Keep in mind I am not a writer nor am I a professional play reviewer (I’m sure there’s an official name for that) but I needed to share my experience as an autism parent at a play about a young man with autism. Bare with me.
The Players By The Sea theater is an unassuming little building in Jax Beach. After 12 years living in Jacksonville I didn’t even know it was there until I had reason to find it. We’d been invited by a friend and fellow PTA member to see a play about a young man with autism for obvious reasons and of course we were excited to go.
The theater itself was fantastic. We felt like we had found a secret little community of people that truly love theater and we were instantly welcomed into that community when we walked in the door. The walls were decorated with art by local autistic people that was on sale to raise funds for autism organizations. As autism parents we were in our element and comfortable.
The lights went down in the theater and the first act began. The book-based play was indeed about a young man with autism and gave us a look into his world as he sees it. A great deal of creativity went into sharing the emotions of the actors with the audience. When the boy had a meltdown the stage lights would turn to red and we could feel the hell he was going through.
The first on-stage meltdown caught the audience of guard. It was violent and loud, a stark contrast from the quirky punchline filled performance we’d seen so far. It was familiar for Priscilla and I. The awkward feeling in the audience is one we know all too well. For the most part autism was well portrayed by the actor. I only took issue with his facial expressions. The character was borderline savant syndrome and extremely intelligent albeit extremely socially inept but not physically handicapped. The actor often made faces that would imply a lack of intelligence like something you’d see in person with mental retardation. This wasn’t a horrible misstep but worth mentioning.
One truly excellent portrayal was that of the parents of this young man. You could feel the stress and I grieved with them over the hardship of being an autism parent. Perhaps we connected with them so well because we have lived the life they were acting out but they did it accurately.
As I said, the play was generally lighthearted and full of small punchlines. This was where it fell off the rails for me. I don’t know if the delivery of lines was fault of the writing, the directing, the acting, or a combination of the above. Regardless, the actor fed off of the laughs from the audience and what could have been a very stoic first act was filled with chuckles and punchlines. The everyday challenges of and idiosyncrasies of autistic life was made into a joke. The main character told a story of one of his classmates who eats everything. Fun fact, the medical term for it is Pica. My daughter has Pica which is a psychological disorder that causes a person to mouth or consume inedible objects. The story continued and classmate had removed his pants and defecated on the floor then ate his own feces. The audience thought it was hilarious. Most likely because of the personal weight this particular punchline carried for me, this was the final straw.
I politely sat through the rest of the first act debating with myself whether I should take the stage at intermission before anyone could leave the tiny theater and announce my grand exit with verbal slap in the face using my best stage voice, “MY DAUGHTER HAS PUT HER OWN SHIT IN HER MOUTH, IT’S NOT FUNNY”. I decided against it. I hung my head to hide the sadness I felt from portrayal of something that’s not a joke for my family, it’s our life. I avoided making eye contact with the other 70 or so theater-goers that were having a far better time than we were.
I thanked our friend for inviting us with obvious tears in my eyes and he asked if everything was ok. I lied and said, “We have to go…you know, kids.”
Priscilla and I walked out and got in the car as the rest of the audience enjoyed their wine and ignorance at intermission.
We were sad yet empowered. We realized we had just sat in a room full of educated, progressive, liberally minded people that were relatively ignorant to autism. As advocates it confirmed that what we do is noble and necessary. As parents it confirmed that we’ve got a long ways to go making this world an aware and accepting place for our daughter.