You Disturbed My Narrative! When Autism Went to the Theater.

Let’s think about interruptions. How flexible are we really, how open and accepting? So maybe we can think of life as a stage, and we are all actors on that stage. Wouldn’t it be just ideal if everyone knew their place and lines, if everything occurred exactly in time, in order, as planned? The inconvenience of the disruption destroys our sense of control, throws us into disarray. The moments out of time when characters can’t or won’t fulfill expectations in their allotted role, when convention is dismissed or missed entirely; those moments are special, Zen like if you will. I would argue that these are teaching moments, and opportunities for real development as caring human beings.

I have just read an article about an autistic child who went to the theater. Not an extraordinary event perhaps, but the young boys actions triggered an extraordinary and polarized set of reactions, reactions which I consider demonstrative of the essence of human conflict: “You disturbed my narrative!” To set the scene, a production of ‘The King and I‘ was taking place on Broadway and a mother had taken her son along to the matinee performance. At the moment of the whipping scene the young boy grew very vocal, yelling out despite his mothers best efforts to calm him. Now the audience having their enjoyment tainted, apparently expressed disgust and outrage at the boys outbursts, displaying contempt not only at the boy, but also towards his mother for having the audacity to bring this great disturber in to the hallowed grounds of the theater. We surely must reflect upon this. Where and when are differently able and minded people welcome in normative society, what spaces exist for the mutual sharing of community, the arts and culture?


Institutional abuse of the vulnerable has run amok for some time in the UK where I live, and we now have a movement towards supported living in communities. But can we really think this shift is a definitive solution to systemic abuse if people still find themselves being ostracized and made unwelcome at something so ordinary as the theater? If people with different abilities, learning disabilities, autism and/or sensory processing issues continue to be muted, shunned, barred, placed out of sight and mind; then the abuse continues. How can we as a society justify condemning people to a solitary existence wherein rejection and disapproval is an everyday experience? I appreciate that this occasion was a mother and son dynamic, and members of the audience may have assumed that this was simply an unruly child misbehaving. However, what concerns me about this tale and what I feel it teaches, is that normative society holds normalcy dear, dangerously dear. Any thing or person that disrupts the insidious authoritarian codes of this often unquestioned normalcy, is relegated to the abject realms; deemed an affront and refused entry.

How many people with disabilities of any description do you know? Do you have friends who identify themselves as disabled? If no, then how about within your community, do you often meet people with disabilities in the shops, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters maybe? If you score poorly on these questions I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it, we have a serious inclusion issue globally regarding disability. What I would suggest however, is that you begin to notice the gaps. Begin to notice the missing many, their absence is visible, their silence screaming out for recognition.

I can thankfully see hope through this Broadway tale. Actor Kelvin Moon Loh witnessed the whole uncomfortable event as the desperate mother attempted to remove her disruptive son from the theater while the crowd jeered. He went on to write an all at once scathing and loving post on social media, and attracted wide attention for doing so. Here are some extracts with a link to his original post below.

‘The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.

‘When did we as theater people, performers and audience members, become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?’                    

Kelvin Moon Loh.

So what are we going to do next time the fantasy is interrupted? Ultimately that is all normalcy is, a fantasy which the majority have unconsciously consented to; a narrative awaiting disruption.


About differal

Fledgling academic negotiating systems at every turn: living off-grid, living with MS, playing with critical theory for transformative social praxis.
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