At the college where I teach (English), a colleague and friend from the biology department and I were invited to give a joint talk on an interdisciplinary topic that would touch on both of our fields. Trying to find something that would bridge our two worlds, we decided to pursue the intersection of mental health and creativity. In preparing for our talk, our interests shifted and we became fascinated with the autism spectrum and its potential relationship to scientific and artistic creativity. In particular, we wanted to draw attention to the emerging concept of neurodiversity: the notion that autism can be understood in terms of difference rather than disorder. The questions that we posed continued to hold my interest well after the talk, and I have since taken on a serious interest in autism and the creative arts, especially within the larger context of understanding neurodiversity and its value to us all.
I’ve had numerous students in my college classes and at my dance studio who were on the autism spectrum and, perhaps most interestingly, several students who were in my honors seminars (at my college I twice served as coordinator of the Honors Program and also taught both the first-year and capstone Honors seminars) had been classified as on the spectrum. Indeed, one of the most fascinating questions in my mind is with regard to the relationship between autism and giftedness.
Often, despite social, linguistic, or other developmental challenges, students on the spectrum demonstrate remarkably advanced abilities that can translate well into the academic arena. Having narrow but deep interests (what autism activist Clara Claiborne Park referred to as “enthusiasms”) is actually well suited to the academic world, as is exquisite attention to details such as terminology and categorization. Both of these characteristics are often found in individuals on the spectrum.
I should stress here that, in speaking in generalities (“often,” sometimes,” “many,” etc.) I in no way wish to elide the great diversity of traits and human individuality on the autism spectrum. What may be true for one individual may not apply to another and it’s important that we understand that significant differences exist. That being said, some discernible patterns and categories can emerge through our generalizations and I believe that we can draw overarching theories from those patterns to the extent that they are useful in practice.
As a teacher of the performing arts who insists that most human experiences can be productively examined through the lens of performance, there are two aspects of autism in particular that I find incredibly relevant. The first is the concept known in autism parlance as “masking,” or when an individual on the spectrum is able to essentially perform as a neurotypical (non-autistic) person in public settings. Some autistic individuals are able, through mimicry and practice, to present themselves such that the others with whom they are interacting are unaware of their autism. This is a point made especially well by Casey “Remrov” Vormer, an autism activist and artist who is on the spectrum himself. He mentions in his book, Connecting with the Autism Spectrum, that playing the role of a neurotypical person is a helpful but incredibly difficult and exhausting experience for an autistic person. While neurotypical people find themselves able to relate to one another relatively naturally, instantly responding to nonverbal cues and societal norms that have been internalized since birth, autistic people can find themselves confused, anxious, overwhelmed, and misunderstood in even casual and brief social interactions.
But, some autistic individuals are able to “mask” their difficulty. Like an actor on the stage, they may rely on pre-determined scripts and rehearsed physical movements to give the illusion of social ease. In reading Remrov’s description, I found myself both fascinated and heartbroken. Fascinated that some autistic individuals find themselves as serious students of human behavior just like a professional performing artist, and heartbroken to hear that so much care, effort, and energy must go in to preparing for the daunting task of interacting with another human.
As I have learned through my research, autistic individuals, even if they struggle with social engagement, nonetheless find themselves seeking connections with others. They desire relationships with other people just like anyone else. And, loneliness is an all-too-common experience for them. Masking, or artificially performing as a neurotypical person is one strategy that an autistic person may rely on in their attempts to facilitate connections to other people.
I think that the performative and citational (as in the performativity theory of Judith Butler) aspects should be studied further by experts and researchers. And perhaps this is one issue about which the performing artists and psychologists could perhaps work together in not only understanding the autistic experience but to offer powerful and practical solutions. The possibilities seem endless to me. The “artificiality” of masking and the difficulty of sustaining such a performance may provide unique insights into questions that have fascinated me such as:
What is the degree to which all human behavior is performative?
What is the degree to which all social interactions are “staged” and “scripted”?
Are there practices employed by actors and other performers that could inform, or be adapted to, interventions intended to help individuals with autism relate to others?
Additionally, another defining characteristic of many on the autism spectrum is the presentation of echolalia—the practice of repeating words, phrases, or sounds in a manner similar to mimicry. Barry Prizant, in his amazing book Uniquely Human, has countless examples of the autistic children he worked with repeatedly performing words, phrases, or entire monologues from TV, movies, or real-life conversations. While seemingly inappropriate or out of context, when given extended consideration, it was found to be the case that those utterances actually made perfect sense in the mind of the child.
In one particularly charming example, Prizant shares with us the story of Aidan, a three-year-old who greeted every new acquaintance to whom he was introduced with, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” While many neurotypical people assumed that Aidan was simply repeating a line from his favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, he was actually expressing what he had understood to be a standard social greeting, having seen that that was how Glinda greeted Dorothy at their first meeting in the movie. Prizant cites researchers who find that verbatim mimicking of previously observed speech is actually a critical step in the development of original language.
I couldn’t help but think that this idea of echolalia is similar to how creativity is developed in dancers. Most of my young dancers learn an incredible amount by watching videos of professional dancers in performance or by observing the more advanced dancers in rehearsal or at our annual recital. The motivation to imitate–a powerful drive in the human brain especially during our developmental years–facilitates learning and growth in ways as–or perhaps moreso–effective than even explicit instruction. Furthermore, young dancers, when asked to begin to choreograph their own combinations, often use sequences they learned from me at first before developing their own unique and signature phrases of movement.
Dancers tend to learn the teacher’s choreography first (as we prepare for our annual recital) for years. In essence, the creative aspects of performance (the choreography) is mine, but the student dancers enact it on the stage, developing an internalized “feel” for the steps, their combinations and sequences, and their relationship to the music. In later years, if students decide to begin to choreograph their own pieces or to become teachers or choreographers in their own right, they possess the technical and artistic instincts they developed through the process of modeling and imitation.
I wonder if a similar phenomenon is the case when autistic children employ echolalia as a form of communication. They copy, imitate, or repeat what they have observed, developing a “feel” for the language. They practice the active experience of pronouncing words, of articulating sentences, and of rendering emotional expression before developing more original and expressive language to suit their own communicative needs.
Both of these phenomena that I have mentioned–masking and echolalia–highlight what I see to be the most critically important element of performance: subjective experience. In other words, what does it feel like to perform as a human being in order to affect others and affect the self? We learn from Remrov that the performance of masking is exhausting and stressful. Autistic children engaging in echolalia seem to be enjoying the experience of performative language in a way that seems to resemble self-stimulation. They engage in the repetitive performance for their own experience.
To what extent do all of us, when performing, act simply to “try on,” to subjectively experience, the feel of our actions, movements, and speech? This is just one category of question that an engagement with autistic people can inspire us to contemplate and investigate.
Indeed, I am reminded, again and again, that autistic individuals are unique gifts to the world, prompting essential questions about human cognition and the human condition. Our society can only be enriched by inviting those on the spectrum into our conversations through whatever accommodations or interventions they may need. Performance, like all communication, is a two-way street and neurotypical people have a world to gain by asking ourselves, how we can perform such that we can facilitate a connection with an autistic person. Human difference is not necessarily evidence of a disorder, but rather a potentially profound gift for its own sake.
Please keep in touch and share your thoughts as I consider these questions and more over the long term!