I am not even sure how to start, so let's just go for it.
What is autism?
Autism is a non-visible developmental disability which affects at least 1 in 100 people in the population. It is a spectrum condition which can manifest differently in different people, and affects things like communication, social interaction, and how the person experiences the world.
It is something that an autistic person is born with, and it is also something that cannot be cured
Traditionally more boys are diagnosed with autism than girls, simply because the condition can manifest differently in males and females, although the boundary is far more blurred than anyone would have you believe.
Autism can also manifest with other conditions including ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ). PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance), general learning difficulties, APD (Auditory processing disorder (APD) ) and many other conditions, which can all be collected under the term “neurodivergant”; a term for people whose brains do not work in the same way as most other peoples.
Because of the difficulty presented with communication, “fitting in”, and social interaction, which can often be seen by neurotypical people as being “difficult”, “strange”, “lazy”, and often being punished based on those assumptions, it is very likely that autistic people will suffer from extreme anxiety, PTSD, depression, and other mental health conditions which have developed from their experience of the world and being punished.
It can also have benefits. An autistic person learns to observe the neurotypical world (that is, the world of “most” people) with great care and detail, to mimic and try to “fit in” - to “mask” as it is called. What a wonderful skill for anyone working in theatre or film production! We also often have very strong focused interests, which can lead to the developing of great expertise in a certain area.
Autistic people also tend to miss subtle or ambiguous social or communicative cues. We take communication at face value, and we communicate with other people in the same way; so what you see is what you get, with no subtlety, or hidden/ ambiguous meanings. We take things literally, and communicate literally.
I am, as you have guessed, autistic, according to my diagnosis, which I finally got as an adult, quite heavily so. I also have Auditory Processing Disorder, which I did not realize until I received my diagnosis paperwork from the psychiatrist, and evidence of PDA. I also have PTSD.
So, as a theatre director.
I discovered that while there have been enormous strides in the understanding of autism, and the provision of advice for people who work or volunteer in organizations as autistic people, and about their rights and where they can go for help; there is very little – well none that I have found – for autistic people who are in positions of leadership – like being a theatre director. I hope that sharing my experiences may help others a little. Which when you think about it, is remarkably ableist.
As already stated, autism is a “spectrum” disability, and peoples experiences may vary.
As a theatre director, you need to be able to translate a script, to the stage, with convincing and varied characters. You need to be able to support and guide the actors and stage crew to create this show. Surely that goes against the communication and social difficulties that autism presents you with?
Not so much. Because of those difficulties, you have already learned to be an actor. You watch how people interact and behave with one another. You try to learn about what is the expected behaviour in certain formal situations to not make a mistake as life progresses. You learn how different people behave and how they appear when they exhibit certain emotions.
Of course, the vast majority of people you will be directing, are not autistic and do not have any neurodivergant conditions. Every person is different. Trust in your actors to use aspects of themselves as they develop their characterisations, and you will find a wonderful variety of characterizations, just as exist in the real world, in a way that you would not have been able to guide if you had been too rigid, because the characterisations would be concieved by only one mind, and one that isn't always the best at social interaction at that.
You will know how you feel sat in a theatre or watching a film, and how you feel as the stories and experiences of the characters unfold. You want to bring that same power to the shows you direct. I make a point of watching dramas and imagining that I am a person there on the sidelines or in the crowd, not a voyeur, removed by knowing it is fictional and happening “over there”.
It takes a lot of studying, and constant revising and practice, but it is entirely possible to create a really powerful piece of drama – I have led productions to win national and international arts awards.
Directing, of course, isn't just telling people what to do. It is also about looking after a team. You want (and need) everyone, regardless of their differences to be happy, feel safe and positive, so that they feel able to focus on creating the best performance possible. That means sometimes being there if an actor phones you with questions at supper time, listening to any problems or concerns and dealing with them positively and compassionately. It is also about communicating.
A cast of actors who are afraid, or uncomfortable, with the director or senior production team, will be unable to create meaningful theatre. If they do not have faith in the directors leadership, the show will fail due to cast anxiety and feeling undervalued. Being an actor can be quite nerve-wracking, as you can put your rawest emotions on show to create characters. Everyone wants the show to be perfect.
My general rule is to be very hands-on; as well as directing; my first ground rule is that I never ask anyone else to do something that I would not be prepared to do myself. If I would not be comfortable to do something, I would certainly never ask someone else to do it.
