My new play Touch Blue Touch Yellow explores the experiences of one young autistic man as he reaches a crisis in his life
I was moved to write the play in part to express something of the intense emotional journey I have been on as father to an autistic boy but also by my desire to challenge some of the prevailing myths I have encountered about autistic people in our society and in the fictional portrayals of autistic people that I have encountered, which regurgitate such myths with no genuine insight into the condition. In both, I was confronted with a stereotypical portrait of autism that I did not recognise at all in my own son.
One of the most damaging of these myths is that autistic people are incapable of empathy and respond to other people with an emotional flatness that verges on the robotic. It seems that a cultural archetype exists, of a machine-like, emotionally sterile and logical character, who stands aloof from the rest of the world and has little need for other people or for such messy irrationalities as emotion. Examples of this would be Mr Spok from Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, though it is easy to imagine more negative examples of such detached coldness. Unfortunately, this cultural archetype has been pinned – unjustly – onto autistic people.
It is true that autistic people struggle to recognise the intricate language of facial and verbal tics, cues, hints, tones of voice and little white lies that non-autistic people use to communicate feelings that are not expressed directly. It is also true that autistic people find the difficulty of trying to interpret these subtle signs and cues so exhausting and stressful that they need time alone to relax. But it is a big mistake to assume from this that they are incapable of caring about other people’s feelings or forming strong and meaningful emotional attachments.
From my own experience, both of my own son and that of other autism families I have met, autistic children can form very strong attachments to their families and – sometimes – to a small circle of friends. Among autistic adults, loneliness is a major and well-documented cause of unhappiness, which would also suggest that the need for close meaningful relationships is as strong for autistic people as for anyone else.
I also wanted to explore some of the positives about autism. I don’t mean the precocious mathematical genius encountered in both Rain Man and The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time. A spectacular flair for mathematics does exist among autistic people but is actually a rarity, just as it is for the neuro-typical majority of us. The positives I wanted to explore are the acute sensitivity to details, the delicate precision that autistic minds can bring to their dealings with the world, their honesty and openness and their ability to experience joy at the wonders of the world, often through an intense focus on a few particular subjects. The autistic writer Julia Bascom expresses this beautifully in her online blog, Just Stimming.
“Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy…. sometimes being autistic in this world means walking through a crowd of silently miserable people and holding your happiness like a secret or a baby, letting it warm you as your mind runs on the familiar tracks of an obsession and lights your way through the day.” (Julia Bascom)
This is something I do recognize in my own son. Another feature of autism I was keen to show was the fact that we are all, to varying degrees, on the autistic spectrum. The range of autistic traits varies widely from one autistic person to the next and can be seen to varying degrees in all of us. It is only when these traits occur in such a cluster and with such intensity that they become disabling that a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder comes into play. This label can be helpful in getting help for an autistic person but label can also be alienating and excluding. Autistic people, with their unconventional ways, suffer in a society that demands conformity. The more oppressively conformist the society is, the harder it is for the least conformist and conventional to fit in and be accepted.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the Behavourist therapy so often used to treat autistic children has traditionally stressed a need to train autistic behaviours out of children, to train them through rewards and repetitive drills to behave in ways that make them superficially indistinguishable from their peers. This pressure to conform to social norms is not confined to autistic people, of course, but impinges on and constricts all of us to varying degrees, in the clothes we wear, the volume of our speech, the flamboyance of our gestures, tastes and even beliefs.
This is why the struggle of Carl to find true friendship and meaning in his life, to retain his child-like wonder at the world while being accepted by other people, is a universal struggle. This is why, in Touch Blue Touch Yellow, I see Carl as a kind of everyman protagonist but one who just happens to be autistic. His autism simply magnifies and intensify the universal themes of loneliness, alienation and the need to belong that we can all relate to.
Specially commissioned by Winterlight Theatre and funded by the Arts Council of Wales and the National Lottery, this production also uses poetry from my wife Tracey Rhys’ forthcoming collection, Coaxing a Bird to Sing (funded by a Literature Wales bursary). These poems explore autism from a mother’s perspective and fit seamlessly into the themes of the play. Touch Blue Touch Yellow is directed by Chris Durnall for Winterlight and performed by Joshua Manfield, Stacey Daly, Jams Thomas and Dafydd Wynn-Roberts.
Tuesday 1st – Saturday 5th December at 8.00 Matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30
Venue: Chapter Arts Centre Market Road Cardiff
Box Office 02920304400 chapter.org
Winterlight is the sister company of Company of Sirens www.companyofsirens.com