It’s unusual for me to talk about a book that I haven’t read in recent years, but I had the pleasure of seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Apollo Theatre on Tuesday (World Autism Awareness Day, as it happens), and it reminded me of how much I loved and appreciated the novel. If I’d had my copy with me here, I certainly would have sat down and reread it before writing this, but I didn’t, so you’ll have to take my word that it’s a wonderful book that deserves to be read not only because its young hero has Asperger’s/autism (Haddon has been particular in interviews over the years about the his intention not to label the character specifically, so I’ll refrain from doing so as much as possible, out of respect for his choice), but because this is a mystery story and an odyssey.
One of the topics discussed (with good reason) by the LGBT community is that it’s rare to find successful mainstream books, movies, and television about LGBT people without the focus being on their sexuality or gender identity, as opposed to stories about paleontologists or astronauts or gymnasts who are, incidentally, gay, transgendered, etc. The same is true for people with disabilities. Haddon has been vocal about how his book is not about a boy with a disability – it’s about a fifteen year old who loves math and who has, in his words, some unusual behavior problems. Now, I personally have a problem with the phrase “behavioral problems,” because in my mind, this is and always has been a book whose protagonist has Asperger’s (regardless of the author’s opinion). In my training as an early childhood educator, and as a teacher who particularly loved to work with children on the autistic spectrum, I would never label a child’s behavior as “problematic,” and it rubs me the wrong way to hear anyone else do it. That being said, I still wholeheartedly support that Haddon has written this book without an agenda beyond great storytelling.
The play, aside from being brilliantly acted, was also staged wonderfully, the black-backed graph paper walls and floor creating the orderly perception of Christopher Boone’s mind, while the use of flashing lights, loud sounds, and even some chaotic ballet brought to life an extremely compelling story. It was adapted by Simon Stephens without direct collaboration from Haddon, but apparently, he was quoted as saying the play helped him to fall in love with his own book again.
In the Q and A afterward (which I was not expecting and was thrilled to attend), two moments in particular caught my attention in relation to how this book and play are perceived. The first was from a man who asked how the occasional moments of humor – the tension breaks, as they were – happened about in the play, since he hadn’t read any such thing in the text. The second was an answer in reference to how the autistic community was responding to this adaptation. In answer to the latter question, the cast talked about a “relaxed” performance they had done a few months before that had been open specifically to people with autism (schools, families, etc) who wanted to come see the play in an environment where audience activity (the need to leave or speak or move at any time) would be completely acceptable; the volume and lighting were adjusted to be less startling as well. Every member of the cast said, in his or her own way, that it was the best performance they had done, and that the audience had been riveted, enthusiastic, and had, indeed, found great humor in the show. One of the actors said he was astounded by the sense of empathy he felt from that audience, from the brothers and sisters and parents and teachers connected with those who have autism – that they responded with great joy to the sense of community and understanding found in that place.
I went away from that show deeply touched and reminded of the many parents I worked with while I was teaching. Because I taught very young children (three months to five years), the push was huge to identify children who were struggling, for whatever reason, and to open a dialogue with the family about how best we might serve the child both at school and at home. Since I was had not trained extensively in special education, I relied heavily on more experienced teachers, support staff, and parents who had gone through the system already for advice on the bureaucratic side of things. What I rarely needed assistance with was the children themselves, and I think in large part, that stems from an overabundance of empathy on my part.
It is very hard for me not to apologize for describing myself as an empathetic person, but recently, I’ve been practicing acknowledging strengths, so I will say it again: I am an extremely, uncomfortably empathetic person. It’s difficult, sometimes, for me to be around people because I have trouble blocking out intense energy and emotion from others, but it also has made me a responsive teacher. It has made me the kind of teacher who recognizes, as Haddon has, that every child, regardless of a diagnosis, is an individual human being with very particular needs and rhythms. If that is taken into account, it becomes obvious that every child is in need of support. Every child, autistic or not, responds to stimuli differently. Some children crave routine, or solitude, or extremely active play, but regardless, children thrive on being understood as individuals, rather than as notes on a page.
Parents, likewise, require a gentle touch, and this proved much more difficult for me. As adults, we have certain expectations of children, especially our own, and it can be incredibly difficult to accept that a child will have a different kind of life than that expectation. My job required me to become sensitive to the grieving process involved in letting those ideas go. When I first started teaching, I saw this grief as willful ignorance, as a stumbling block in the path of productive discussion, and it made me angry. I have to say, I still treasure those early parents, those who were willing to be patient with me as they processed the fear for what the world might do to demean their children. I can imagine the sensation of relief those families would feel coming together in a theatre, of all places! Of course they would laugh! Of course they would find encouragement from such an empowering, honest story! Of course – because for once, they could feel safe from judgement.
Both the book and the play embrace Christopher’s unique perspective of the world while recognizing the challenges he faces while performing tasks that may seem simple to others. The gift of both the book and the play, however, is that this character is approached with automatic respect from the very first moment. His disability, whatever it may be, does not keep him from living his life. Christopher is relatable because he triumphs and suffers as anyone would, and if his parents cry at night because of the way he behaves – well, every parent does. There are no easy children, just as there are no perfect adults. We choose our adventures based on the skills we are born with, as well as those we develop as we grow. Christopher is the same, choosing to create a meaningful life out of what he’s received and what he’s worked for.
Stories like this, I believe, are ones worth hearing.