This column was originally posted when the show opened on Broadway. I am reposting it as the play opens at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT.
In the new Broadway show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s is thrust into a journey of self-discovery and an examination of relationships with his mother and father, teachers, and others. Audience members are given a window into the mind of an individual with this Austism Spectrum Disorder, thanks to the brilliance of the creative team and director, Marianne Elliott, and the remarkable performance of Alex Sharp in the lead role. However, there are traits and actions that Christopher exhibits which are not fully explained in the drama, a hit in London before opening in New York this fall. Why does someone like Christopher not want to be touched? What is the significance of his model train-building obsession? Why does he need to always tell the truth and be so literal?
The following will provide playgoers background information on general Asperger’s characteristics. Joining me in writing this column is my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with Aspergers, who has co-authored three books on the subject and presents on the topic at colleges and universities across the country. Our goal is to help enrich the theatrical experience of those attending a performance of this dazzling production by exploring some of the behaviors in the show at a more rudimentary level.
Cannot Lie - Christopher informs people that he cannot lie. Many people with Asperger’s are literal and concrete in their thinking so lying does not make sense to them. Lying, many times, takes premeditation, manipulation and forethought, something that is incongruous to individuals with Asperger’s. Therefore, the character of Christopher needs to always tell the truth.
Being Touched – In the show, Christopher does not like physical contact. This is very common for individuals with Asperger’s. Unwarranted or unexpected touching can be overstimulating for many persons on the spectrum. Often people’s senses are highly acute, much more so then their neurotypical counterparts. This can make individuals with Asperger’s predisposed to becoming overly stimulated by lights, sounds, smells and touch. For some people with Asperger’s being touched can produce unintentional violent behavior, which may lead to unnecessary restraint and further anguish by the person with Asperger’s. In The Curious Incident of the Dog Christpher’s mother and father are the only ones able to touch and communicate with the boy by raising an upright hand, fingers apart. The teenager can reciprocate the movement, by touching their outstretched hands for just a few seconds. This ritual has a secondary effect of calming him down when agitated.
Being Literal – Individuals with Asperger’s can be very literal in how they see the world and in their responses. For example, in the show Christopher is told to be quiet. His simple response is how long he needs to be silent? He doesn’t understand this is just a figure of speech and, therefore, doe not know how long he actually cannot speak. This can we be wearing on other teenagers and adults that do not realize this need. Individuals like Christopher also do not comprehend the nuances of idioms or sarcasm, a fact which confounds his parents several times during the show.
Trains – According to the website of the National Austism Society of the United Kingdom (http://www.autism.org.uk/), an obsession with trains can help individuals with Asperger’s “manage [their] anxiety and [give them] some measure of control over a confusing and chaotic world.” Many people with Asperger’s are drawn to trains for two reasons. First, is the preciseness of train schedules, which fits into their need for structure, order, and predictability. Second, is the orderliness that train track patterns form. In the show, Christopher spends most of the production laying out tracks in a certain pattern, which can be seen as one of his coping mechanisms. In real life, a teenager like Christopher would always construct the train tracks in the identical arrangement, rarely varying its sequencing and organization. A possible third reason is the television show, Thomas the Tank Engine. The high interest in trains and the easily understood facial expressions of the trains draw many individuals with Asperger’s to this character/show.
The Grid – What makes the scenic design for the show so effective and meaningful is its basic floor-to-floor, wall-to-wall black grid system. It synthesizes all the needs of Christopher—structure, order, control, predictability and preciseness into the basic math construct of graph paper. The Grid is a conduit for showing the teenager’s traits, behaviors and defined movements. Simple in concept, The Grid echo’s Christopher’s need for order and his way of perceiving the world.
In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time we are introduced to a teenage boy with Asperger’s. During the production audience members are given a glimpse into Christopher’s world. It can be confusing and unsettling for him as well as for people on his periphery. Hopefully, the explanations presented above will make the theater-going experience more enlightening and further enhance the virtuosity of the production. The information should also help us better understand individuals with Asperger’s we interact with in society.