‘Curious Incident’: From the Perspective of an Autistic Theatergoer

Anthony J. Piccione

This past weekend, I finally had the chance to take a trip to New York to catch a matinee performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I had been eager to see throughout 2015. Needless to say, the set design and the way the play had been staged was amazing, and unlike anything I’d ever seen in theatre before. However, given my own personal life experiences, it was the story of the play – and more specifically, its lead character – that stood out to me the most as I watched it.

As past readers of my work might already know, I have lived with Asperger’s syndrome – a so-called “high-functioning” form of autism – throughout my entire life. So as you could imagine, watching a play like this was a particularly thought-provoking experience for me. I ultimately was led toward a highly introspective mood, as I thought about the character and the ways in which I felt I was similar to him, as well as the ways in which we are different.

That is why instead of writing a traditional review of the play, I felt compelled – if not obligated – to write a column that more specifically addresses what I felt the play got right about the way those of us with autism think and feel differently from others…as well as what it got wrong.

Interestingly enough, I’ll admit that the main similarity between the way the character was and the way – based on my own experiences – people with autism really can be had to do largely with their personalities and the way some express themselves. Many of us – despite certain stereotypes that suggest the exact opposite – experience various emotions with much more intensity than a person otherwise would. Also, we tend to be quite obsessed with a certain topic or hobby more than any other. For Christopher, it may be math and science. For me, it would be theatre, film and creative writing. For others, possibly something else entirely.

As I watched the play, the main difference in this area that I noticed was that unlike me, Christopher was unable to learn how to express his emotions properly and cope with the difficulties he was confronted with in his environment that made him so anxious. I’ll admit this, though: Sometimes I feel – and maybe I’m not alone among autistic people when I say this – that I wish I COULD behave the way he did when feeling bad, but my mind as a adult tells me that – especially if I want to be taken seriously and be successful in life – that is not a way that a mature adult can behave in public. (Case in point: Can you imagine if I behaved the way he did, in response to some of the more critical comments on my past columns?) So I guess you could even say that I envy Christopher, at least to an extent, as he feels free to express himself however he sees fit without hesitation or without thinking of the consequences.

However, that’s far from the only difference that I think is worth pointing out between Christopher and other people on the autism spectrum. From wetting himself to preferring to have adults clothe him to an apparent inability to distinguish fantasy from reality at times, there are many clear stereotypes that are pushed on this one character that I know are not true, based on both my own life experiences as well as those of others that I’ve met in my life that live with autism. I felt strongly that this was worth mentioning because some theatergoers might be going to see this play without knowing much about autism beyond a few stereotypes that have been told to them by either those who themselves don’t know much about this condition, or by organizations that are partially responsible for such false stereotypes such as Autism $peaks. I would hope that if/when these people go to see the show, they will also take the time to learn more about the truth about this condition that Christopher and several other people live with, how many people live with it in different forms, and how – while certain stereotypes may be true for certain people – they most certainly do not describe all of us.

This is all not to say that it didn’t love the show. Again, it was an absolutely incredible experience. Despite these small issues I had with its portrayal of autism that I had, I still believe that it got a lot of other things right, and even aside from all of that – if I am purely looking at it for its worth as a piece of quality theatre – that the story and the way it was staged was nothing short of amazing, and it is a fresh reminder of why – especially as a young writer myself – I have such enormous respect for and am greatly inspired by Simon Stephens, whom I believe is one of the most brilliant dramatists of our time.

Furthermore, I will admit – without subjecting my readers to too many details – that it also helped me with doing enough self-reflection to the point that the play helped me learn more about myself. While not all autistic people openly show their emotions or their way of thinking in the same way as Christopher, I think if there is any one thing about autism – and the way our brains are different – that this play got right is its portrayal of how much more intense, deep in our minds and in our hearts, the way we may react deep down to difficult scenarios.

So I’ll leave you all with this: If you’re ever in the NYC area at any point in the near future, be sure to go and see this incredible show while you can. Personally, it just might be one of my favorite plays of all time now. However, I also hope you’ll take everything I’ve just said about individuals on the autism spectrum and keep it in your mind as you are watching the show. Many of us are similar to Christopher in some ways, and many of us are also very different from Christopher in some ways. You know…because we’re people.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione)