Originally published by SpeakEasy Stage Company in the 2017 production program for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Reproduced with permission.
Every time that I pass through the Boston Public Garden, I think of Christopher Boone. For most of the year, the Garden is dotted with signs that read “KEEP OFF THE GRASS.” But what radius does each sign include? Toward the beginning of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Christopher expresses a similar frustration with lawn signs and other nonspecific messages.
Christopher and I have a lot more in common than our puzzlement with ambiguous lawn signs. We both have autism.
Many of Christopher’s character traits fit the textbook definition of autism. He has profound difficulty communicating and interacting with people, including overly literal interpretation of language; difficulty interpreting gestures and facial expressions; and an inability to take other people’s perspectives. His speech is excessively formal, and he is incapable of social spontaneity or reciprocity. He constantly misses the big picture, or context, of what is going on. He fixates on a few themes he cannot let go of, rocks or groans when overwhelmed, and is hypersensitive to sound, smell, and touch.
But to view Christopher in this detached, clinical light is to miss the wonderful attributes that make him so likeable. Christopher has many strengths that stem directly from his autism. His love for animals and indignation at the killing of a dog reflect a strong sense of ethics and justice. He is refreshingly honest and well-intentioned. He is also a mathematical savant and budding scientist, with a striking ability to apply his vast scientific knowledge to all that he sees. And he sees — and remembers — everything, down to the minutest detail. Christopher applies careful, logical analysis to every problem he encounters. And he perseveres, against overwhelming odds, to solve the mystery of Wellington’s death.
In some ways, Christopher’s character is a stereotype of autism. In reality, the majority of people with autism are not savants; do not have photographic memories; are not 100% literal in their interpretation of language; are not thoroughly blind to others’ feelings; and, crucially, are not content to be totally disconnected from other human beings.
People with autism are remarkably diverse. There is a saying: “When you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism.” Christopher is one picture of autism; I am another.
I am 34, female, independent, outgoing, a writer and speaker. I live alone, travel the city every day, and have friends (sort of). Superficially, I could not be more different from Christopher; but below the surface, my experiences echo his.
I am hopeless at math, but in love with psychology. I can wax philosophical in my efforts to interpret typical human behavior, which I feel removed from. I am no genius, but I do love to learn. Information grounds me.
I enjoy language as a vehicle for spreading knowledge but struggle with metaphor and idiom. I collect and analyze “data” about a situation to determine cause and effect and what to do next. Is it a good moment for a joke? What are their faces saying? Lacking social intuition, I base my responses on logic.
To me, one of the most powerful elements of Christopher’s experience is the intense anxiety and disorientation he feels when he senses his mind is not working right (i.e., anxiety is interfering with his logic). If he can’t reason his way through a tough situation, what can he do? Nothing. I get it. I, too, am paralyzed without a plan.
I love Christopher’s portrayal of his sensory experiences. My own sensitivities cause me daily turmoil in the city where I live. I wear sunglasses, earplugs, sometimes even a respirator, in my quest for comfort. When an ambulance or motorcycle passes by, I stiffen, crouch down, cradle my head, and chant through the pain.
Socially, I have amassed quite a repertoire of well-rehearsed scripts, so I fare better than Christopher does. At more than twice his age, I have the advantage of experience. Nevertheless, I find social interaction anxiety-provoking and exhausting.
Like Christopher, I have gifts that are eclipsed by my everyday challenges. Now society is beginning to recognize that autism comes with many gifts that have been overlooked. We are seeing a gradual movement towards honoring “neurodiversity” and viewing autism as a difference, not a disorder. Certainly, living with autism can be disabling. But then, we live in a world built primarily by and for people with very different minds.
For people like me, who have autism — whatever its manifestation — and want to build fulfilling lives, moving from a deficits-based to a strengths-based model means a chance to accept ourselves: disabled, gifted, unconventional and autistic, as we have always been.