Being Autistic in the Theatre Community

Anthony J. Piccione

There are many things you could say about who I am as a person. You could say that I love the art of theatre, especially playwriting and still occasionally acting. Or you could say that beyond theatre and writing, I am also a die-hard fan of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Batman and Harry Potter who is severely addicted to caffeine. (Although I will add that if that’s the worst thing I’m addicted to, I’d say I’m in relatively good shape.) Or more recently, you could also say that I am a writer here at On Stage who writes columns and occasional reviews that are read by a fairly large audience of theatre lovers that is growing every day. Those are just a few basic and important facts about me that are especially important for anyone who cares to know what kind of person I am.

Another fact is that I also happen to have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome – a high-functioning form of autism – when I was a young child. Some people know that about me. Others might not. Some might know because I told them personally, while others might have simply figured it out after spending enough time with me to be able to notice. Even more, people might not have noticed it at all. But if they haven’t now, they will know now – even if they have never met me personally – after having read this column.

I was reluctant even to mention this in a column for quite a few reasons. Primarily, it is because – despite what some might believe – it has no negative impact on my ability to write columns or reviews for this website. Also, with all the stigma and misinformation surrounding autism – largely thanks to propaganda put out by horrible organizations such as Autism Speaks – I fear that there might be some who get the wrong idea, and merely dismiss me and my future work on the basis that because I am autistic, I should not be taken seriously as a writer. I could write a whole article on what autism is, and what it isn’t. However, because I want to keep the focus on how it has affected my role in the theatre community, I’ll only encourage all of you reading this to go and do some research on your own to help you have a better understanding of autism after you have finished reading this. 

So while I was initially reluctant to write a column about my condition and how it affects my work in theatre and writing, an encounter I had with someone a few weeks ago during a theatre event I attended prompted me to have a change of heart.

However, this person – whom I had never met until that day – struck me as a very friendly person that seemed to have quite a bit in common with me, at least judging by our conversation. In passing, as he revealed to me some of his future dreams in theatre, he seemed to let slip in passing that he had Asperger’s syndrome. Looking back on that conversation, I kind of regret the fact that I never mentioned to him that we have that in common, as well. Nonetheless, after being reminded of how there are others out there in the theatre community that are similar to me in this regard, and also after thinking about how there might be several others out there who might also be autistic but might not be courageous enough ever to acknowledge it, I felt compelled just to go ahead and write on this topic.

So on that note, let me try and explain as best as I can just a bit of how having autism affects my role in the theatre community, in the hopes that maybe – just MAYBE – it might help more people have a better understanding of myself, as well as others that might be in a similar situation.

Like many others who are on the autism spectrum, I think anyone who knows me well knows that I tend to obsess over various interests and hobbies. For some people, that might mean different things. For me, it primarily means theatre, film and creative writing. So whenever I am acting in a show, I’ve always been laser-focused on making sure that I am at rehearsals on time (if not early), getting completely immersed in whatever role I am playing, doing my best to always be off-book as soon as possible in rehearsals, and never missing a cue during rehearsals or performances.

If I am writing either a script or an article such as this, I try to do my very best to make sure that every aspect of my writing matches the vision of it that initially appeared in my head and inspired me to write it in the first place, and in order to do that, I need absolute quiet and solitude so that I can dedicate myself solely to that work. To put it simply, while I don’t necessarily believe that there is such thing as perfection in human beings, I do try my best to achieve some level of perfection in everything I do in theatre and writing – whatever it may be – as that is what I love most and always try to focus on the most. This is what I am most passionate about, and like many other autistic people, I do as much as I can – much of it coming naturally – to dedicate all my time and energy in life to those particular things that I care for most.

However, as much as I love the art of theatre, one thing that I think separates me from many others in the theatre community is my extreme social awkwardness and my extremely introverted personality, which I believe is more or less a result of my Asperger’s diagnosis. As most who have worked on a show with me in any capacity would probably tell you, unless it is someone I have known for a long time and have become quite close friends with, I tend to be extremely quiet backstage, to the point that I fear that some people may get the wrong impression of me as a person, and think that I am profoundly antisocial – or even worse – just a total asshole.

But a big part of this is a result of something that many – not all, but many – people on the autism spectrum struggle with: The ability to perform well in certain social situations – particularly ones that involve large crowds and many strangers you’ve never met before – unless it is one that they absolutely must go through in order to succeed in life, and for other autistic people, even in those cases it is a significant challenge. In my case, I can say with complete certainty that the only time I am truly comfortable with being in front of a large crowd of strangers is when I am portraying a character other than myself. That’s not to say that I am not trying to get better at improving the way I present myself as a human being offstage, but it is a natural part of my personality that I have struggled with for much of my life. 

I would not have bothered to bring all this up if I didn’t feel like it was something that ought to be addressed to my fellow members of the theatre community for the sake of not just myself, but likely for some others as well. I’ve often wondered how many people may have been turned off by my deeply introverted and sometimes awkward personality during shows I’ve worked on – whether it may be in a school or community theatre production of any kind – and who might have gotten the wrong impression of me. I don’t know if maybe I’m just a bit too self-conscious, but I do feel more than a bit disappointed that – as a result of that – people might not have ever gotten to really know me in the many shows I’ve been involved with over the years.

I feel that if only people understood why I am the way I am, and if they maybe took the time to try and understand a bit more after knowing this fact about me, then that might be helpful to myself and to many other autistic people who love theatre just as much as I do, but might struggle in some other aspects that are FAR easier things for so-called “neurotypical” people in the theatre community. These have been struggles that I know have affected me in many aspects of my life – including the role I play in the theatre community – and have probably affected others as well.

On that same token, I will say that – as someone that doctors said might never be able to speak or go to college, much less write for or perform on stage, when he was first diagnosed about two decades ago – I am honestly quite proud of where I am today, and how far I’ve come both as an artist and as an individual. While I’ll leave the overall quality of whatever work I’ve done in theatre and writing for others to judge, the fact that I can do what I do in theatre today at all, given my diagnosis and the initial perceptions of autism when I was young, is something I am quite grateful for. I know some might say that’s a silly thing to be proud of, but when you think about the fact that many people who are “neurotypical” are incapable of even making an effort to go and perform in front of large crowds or writing full plays or columns such as mine, I’d say it really is a reasonably impressive achievement, if I’m allowed to say so for myself.

On that note, I’ll leave you with a simple message to anyone out there reading this that could be – just like me – a proud member of the theatre community that just so happens to have autism: 

Speak up.

I know that it might not be an easy thing for everyone. As I said, there is still a lot of stigma and misinformation – even within some of the more supposedly accepting circles in society – about what people on the autism spectrum are like, and what they are not like. But if there is anything I’ve learned as I’ve done some growing up over the years, it is that things like that will never change unless people speak out, and there are solid examples out there – such as those of us in the arts – that prove that such misinformation is wrong. Maybe there is someone out there who has autism and in the theatre community that might make a better example than I do. If that’s the case, and that person is reading this, then I hope you do what I’ve done, and speak out about your experience in this position.

Maybe I'm a bit optimistic, but by doing that, I think that you could quickly bring some real change in people’s attitudes and perceptions not just in the arts community, but in society in general.

At least that’s what I hope...