Acting and autism – the challenges and rewards

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which has done much to raise the profile of aspergers and autism in theatre

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which has done much to raise the profile of aspergers and autism in theatre

To celebrate World Autism Awareness Day today, we talk to Stephanie Dawson, a member of the Samuel French licensing team. She was diagnosed with Aspergers when she was 7, and has been acting since she was 18

How would you describe autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person will communicate and relate to other people. It also affects the sense that they have of the world around them.

I have Aspergers – a mild form of autism which affects me, but not as much as full-blown autism might. It takes me a bit longer to understand things people say sometimes. I might not get a joke. If someone’s really upset about something, I might laugh at it.

Autism affects some of the things that we think of as being fundamental to acting. What specifically are the challenges for an autistic person when it comes to acting?

It’s trying to get out of your sense of something, and get into another person. It’s hard to empathise with another character, and imagine how they’re feeling, when you’ve got all these feelings trapped inside that you’ve got no way of expressing. But acting is a great way of expressing those feelings without having to talk to someone. And getting the feelings of another character is really hard, but because you’re pretending to be someone else you can think – “I don’t have to be an autistic person. I can be anyone. I can step out of myself for a moment and be someone else”. And that’s a great feeling!

What do you do to overcome the challenges of becoming another character?

When I do it I create my own story – a background story for this character so I can get into the character, and start from that.

But I think there are advantages to it too. Because it’s a challenge I can bring something different to a character – because I have all these feelings trapped inside, you can think “What if this person’s feeling that as well”, and get some of that across through the character.

Do you ever encounter any prejudices, or people thinking you won’t be able to act?

When I first started with my drama group, I was very open about the fact I had this condition. Some of the older members thought “she couldn’t do this play”, and they didn’t listen. But I kept trying, and suggested doing the play Death in High Heels – which they did, and I got cast in it, in my first major character. She had loads of lines to learn, and I had to do a posh accent, and learn all the etiquette – it was amazing. I really enjoyed that – standing on stage doing a big soliloquy with all these people in front of you – but you learn to think “they’re not there”.

I think doing the acting has helped the people I act with to understand more about the condition – that we’re not just socially awkward, we’re fully functioning members of society, we can do anything anyone else can.

What does acting do for you?

When I’m on stage, I’m a different person. I’m more confident, and I think “I can do this!”. Last year I won an award in a one act play competition, the first I’ve ever won. It was a massive step, and it really boosted my confidence. It made me think – anyone with any disability, it doesn’t matter what it is, they can do it.

When I was at school I used to hide under tables. When I started doing drama at 18 I was really shy. Now when I go to drama they can’t stop me talking!

And it’s not just drama – it helps me with my confidence and self-esteem in my everyday life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism on stage. What did you think of it?

It definitely represents what it’s like to have autism, and in a very positive way. I thought Luke Treadaway was amazing, and there was a lot that I recognised. It made me cry sometimes because I thought “My parents used to do that to me!” and “I did that!”. A lot of it happened to me as a kid, but I’ve learned to get over it.

It avoided the Hollywood cliche of people with autism always being really good at maths! I can’t do maths at all. But I’m really good at remembering things – authors, who their agents are – I can just reel it off like a book. I love English, and anything to do with books.

Is there any support out there for people with autism who want to act?

Yes, there are some amazing groups for people with any disability – not just autism – to help give them the confidence they need to try it. I love…

BlueApple Theatre
Embrace Arts at the RA Centre
Mind the Gap

The National Autistic Society also has a helpline which you can call on 0808 800 4104, and talk to them about anything.

If you’re interested in exploring the issue of autism in theatre, we recommend Lee Hall’s play Spoonface Steinberg and Annie Baker’s Body Awareness.


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