Theatre: Tom’s bold, brilliant way of opening the world’s eyes to autism
It’s been said that having an authentic identity is the highest form of intelligence.
It’s a theory that springs to mind when interviewing playwright Tom Middleditch, a relentlessly dynamic thinker whose thoughts and insights into autism come at you with both speed and precision.
Unlike many who have attempted to write about autism for the stage or screen, Tom’s artistic endeavours come from a place of lived experience, acute self-awareness and desire to challenge the way the world perceives autism.
It’s what makes Tom the perfect candidate to create a production such as Alexithymia, working alongside whip-smart director Jayde Kirchert.
A high number of autistic people experience alexithymia, which is defined as an inability to name or describe emotions.
Developed and presented by a neuro-diverse cast and creative team, the stage production features an interdependent and delicate mix of sensory stimuli, sound design and stylised performances.
Alexithymia is presented as three short works – Social_function.exe is about an autistic woman who invents an artificial intelligence implant to navigate a job interview; The Curious Case of You is a game show that puts audiences’ emotional intelligence to the test; and Nirvana Syndrome follows a woman who has no desire for anything and is consequently defined by other people’s expectations.
Tom says alexithymia can be best thought of as the distance one is from what they feel and that the production is structured to encourage autistic thinking.
Each piece explores a theme borne from alexithymia, but the full experience only emerges once the audience starts to recognise the patterns between the short works.
Following are some of Tom and Jayde’s observations about alexithymia, autism and their stage production.
Tom: Autistic people are one of the most populace minority groups on the planet and exist independent of culture.
Jayde: Tom runs a Purple Planet workshop and ran one with us (members of the Alexithymia team). It was a great insight into understanding the process neurotypical people go through, of absorbing and subconsciously learning social codes and rules that don’t happen or happen inm a different way for autistic people. The workshop helped us understand the constructed aspects of social life we think are natural but are all constructed.
Tom: It’s all performed. It’s just that some of us are better at forgetting we are performing than others. I’ve had a lifetime of learning how to blend in, match my personality to my accidental quirks. There are two ways of going about that. One is the repression angle, where you know you do things other people find uncomfortable and you don’t know why so you don’t do anything. Or, you go, “I don’t care because I don’t know the difference” and you do them (things) anyway.
Most of my ideas have come from the DSM-5 change. Basically, that was the starting point for thinking, if Aspergers doesn’t exist, what is my identity now.
I have about 12 plays going on in my head at the moment. All of them have come from reading all the literature out there and my own experience.
This play (Alexithymia) has a beginning, middle and end but it’s more conceptual than narrative. Each piece is engaging in itself. You won’t be watching it and saying, “I don’t understand what’s going on.
The tricky part is connecting the three things (parts) together into one experience. That’s the process that’s required when you are alexithymic.
I want to say that the thing that’s quietly ground-breaking about this play _ a silent earthquake! _ is that there are a minimum five autistic women, female characters in this piece.
Other shows, it’s more about how the neurotypical person engages with the autistic person, with our current understanding of the stereotypes, rather than breathing full life into it. This work breathes full life into it from our perspective. We are trying hard to find that middle ground between staying true to the autistic voice but also having it clear enough so that a neurotypical audience can access it and become more empathetically engaged with autistic people.
Jayde: This also has the potential to change the way autistic women are perceived. It’s a great opportunity for people who are neurotypical and don’t know much about autism, or are curious, to get an insight.
Tom: Culturally I would say there’s a lot more expectation put on (autistic) women to be emotionally empathetic and and socially literate. The one example I go to is obsession, the categorisation of knowledge.
For boys, a 9-year-old can name all the stars in a constellation and you think that’s clearly an autistic thing. That’s categorisation of scientific, factual knowledge. You get a girl who can tell you all the make-up labels and orders them by pigmentation thickness, people go, that’s just being a woman.
Alexithymia, Citizen Theatre & A_tistic
8 – 19 November 2017
Meat Market, Stables
Corner of Courtney & Wreckyn Streets, North Melbourne