was just a play. Part of me wanted to scream and tell the father to stop, and try to comfort the boy. Growing up, I had to co-parent my brother whenever my family went anywhere. We all had to work together to keep Anthony safe, so you could say I had to grow up faster than most of my peers. I was not resentful though. My parents always appreciated me, and they always explained to me why I needed to help. There was never any rift between us.
I did not necessarily identify with the parents in the story, however. The father mostly yelled at Christopher, and the mother was so overwhelmed by the ordeal of caring for someone with autism that she basically retreats. I found that shocking, but I remembered my mother saying to me, “The special needs population is just as diverse as any other population...there are different kinds of people in every population, regardless.” I've seen everything from people tirelessly advocating to behaviors that are downright unspeakable. I am grateful my parents always worked together to take care of both of us and maintain their composure. It gave me a healthier view of life and everything in it.
The end of the story is encouraging, but I won’t say more than that though. Visually, it is dazzling. Sound-wise, it is beautifully accurate and a perfect illustration of sensory overload. The story may be hard to sit through, especially how the character reacts to people and his surroundings. There will be parts where you see your loved ones reflected, even if it isn’t not at the same level. I saw Anthony in some parts, but not others.
The end of the play wrecked me. Max knew this would be emotionally charged for me, and did his best to comfort me. I have always tried to remain strong for Anthony, so I said I was okay. As I write this, it feels like somebody set a time machine back to my childhood, and I just visited the most emotionally draining moments of my life. Life was not easy for us. Even when we went out to do fun stuff like go to amusement parks or take joyrides, we always approached them with caution and fear. There were moments that I can’t shake emotionally, like the time Anthony wandered outside late one night to take photographs of our floodlights. My parents changed all the locks to deadbolts with keys. That sent us into such a panic that we double lock all the doors on the first floor. The thought of anyone hurting Anthony or him being in danger terrifies me. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that no one is going to get in my way of me taking care of my brother. I need to know for myself that Anthony will always be safe.
Natalie Palumbo is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.