October 13, 2015

Achieving better autistic representation on stage

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , , , at 2:53 am by chavisory

Months and months ago now, I saw an early preview performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway.

There were things I liked a lot about the show (most of the design, most of the acting), and things I didn’t like (the conclusion of a plot line involving abuse by a parent).  I found the show not un-problematic, but powerful and well-executed in many ways.  I was looking forward to discussing things like how well-rendered Christopher’s internal life and thought and emotional processes were, or whether the sensory intensity of the design was effective in conveying the experience of an autistic person to a largely non-autistic audience.

But I didn’t get to have a lot of those conversations, because most of the autistic community was occupied primarily not with critiquing the show or its protagonist’s portrayal, but with protesting the casting of the actor who portrayed Christopher, Alex Sharp, specifically with the criticism that an openly autistic actor should have been cast to play the role, and that going forward, theatrical productions should commit to having openly autistic actors play autistic characters.

I profoundly disagree with this stance for several reasons.

1. It has every potentiality to hurt and not help the situation.

Almost every argument I have seen for imposing an expectation that autistic characters be played only by autistic performers is equally applicable to argue that only non-autistic or non-disabled actors can play non-autistic or non-disabled characters.

Arguments that having life experience as a disabled person is the only way that an actor could realistically portray disability, or that physical, first-hand experience of autism is necessary to accurately “embody” an autistic character on stage, are perfectly reversible to argue that since people disabled from birth have no life experience of being non-disabled, their ability to represent non-disabled characters is necessarily inferior. Or that since autistic people have no first-hand, innate experience of being non-autistic, then how could they have the capacity to portray non-autistic characters?

If non-autistic actors can’t realistically portray autistic characters because of their lack of life experience, then how can autistic actors realistically portray non-autistic characters, when they don’t have that life experience?

This framing of the issue stands every likelihood of enshrining a bias that autistic actors are only capable of playing autistic roles.

2. It’s not the source of the problem.

The writing is, usually.

Of all the stage and screen portrayals of autistic characters I’ve ever seen, ranging from very bad to so good they took my breath away, and all played by actors who are non-autistic as far as I know, I have practically never thought that the problem was the actor. It’s almost always the writing—the attitude of the writer and of the other characters towards an autistic character. Are they positioned in the narrative as an object or a plot device or as a fully-fledged character central to their own story?

The writers of the Big Bang Theory, for instance, very clearly see Sheldon as an entirely appropriate target for the derision and mockery of the other characters. The screenwriter of Napoleon Dynamite positions Napoleon as an acceptable object of the patronizing amusement of the audience, not of true empathy or identification.

If a playwright is writing an autistic character with the attitude that they don’t need to be as fully developed and central to their own narrative arc as any other character, or based on largely inaccurate common knowledge about autism, then that is the core of the problem and is only going to be able to be partially mitigated by hiring an autistic actor to fight with the writing.

If a playwright and the rest of the creative team of a problematic work is convinced of the rightness of their portrayal because of what they think they know about autism, then putting an autistic actor into that role for the purpose of battling those misperceptions…frankly, that just sounds like an unbearable working environment.

And if actors are relying on media stereotypes or previous stage convention in order to animate their autistic characters, then what you are seeing is bad and lazy acting, not merely a result of the wrong kind of person playing a role.  But most actors in my experience care about and want to empathize with their characters.

What’s the supposition about how this would work, anyway? That if productions buy into an expectation that autistic actors play autistic roles, and they can’t find an autistic actor to fill an objectionable role, then the play won’t get done? That won’t happen. Productions get done when their producers care about them getting done and think they will sell tickets. If producers are unable to find an autistic actor willing to play a problematic role, they will find a non-autistic actor who will. There is no shortage there that’s going to keep a production from getting done.

3. It’s ethically dubious at best.

I have yet to figure out, or have anyone explain, how it’s possible to require that autistic characters be played by autistic actors without requiring that an actor disclose their disability in order to be considered for employment. And nothing about that sits well with me. I’m unclear how it would be legal under the ADA, either.

