It can be dizzying how quickly culture can move.
In 2014, Simon Stephens' theatrical adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came to Broadway, where it won an impressive five Tony awards and ran for 800 performances. The play centers on a 15 year old autistic teenager named Christopher who has an undefined mathematical savant syndrome; it starred neurotypical actor Alex Sharp. It was supported by an all neurotypical creative team.
While a valiant effort to bring neurodiverse representation to the stage, the play almost immediately received backlash from the autistic community it claimed to represent. The choice to consistently cast Christopher with a neurotypical actor was a troubling continuation of a pattern that has been repeated ad nauseum for centuries: cast an abled actor as a disabled character, craft said disabled character in such as way as to be inspirational to a neurotypical audience, shower the abled actor with praise for their "bravery" in daring to depict their understanding of a disabled existence. By neglecting to bring neurodivergent artists into the room, the play was yet another piece about the neurodivergent community from a neurotypical perspective, rather than actually coming from the demographic it wished to represent.
In the decade since the play's premiere in London, the rights and responsibilities afforded to disabled people have progressed, particularly when it comes to representation (this season on Broadway features a cast of autistic actors in How to Dance in Ohio). In 2017, Mickey Rowe made history as the first autistic actor to openly play Christopher on a major stage, performing in Indiana Repertory Theater and Syracuse Stage's joint production.
The experience lead to Rowe co-founding the National Disability Theatre, a monumental achievement which aims to employ only professionals with disabilities to create fully accessible, live theatre and storytelling.
Now, a passionate group of artists in Massachusetts is taking another step forward. Common Thread Theatre Company, a Framingham company that serves the Greater Boston region, is producing a reimagined production of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It features an autistic and physically disabled actress, Katherine McCrackin, in the lead role (now named Chris). Megan Lummus, who is autistic, directs. The production runs until November 18.
"There's so much in the show that nobody ever plays with, in terms of how autism is represented," says Lummus. "So much of the autism in the show was just autistic trauma, and the exact traits of the DSM-5, but with no real humanity behind the character. I wanted to explore the humanity of an autistic person playing this character, someone who wasn't a straight white man—to explore representation outside of the stereotype that's normally presented with autism."
That humanity lies somewhere between the stereotypical "checking off diagnosis points" aspect of Chris's condition, and the character's response to complex trauma. "Chris' character as a whole is a terrible representation of autism, but a great representation of the intersectionality of autism and trauma," explains McCracking. "That is the part that I can certainly relate to, having trauma and complex PTSD. Frankly, very few autistic people don't have complex PTSD. So in that regard, there's there's a lot to explore in terms of the relationships that she has with the various people in her life, and the complex challenges that she has in navigating them." Though McCrakin admits that getting around the play's portrayal of Savant Syndrome, a very rare comorbid condition with autism that is usually portrayed as an "autistic superpower," has been difficult.
Savant Syndrome falls under the realm of "inspiration porn," a term that was coined in 2012 by the late disability rights activist Stella Young. Defined as "the portrayal of people with disabilities (or other uncommon life circumstances) as being inspirational to able-bodied people on the basis of their life circumstances," the trend is pervasive in mainstream stories about disabled experiences. Objectifying at its core, the portrayal simplifies disabled existence down to a digestible "life lesson," where a person with a disability just exists as a prop to make a non-disabled person appreciate life in a greater capacity.
Inspiration porn thrives on exceptionalism, where a disabled person is depicted as "overcoming" societal obstacles put in their way, rather than questioning why the obstacles are thrust upon them in the first place. When it comes to depicting autism on stage and on screen, savant syndrome is often selected as the ideal "exceptional" way for an autistic individual to exist (see Rain Man, The Good Doctor, Cube). When a disabled individual does not fall within the "exceptional" boundaries that deem their disability worthwhile, they often find themselves abandoned by the able-bodied people in their lives.
"Look, I'm not a savant. I was a math geek at one time, but I'm more than that," says McCrackin. She juggles her neurodiversity with a chronic physical disability; McCrackin performs much of the show with her cane in hand, visibly acknowledging her access needs. For many years, theatrical power brokers claimed that disabled artists were incapable of portraying their own stories on stage due to their disability. To McCrackin, that is hogwash: "I've always felt that my autism has enhanced the things that I do. I do stuff that I'm good at, because I'm good at it. And I'm good at it, because I'm autistic."
That is also Lummus' viewpoint: "I think I'm a better director because I'm autistic. I don't think it's a fault. People have this fear that it's going to be difficult to work with disabled artists, because it's not what they do normally. But it's really not that hard to add accommodations, if you just ask what people need." That simple act, of asking rather than assuming what a person can and cannot do, is huge. "I make it a point to have a rehearsal room where, if people need accommodations, they can ask and I will always make it work."
As the production welcomes in a wide range of audience members, Lummus hopes for connection. "There's going to be autistic people in the audience, and there's going to be not autistic people in the audience. For autistic people, they deserve the moment of looking and going, 'I'm not alone, it's not just me, it's not that something's wrong with me'...That's what we want for the autistic people in the audience, to feel seen and feel represented. And on the other side of that, we want the non-autistic people in the audience to have at least a small percentage of understanding of what it is like to live in a world that is not built for you. There's no way to fully understand that. But if they can at least get to the point where they can understand that they will never understand, then hopefully this show will encourage them to do more research, and find ways to help make the world a more accommodating and accessible place."
McCrackin smiles, nodding as she adds, "We as autistic people spend so much time working to fit in, and to be able to speak the language of 'neurotypical,' if you will. The least neurotypicals can do is acknowledge that there are multiple languages, and at least try and learn a little of how to speak autistic."