I just got back from seeing Simon Stephens’ and Marianne Elliott’s stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The show meant a lot to me for quite a few reasons.
The first time I remember hearing the word “autism” I was a freshman in high school. A public service announcement used the word and, as I didn’t have any idea what it meant, I asked my father about it. Being a professor with a doctorate in education he gave me the basic 411 and I was placated. So, somewhere around 1975, autism is introduced to me as a concept.
I didn’t think about autism much for at least half a decade. I started college with no declared major and it was a while before I settled on elementary education. Of course, autism was something we discussed as part of my curriculum but as I planned to be a “regular” classroom teacher I didn’t pay that much attention to the special ed bullet points that dotted my academic advancement. To me, and to most people at that time, if folks were autistic it meant there were fairly profound differences in perception and interaction between autistic folks and those that weren’t “on the spectrum.”
Except, it wasn’t just me. Because, really, nobody was “on the spectrum” at that time. If somebody was autistic it was obvious. (The reason that autism was only diagnosed in people with acute autism is a fascinating subject that deals directly with World War Two, eugenics, The APA and a host of other factors. Just remember that the huge jump in the diagnosis of autism has everything to do with making autism a spectrum rather than a severe disability. Autism is NOT caused by vaccinations!) And if one wasn’t severely affected then one wasn’t autistic. QED.
And then (Thank God!) that changed. Hans Asperger, the Austrian doctor who defined autism as a spectrum back in the late 1930’s, again became the authority on autism and the APA got behind the whole spectrum/continuum perception. Ironically, folks who were “high functioning” were said to have Asperger’s, a distinction that has since been removed as a separate classification.
I did not teach elementary school for very long. I did, however work part-time as a substitute teacher at elementary schools for about fifteen years starting in 1998 and I frequently worked in special education classrooms. My knowledge of autism, Asperger’s, the spectrum and what folks on the spectrum are like grew a lot.
Tanner A. was the first child I met who was in a special education class because of his Asperger’s. Ian M. was the most affected child I knew that was in a regular ed room. I got to work and interact with these two boys quite a bit. One was also my neighbor and he and my younger son were in cub scouts together. I learned a lot.
I learned that my older son had some definite similarities to Tanner. Similarities in processing far more than social interaction. Where Tanner seemed to view others as objects, to have almost no empathy, my older son seemed to feel the hurts of others far too much.
One day I said to Carmen D., Tanner’s special ed teacher, “I think Kevin may have what Tanner has. I think Kevin may have Asperger’s.”
Her response? “Bite your tongue.”
Kevin definitely had something and when he was nine-years-old my wife and I took him to a neurological pediatrician. Doctor Opderbeck, after a careful examination of our son, sat my wife and me down and in her slight Belfast brogue said, “Kevin seems to be just slightly autistic. Very high functioning.”
Doc Opd then looked at me and offered, “And I wouldn’t be surprised if you were also slightly autistic.”
I thought, ‘Well no shit, Doc!’ But I said, “Yes, that thought has occurred to me as well.”
Doctor Opderbeck gave us some literature, recommended that we get an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for Kevin and sent us on our way. I began to learn more about autism.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was published in 2003; the same year that Kevin turned thirteen. It was soon thereafter that my wife picked up an audio book copy for us to listen to as we drove cross country. I enjoy audio books but my retention is many times higher when I’m reading than it is when I’m listening. This difference is even greater when I’m driving. With an audio book I get the surface information but the words don’t sink down into my soul. Still, we all gained a little greater insight from this book than we’d had previously. The story holds a special place in our hearts.
Which leads us to Sunday, the 15th of November when my wife and I went to Tampa Bay’s Straz Center and watched the stage presentation of, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.”
Before the show began I said to my wife, “I barely remember this story. Just bits and pieces.” It was she who reminded me that I have never actually read the book but rather only listened to it. “Okay. That explains that,” I replied.
We sat six feet from the stage and the show began with a wallop. Christopher Boone, the autistic main character is highly distraught upon finding his freind, Wellington the dog, dead in neighbor Mrs. Shears’ garden. Poor Wellington has a pitchfork sticking through him and Mrs Shears comes outside to find Chris standing over her dead dog. The first line in the show has the word “fuck” in it. As in Mrs. Boone sees Chris and shouts something along the lines of, “What the fuck have you done to my dog?!”
I swear like a sailor and dialogue peppered with profane language bothers me not one whit but the young man sitting to my left laughed. He laughs a lot. It doesn’t take me very long to realize that the young man is almost certainly autistic and that his mother has brought him to see the play for reasons similar to my wife’s for having us listen to the audio tape. She wants her son to better understand who he is, to not feel isolated, to know that others are like him and for her two other children to know this too. I think this is grand. Unfortunately I’m already crying and the show has just begun.
My son Kevin is no Christopher, and neither am I. I’m crying because I have known many a Christopher and I feel his pain. My tears only get worse when we meet Chris’ father, Ed. Watching Ed struggle to keep his cool, to see him love his son whom he wants desperately to help and hold and uplift all while fighting extra battles because of the burden that accompanies being different in this world include has me gasping in pain and empathy. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” hit home for me time and again.
I loved Christopher, Ed, and Siobhan, Chris’ para-educator. Oddly, I felt little sympathy for Chris’ mother, Judy. I don’t know if this is because she came into the play late, if I sit in unjustified judgement of her for leaving her son and husband or if it is due to the fact that flawed as Ed was he never quit while she did. I just know that Judy’s life must have been hell as well but that my emotional connection to her was minimal.
If you have an opportunity to see “The Curious Incident” or read the book I would jump at it. The world is full of people that are different but spectacular and each of us is somewhere on that spectrum.