It’s also requiring that an actor out themselves into a professional world in which most people, including most people in positions of hiring power, still hold conventional beliefs about autistic people including that we’re incapable of things like reciprocity, emotional expression, empathy, and seeing things from points of view other than our own. In other words, the core requirements of acting. We don’t get to dictate that somebody take that risk with their career, or that a producer demand it.

I’ve had people ask why someone who didn’t want to out themselves would even answer a casting call…and it’s that acting roles are jobs. For Actors’ Equity members, they are how we earn our health insurance eligibility, pensions, and sometimes a living wage.

I don’t think we get to hold those things hostage to someone being willing or able to take a public stance about their own disability. That’s not an intrinsic requirement of what acting is. I don’t think it’s a good or fair idea to establish a double standard under which the expectation of openness to public scrutiny about one’s personal life, identity, and medical or psychiatric diagnoses is higher for disabled actors than non-disabled actors, or actors playing disabled roles vs. non-disabled roles. That doesn’t sound to me like the fairness or equality I think we’re seeking.

Absolutely none of this is to say that I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change the situation or that we have to just accept poor representation.

1. Some Equity agreements and codes already require that producers “actively solicit” minority, female, and disabled performers to participate or audition.  More should, and maybe all of them should.

2. The responsibilities of producing companies to ensure the rights and accommodations of disabled performers needs to be strongly stated, posted at auditions, included in the information to be posted on call boards, etc…. including that if you disclose a disability or diagnosis to your employer, your privacy will be protected to the greatest extent possible.  Our unions need to strongly assure disabled performers that they will back them up in asserting their rights in the workplace, and how.

3.  There is a phenomenon in which non-disabled kids get to have hobbies/interests/activities because those things are considered good and constructive for their own sake, but autistic kids get everything good in their lives turned into therapy of some sort.  That’s wrong.  Theater education is, in and of itself, skill-building in the best ways.  Turning something that someone enjoys into just another avenue for therapy, for someone trying to fix you, is a huge turn-off.

We need to keep on combating stereotypes that suggest that autistic people can’t excel in the arts or humanities–that we lack empathy or imagination, for instance, or are mainly good for low-level, ultra-repetitive tech sector jobs.

And for the love of all that is good, stop telling kids that work in the arts isn’t realistic.  Parents, teachers, counselors, job coaches–stop it.  People work in the arts.  If a student is interested in pursuing the performing arts, help them connect with real opportunities for training and experience.

4.  Autistic people and allies–attend and critique productions involving autistic characters.  Companies should be taken to task for putting bad portrayals on stage, and should know that any time they are talking about autistic people, we are watching and listening.

I want more autistic and disabled actors playing autistic and disabled characters.  I want more autistic and disabled actors playing traditionally non-autistic and non-disabled characters.  I want autistic actors to be considered equally capable across the board of playing any character.  And I want non-autistic actors to gain a deeper and more realistic understanding of autism and disability in their work.  I don’t think that declaring that that work should be off-limits to non-autistic actors serves the causes of either empathy or artistry.


  1. m kelter said,

    thanks so much for this post, i agree 100% with your points here. as you indicate at the end…why insist that autistics play autistic characters? how great would it be to have an autistic playing, instead, one of the non-autistic roles? (although there remains the issue of disclosure/privacy). and when i see televisions shows, films, that are wrong, off-putting when it comes to autism issues…as you say, the problem in almost every instance is the writing, not the portrayal. anyway, thanks again for this post.

  2. Patricia said,

    I don’t know if this is a good example of “casting” as it has nothing to do with disability, but when I was in England, they did an American musical (I’m American). I got a “bit” part, not the lead, because I’m not the best actress – even though I was the only American. Now, I was considered the “American Consultant” because I was the only American. THAT made sense.

    If you can’t act, you shouldn’t get the part, disabled or not, autistic or not.

    But I do wish that there were more casting calls for #actuallydisabled actors, and disability consultants should be included if the actor isn’t available. Expectations need to be realistic, but the producers, etc. need to try harder to open up the field.

    • chavisory said,

      Yes, I absolutely agree that productions should utilize autistic consultants if an autism expert in the form of an autistic actor isn’t available.

      It’s also common for actors to do a lot of their own research, and I don’t want to discount that. One of the huge problems has been that listening to professionals and parents over autistic people ourselves about our experiences has been the status quo; I truly think we’re starting to see that changing, along with greater availability of autobiographical material by autistic people, which has exploded in the blogosphere in the past few years.

