What can a Broadway show teach us about students on our campus with Asperger’s?
In the London import, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, audience members are given a window into the mind of an individual with this Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Much of the production’s acclaim is due to the brilliance of the creative team, its award-winning director, Marianne Elliott, and the remarkable performance of Alex Sharp in the lead role. There are traits and actions that Christopher – the 15-year old character in the show – exhibits which can provide basic information to Student Affairs professionals working with students on the Autism Spectrum at their institution.
Joining me in writing this column is my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with ASD, who has co-authored three books on the subject and has presented on the topic at dozens of colleges and universities and conferences across the country. We will explore some of the behaviors portrayed in the show at a more rudimentary level with the goal of fortifying professional staff with a better background and understanding of Austism Spectrum Disorder.
Cannot Lie – Christopher informs people that he cannot lie. Many people with an ASD are literal and concrete in their thinking, so lying does not make sense to them. Lying, often takes premeditation, manipulation and forethought, which something that is incongruous to individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Therefore, the character of Christopher needs to always tell the truth. This may also be true for some college students on the Autism spectrum. It may appear to be an excellent trait, but students can become social pariahs when they are told to keep something a secret and that is not something that is possible.
Being Touched – In the show, Christopher does not like physical contact. This is very common for individuals with an ASD. 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 an ASD, 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, Christopher’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.
On a busy college or university campus the issue of over-stimulation can be very difficult in crowded hallways, campus walkways, and dining halls. Imagine the distress a student on the spectrum would have during a fire alarm. Many social events on college campuses are crowded and students must deal with masses of humanity like athletic events, parties and celebrations. Understanding their situation can assist these students in better coping when issues of over-stimulation come into play.
Being Literal – Individuals with an ASD 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. In response, he wonders how long he needs to be silent. He doesn’t understand this is just a figure of speech and, therefore, does not know how long he actually cannot speak. This can be wearing on other teenagers and adults that do not realize this need. Individuals like Christopher do not comprehend the nuances of idioms or sarcasm. This confounds his parents several times during the show.
Student Affairs professionals and faculty members may need to consider their use of language when working with these students on the spectrum. Being as specific as possible with verbal information and instructions will produce more positive outcomes.
Trains – According to the website of the National Austism Society of the United Kingdom, an obsession with trains can help individuals with an ASD “manage [their] anxiety and [give them] some measure of control over a confusing and chaotic world.” Many people with an ASD are drawn to trains for 2 reasons. First, the precision of train schedules fits into their need for structure, order, and predictability. Second, train track patterns are orderly. 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 an ASD to this character and show.
The need for consistency and schedules can be difficult for college students on the spectrum. Schedules often change at college. Some classes meet Monday and Wednesday, some Tuesday and Thursday, while others have different timetables including labs, discussion groups, etc. This can be disconcerting to a student who understands the world by their routing.
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.
Toward a Better Understanding
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. The population of undergraduates with an ASD is increasing on our campuses today. Better understanding these students, their needs, and issues should be a central focus of Student Affairs professionals. Incorporating the information presented in this column, along with attendance of a performance of the show (or reading the best-selling novel the play is based on), will help all of us in the field appreciate and acknowledge individuals like Christopher and be able to successfully work with them.