Documenting My Story as an Autistic Playwright

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  • Anthony J. Piccione

Those who know me best know me as a playwright, screenwriter, self-producing artist, reviewer, blogger, and occasionally as an actor and poet, among other things. They know that on the rare occasions when I’m not writing and producing, I’m most likely to be found scrolling through my laptop while drinking way too much coffee. Or they may know that even to this day, I’m a lifelong fan of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Batman, and Harry Potter, among other things.

Chances are, they also know me as someone who has struggled with anxiety, episodes of depression, and an autism spectrum disorder once commonly referred to by doctors as Asperger’s syndrome.

I’m written on countless occasions, both on this blog and elsewhere, about how being autistic has affected me, in terms of my social life and the way I’ve progressed in this industry, both the good and the bad. However, this past January, after three and a half years of writing and developing the script, I decided to display my life – and my perspective of how these conditions may have influenced me – on stage for the world to see, in the form of my full-length play A Therapy Session with Myself, and after its initial run at the New York Theatre Festival’s NYWinterfest, it’s about to reopen this May at the Kraine Theater for a monthly run on the 3rd Saturday of each month.

To give a bit of background on how I was diagnosed, and what led me to write the play: It was June 1994. I was only 18 months old at the time when the doctors broke the news to my mom, telling her it was unlikely that I would ever be verbal or independent as I reached adulthood. The idea of me ever writing or acting was virtually unthinkable, at the time. Yet my mom refused from the beginning to believe such a thing, and eventually, she was proven right. When I was three years old, I finally said my first words...the opening monologue of Jeopardy, which I successfully recited verbatim, aside from referring to Alex Trebek as “Alex Correct”.

As time passed, more progress became evident. I went from reciting lines and monologues from my favorite shows, films and TV shows, to eventually being capable of fully conversational speech. I went from being in special education classes – and even, at one point, a special ed private school from 4th grade through middle school – to being fully immersed in a mainstream public school system. I graduated from high school, received a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre (with minors in Writing and Film Studies) from a four-year university, and now live on my own in New York City. I’d like to think that, even in mostly simple ways, I’ve defined the many stereotypes and misconceptions that surrounded autism back in the 1990s, and in some cases, still surround the disorder today.

Yet there were some obvious bumps along the way. My autism primarily affects my communication skills and ability to interpret certain social cues. (These days, I often joke to friends that I’m a better writer than I am a speaker.) For this reason, I’ve either been too anxious to talk to anyone in the first place, or when I do, I often would overthink what to say – out of a past fear of being judged or taken the wrong way – only to stumble over my words, while also being stricken with physical anxiety that I’ve been told would leave me as off-putting to others. I’ve often feared going up and talking to anyone, and even in certain past situations, I’ve struggled to sustain conversations with people I know well, already. Only within the past four years, around my senior year of college, did I begin to improve my social skills and overcome the worst of my social anxiety, and I’m well aware this is a problem facing many other people on the autism spectrum that isn’t talked about enough.

It was this reason why I first wrote A Therapy Session with Myself, which I often refer to as being a “semi-autobiographical” piece, but the truth of the matter is that 80 to 90 percent of it is based on real life events from my first year of high school to my last year of college. Over the course of the play, most of the story is told through flashbacks – as the conversation that fuels the flashbacks takes place in a “stream of consciousness” form – based on various memories of my life growing up, and how I’ve struggled to find my place in a society that I’ve often questioned how to re-enter, after feeling brutally mocked and rejected by my peers in past times.

Among the memories explored in the play are incidents of physical bullying I faced from classmates as a high school freshman; my past thoughts of suicide, and how I’ve previously felt toward going to therapy as a teenager; how my struggles with mental health and autism affected my relationships with my parents, and how they tried to help me; my jealously of an ex-best friend who was considerably more extroverted than I was; my struggles in my dating life, and a relationship with one of the few who could see me as more than a weirdo; and of course, my frustrations with the way the broader public, and the people surrounding me in life, had false conceptions of what it was like to be autistic.

As I went through several drafts of rewrites and rearranging the scenes, I had a hard time decided how much to cut (dozens of scenes were, particularly from the first draft) because not only was it all so relevant to my own life, and helping to paint a fuller picture of my perspective on living with this condition, but there were plenty of bits and pieces in there that could easily be relatable to countless others who live with autism.

As I set out to produce this play as my first full-length play in New York (after seven one-acts previously produced in the city) it was, in many ways, a weird process. Watching the characters of the play brought to life by actors, and take on a life of their own. Watching the plot – and by extension, elements of my life – analyzed and interpreted down to every single potential motive and decision of its protagonist. Having past memories – some of which, even after having written about them in the play, I hadn’t fully processed yet emotionally until the lead-up to its January premiere – come back to the forefront of my brain like never before. It was all very weird, but I also felt it was all very necessary, so I could get my story out there, and offer my perspective on this topic, one in which I haven’t felt nearly enough representation on within the mainstream art world.

In a way, it’s not necessarily a play about having autism, but rather, a play about a young person who struggles through life and happens to be affected by autism. I wasn’t necessarily trying to write the perfectly polished contemporary American drama that you’d expect most playwrights to normally aspire to. I simply wanted to show people – at least from my own perspective – a side of living as a teenager and young adult living with autism that isn’t often displayed in mainstream media and pop culture. A nuanced, detailed, albeit (deliberately) messy look at how someone has been influenced in this way, how they might be feeling at their worst moments, and perhaps a message of hope that life can get better. It’s one aspect of my life, and like all aspects of life, it’s more messy and complicated than we might expect. If there’s any one message that I hope so-called neurotypical people take away from the play, if they come see it, it’s that.

So with this new production of the play rapidly approaching, I’m not entirely sure how everyone will react. Most of the people I spoke to after the initial premiere this past January spoke positively of it, but given its unconventional structure of storytelling, it might not have been everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I’m proud of what I’ve written, I’m grateful to have so many talented and incredible artists – many of whom I now consider to be good friends, who accept me for who I am – working to bring it to life, and at the end of each performance, I hope people will maybe come away with at least some new perspective that they didn’t already have on what it might be like to live with autism spectrum disorder.

“A Therapy Session with Myself” runs on the 3rd Saturday of each month at 2pm at the Kraine Theater, located at 85 E 4th Street, New York, NY. For ticket information, please visit atswm.brownpapertickets.com.

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About the Author

Anthony J. Piccione is an award-winning playwright and producer based in New York City. His full-length drama “A Therapy Session with Myself” premiered in January 2019 at the Hudson Guild Theatre before transferring to the Kraine Theater for an ongoing series of monthly performances. Additionally, his eclectic canon of one-acts have previously been presented in NYC at the Hudson Guild Theatre, Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, Midtown International Theatre Festival, and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as at regional venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theatre, the Windsor Art Center, and Windham Theatre Guild. His short drama “What I Left Behind” was named the NYWinterfest's Best Short Play of 2018, and he was also nominated for Planet Connections Theatre Festivity's Outstanding Playwright award for his avant-garde one-act “4 $tages”. His work as a playwright has been published at JAC Publishing and Promotions, Heuer Publishing & Off The Wall Plays, and his articles and reviews are frequently published at OnStage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016 and is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.