      • Dee Laundry said,

        We also need to encourage actors to do more complete research, and not consider one or two conversations enough. Benedict Cumberbatch was asked about whether Alan Turing was autistic, and BC replied that he had met “real” autistic people in institutions and Turing wasn’t like that so Turing wasn’t autistic. Which is all kinds of bullshit all rolled into one.

  3. I actually saw Dog In The Night-Time and thought it was amazing, too. But I think this is like the debate on whether it’s right for a white actor/actress to play a black, Hispanic, Asian character etc.

    This reminded me of the debate about The Theory Of Everything, where an able-bodied actor (Eddie Redmayne) played the famous scientist Stephen Hawking, who has motor-neurone disorder. Now that you’ve made me think of this, I wonder if the actor who played the autistic man in Rain Man was neurotypical too.

    • chavisory said,

      See, I actually don’t think that the analogy to white vs. actors of color works very well. It’s kind of an obvious one but I really don’t think it translates, and I have a lot of trouble articulating why.

      As for Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking…I think the person whose opinion matters most there is Hawking’s, since it’s his life being portrayed.

      Dustin Hoffman, who played Raymond in “Rain Man,” is not on the spectrum as far as I know, and the preparation that he did for the role is detailed extensively in Steve Silberman’s new book, “NeuroTribes,” including the relationships he had with several autistic people while he was researching the role.

    • ettinacat said,

      To me, having white actors play non-white characters, or non-disabled actors play visibly disabled characters, is a completely separate issue from having NT actors play autistic characters.
      The thing is that a skilled autistic actor can play a convincing NT character, and a skilled NT actor can play a convincing autistic character, without automatically losing the quality of the story.
      Meanwhile, a visibly disabled actor can’t play a non-disabled character. And depending on the disability, having a non-disabled actor can hurt suspension of disbelief, or increase the prejudice against disabled people who don’t look like a non-disabled person faking a disability. (For example, looking at Steven Hawking, I can see he’s not just an able-bodied guy sitting in a wheelchair.) And how often have you seen a non-white actor playing a white character? Why is it that John Wayne can play a Mongolian character (Genghis Khan), but a Mongolian wouldn’t be able to play a white guy?

  4. emmapretzel said,

    the thing that is THE THING is the thing where disabled actors just aren’t getting cast like, end of story. that is the THING thing.
    i do think that, like, especially when it comes to casting a character with a physical or sensory disability, actors with similar disabilities in real life should be seen as best suited for those roles. NOT because a non-x person playing an x character is JUST BAD, but because similarly-disabled actors show up to the audition with a pre-existing, highly relevant skill set that few non-disabled actors possess. i mean that in the like, most practical and technical sense: if someone uses a mobility device like the character uses, or communicates using the same language/medium as the character, it makes sense to consider them more qualified for the role than people who lack that experience. like with specific dialect training, or a dance techniques, or relevant stage-combat training: the presence or absence of prior experience/training (almost) never completely determines who gets a given role…but it definitely factors significantly into casting decisions.
    that said, in most cases, the above consideration would apply only rarely to situations where you’re casting for a character with a mental illness or cognitive/developmental disability, for reasons described by ppl above.
    oookay. so. i think a discussion about the ways in which the history of blackface minstrelsy affects how we talk about this stuff is, like, actually super important and relevant here? because like, while it’s deeply racist and unacceptable for white people to dress up in blackface (or yellowface, etc.), the violent history that blackface embodies is not just a history of white people dressing up as black people and performing on stage. it’s a history of white people dressing up as dehumanizing, stereotyped caricatures of “blackness” to entertain racist white audiences. so yes, white people SHOULDN’T play not-white characters, because history, and because white supremacy, and because people should be casting more actors of color/fewer white ppl as a rule. but casting actors of color to play characters of color doesn’t magically fix the damage done by centuries of dehumanizing, stereotyped racial caricatures.
    i’m not upset about NT actors playing autistic characters because i think only autistic actors should get those roles; i’m upset about NT actors playing autistic characters because 1. those characters continue to be conform to the same old damaging stereotypes and caricatures that have dominated media representation of autistic ppl for decades, and 2. because our media/public culture continues to see us, and our behavior, as so inherently inhuman and inexplicable and incomprehensible that every time a NT actor really nails a shitty “~AUTISMZ~” caricature-stereotype, the acting world just GUSHES about how AMAZING of an acting job it was, how METHOD they must have gotten in order to play such a HARD and SPECIAL role, and THEN gives them like three oscars for doing such a SERVICE to “people like this character.”

