Since its release in 2003, Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has faced repeated criticism over its portrayal of autism. Though the story’s fifteen-year-old protagonist, Christopher, is never explicitly referred to as autistic, a synopsis on the book’s back cover describes him as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome — a neurodevelopmental disorder on the autism spectrum — and critics have derided the narrative for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the disabled community.
Even as Curious Incident lives on as a successful Broadway play — garnering a total of five Tony Awards in 2015, not to mention a rave review from the Voice — the production’s handling of autism continues to draw the ire of the autistic community.
Last month, it was announced that starting September 13, Tyler Lea would be replacing Alex Sharp in the lead role of Christopher for the show’s Barrymore Theatre run. Both Lea and Sharp are “allistic,” a term the autistic community uses to describe non-autistic people, and the decision was seen as yet another missed opportunity to allow autistics a modicum of control over how they are represented in popular culture. The community argues that more autistics should have been considered for the role — or, at the very least, consulted during the casting process.
“At the end of the day, this is a concern because the production has shown that they are not looking at perspectives of actual autistic people as a priority,” Ari Ne’eman, the president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, tells the Voice. “And in the context of a story that is all about presenting autistic people as this ‘other,’ this alien force, that’s really damaging.”
Appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Barack Obama in 2009, Ne’eman was the first openly autistic White House nominee in history. He founded the ASAN because, he says, autistic people have historically been left out of conversations regarding their own well-being. Though the ASAN has not taken any official action on the issue yet, Ne’eman says the nonprofit has been contacted by a growing number of autistics expressing outrage over the casting decision, and that the organization fully supports the community’s concerns.
“When we talk about acting as being about inhabiting a role, the question that really has to be asked here is how much is this inhabiting the experiences of autistic people versus inhabiting societal stereotypes of autistic people?” Ne’eman says. “It’s much easier to ignore autistic community input when there are no actual autistic people involved in the production.”
Earlier this year, a petition criticizing the play’s casting choices gained close to 400 signatures on Change.org. Dozens of autistic people and allies from around the world commented on the website, imploring the show’s producers to let the community represent itself onstage.
“I’m sick of the way that autism is portrayed in the media by non-autistic actors,” one commenter wrote. “I believe autistics are the experts in their own experiences,” added another. The petition has since been removed from the Change.org website.
The topic has also been discussed on Twitter — using the hashtag #FilmDis — as part of a weekly conversation every Saturday night on the topic of how disabled people are portrayed in media. And the popular theater website Howlround wrote a piece while Sharp was still in the cast asking whether or not it was appropriate to cast a non-autistic to play a character with autism. The article generated a lively discussion in the comments section.
Carolyn Ledesma, an autistic woman from Portland, Oregon, says the autistic community’s repeated attempts to contact the play about its casting process have gone unanswered. The production declined the Voice’s requests for interviews, instead offering a brief statement through a publicist via email.
“There has always been a policy of inclusion in the opportunity to audition for Curious Incident,” the statement reads. “Actors who identify themselves as being on the autistic spectrum have auditioned for the role of Christopher in the play. The production would like to reinforce that professional actors who identify as being on the autism spectrum are encouraged to submit their headshot, résumé, and any relevant information about their actor training or experience for consideration to audition.”
Haddon, too, declined a request for comment through his literary agent, Aitken Alexander Associates. The agency instead directed the Voice to a 2009 post on Haddon’s website titled “Asperger’s & Autism,” in which the author admits to conducting no research on either disability prior to writing the novel.
“[C]urious [I]ncident is not a book about Asperger’s,” Haddon wrote. “It’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.’ Indeed he never uses the words ‘Asperger’s’ or ‘autism.’ ” He also concedes that he wishes the word Asperger’s had not been used on the book’s cover.
There is a long, controversial history of “ableism” in Hollywood and on Broadway, from Dustin Hoffman’s autistic, savant-like character in the 1988 film Rain Man (for which he won an Oscar) to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything. Very rarely are disabled actors given the opportunity to play disabled roles, and seldom, critics argue, do allistic writers craft accurate, multidimensional disabled characters in their work. This approach, they say, leads to pernicious stereotypes and public misconceptions about what it means to be a disabled person in America.
“Other than just that autistic people start with a leg up on understanding how autistic people work, it’s also a big deal because it’s symbolic,” explains Elizabeth Bartmess, an autistic writer who earlier this year penned an in-depth critique of Haddon’s book for the website Disability in Kidlit. “Having autistic actors play autistic characters sends a really big message about how it’s important to include us in things that are actually about us.”
As director Steve Kloves works to turn Curious Incident into a film, and representations of disabled people continue to abound both on the screen and the stage, the hope is that the autistic community will one day be given a greater say in how its members are depicted.
“That’s really what this is about, at the end of the day,” explains Ne’eman. “It’s about the idea that disabled people should not be made incidental to our own stories.”