    • chavisory said,

      “the thing that is THE THING is the thing where disabled actors just aren’t getting cast like, end of story.”

      So, there’s a sense in which this is true, and there’s a sense in which it isn’t true.

      It’s true, so far as I can tell, that by and large, disabled actors aren’t getting tapped to play disabled characters, the current production of Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” notwithstanding.

      But at the same time, there absolutely, positively are learning disabled, cognitively disabled, and neurodivergent actors working professionally. Not a lot. (Though quite possibly more than I know of.) But there are.

      And I didn’t get into this because the post was already long, but there are also a helluva lot of factors that contribute to that other than prejudice and discrimination and the objectifying/alienating nature of so much theater and film about disability… that choosing to work in theater is perilous in so many ways–work is inconsistent and often ill-paying. Safe housing is expensive and much of the affordable-ish housing is inaccessible or unsafe, particularly in a city where a lot of historic buildings are grandfathered out of having to meet ADA regulations. Decent healthcare can be hard to come by.

      It just goes so, so deep that I think making the primary demand in response to this situation that producers hire out autistic actors is putting the cart before the horse in so many ways.

      It’s not that all of this has to be fixed before we can turn our attention seriously to asking for better storytelling around autism and disability, but that this one demand–autistic actors play autistic roles–is just so deeply not addressing the sources of the problems.

      ‘… because our media/public culture continues to see us, and our behavior, as so inherently inhuman and inexplicable and incomprehensible that every time a NT actor really nails a shitty “~AUTISMZ~” caricature-stereotype, the acting world just GUSHES about how AMAZING of an acting job it was, how METHOD they must have gotten in order to play such a HARD and SPECIAL role, and THEN gives them like three oscars for doing such a SERVICE to “people like this character.”’

      AGREED. It’s super obnoxious. And I don’t know what’s going to turn that tide, ultimately. The fact that this is a reliable box office formula is a whole other can of worms.

  5. Jennifer said,

    I have a physical disability- I use canes at home, a wheelchair when at the grocery store, the few mall visits I make each year, and events where people are going to be standing a lot. I am also autistic- before this last calendar year I’d only gone to the “brainy,” semi-programmed events for the young adults (20-40). I was at a cocktail party held to say goodbye to one of the ministers, and I was constantly telling myself that if I needed to get out of that room, if it became too much, who there would know why or I knew long enough that I trusted that if I asked them to keep people away from me for a while they wouldn’t question it, and telling a woman whom I’d seen here and there over the years that I was not not looking at her etc due to lack of interest but because I am Autistic and it was the way I could keep talking to her. Never done anything of the type before, closest I was with my father.

    If someone is willing to spend days getting through the world in a wheelchair, willing to talk to physical therapists to understand why a cane is used in a certain way for a certain disability, willing to tell a group of people with a condition that they want to learn from them but won’t insist on sitting in on the support group meetings if people aren’t comfortable with how they are behaving, willing to be told when they have asked an absolutely stupid or accidentally insulting question, and in short are willing to learn… If they are willing to learn from my grandfather’s fight to use his legs that went beyond reasonable (he had the falls to prove it), Mom’s acceptance of the gear but absolute refusal to see a doctor and hear the mis-diagnosis her dad had, MS, is willing to hear what it meant at 22 to learn that you have what they had, and are already using a cane, how the words are ingrained and the sights of the gear are just things that have always been around, and there is no problem with them but controlled terror at times as I pull Mom into a seated position or Dad lifts her into her chair… That person has my blessing to play a disabled character. Just as a role could be rewritten (if I could act) for someone who walks across the stage while I roll while other characters happen to walk.

    The exact nature of my learning disabilities and chronic illnesses however were not up for discussion. Not unless I chose it. As an undiagnosed Autistic that line was blurry.

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