The second point is I always try to be positive, constructive and understanding of everyone in the cast and crew, regardless of differences. This is hard with the autism and because I err on the side of caution and being constructive, has meant in the past, that I can struggle to be fast to deal with malicious behaviour, because my first reaction is to try to understand the person and deal with things without confrontation. I have learned the hard way to be a lot stricter than I was.
Of course, communication can fail. I have had four occasions over the years where suddenly seemingly happy actors have suddenly become angry and walked out of shows, and when I have tried to ask what was wrong so that we could talk about it and rectify whatever had happened, I have been told that I “know what I did” and blocked with no further explanation.
It was only when I came to meet other autistic adults that in discussions online in support groups, as they had similar experiences and were asking for help, with no idea of what had happened, that we discovered that this is a fairly common experience among autistic people.
We don't have any full explanation, since a common part of these experiences is that we are supposed to know what we have done wrong, and are given no explanation. So our theorizing is that it is down to the communication issues of the disability.
“Most people”, that is, neurotypical people, communicate with a lot of nuances, and hidden subtleties, which an autistic person will frequently, if not usually, miss. As explained already, we autistic people tend to be very literal and “un-subtle”. Our theory is that the problem is we have missed some nuance or subtlety. No offence or harm or malicious behaviour is ever intended; I, and many other autistic people would be incredibly grateful if people would simply discuss calmly what had gone wrong and what we have missed because these incidents are incredibly upsetting and we do want to understand what happened and put it right..
Auditory processing disorder, means that sometimes if there are several stimulant sounds, like several people talking at once, or someone giving a long barrage of various information, my brain will be unable to process all the information. As a recent example, I was sat with two friends in a cafe. One was telling me about something that happened in her family, with a long, complicated story. After a while, I could still hear her talking, and I was reacting as if I was listening, which I was trying very hard to do. However all I was hearing from her was white noise, and I was completely unable to even process the words she was saying into sentences or intelligible words. It took me about three or four minutes of trying, to be able to again hear and process the words she was saying.
My diagnosing psychiatrist said that it could look like ADHD (which I do not have) to the layperson.
Communicating in theatre
In theatre (and film), as an industry, there is a long history of abuses; that is bullying, scamming, gaslighting, and almost every actor and creative will have experienced these darker sides. We are all hyper-vigilant for red-flags and warnings that something may be amiss. This means of course, that any difference in communication or how someone behaves, can also be concerning.
My usual approach has not to state my autism or other conditions, however as we return to the stage after Covid, I have decided to be a lot more open. From the start of Ben Hur, I will be open about my accessibility needs as well. Of course, when you are working with other people who have disabilities, they need to be able to provide you with any accessibility adjustment details they may need for their disabilities, and so I feel that it is only fair that I am able to do the same. I also feel that openness may help with communication and working together, and the fostering of a “safe space”.
So, the day I dread most of any theatre production is the audition day. I don't enjoy hierarchies, or being seen to be hierarchical, so to be in charge of deciding who gets what role or not, as well as the social anxiety of meeting lots of new people, and wanting them to feel welcomed and appreciated, is absolutely terrifying! However, without casting day, we wouldn't have any shows. Having at least one other person on the casting panel, whom I know and trust, makes it enormously better!
Being an actor going to audition can be nerve-wracking; in our case, the director is equally terrified.
Over ensuing rehearsals I get used to the new people, and soon become more confident with them.
When I am giving notes and directions after a scene, I will usually pause for a few moments, and ask people to speak one at a time. My brain needs a few moments to process everything (even though I will have been keeping written notes) and to prepare to communicate properly back to everyone. Asking people to communicate one at a time is also very helpful. Traditionally I mask it with a smile, and getting my notes together.
When someone in the cast or crew needs to give me information, like about a day that they are away from rehearsals, or there is something they need from me, it is infinitely safest to write it down for me, or even better, to get me to write it in a ledger that I keep for that purpose.
It means that if I miss information, or due to personal anxiety (PTSD from past bullying and gaslighting) I need to go back and check it, I have a record that I can check to make sure it is correct.
I will also often ask the same question of people more than once – this is not because I have not been paying attention, but more because I want to be extremely careful and check that I have everything correct, and that I have not missed any details.
My brain is also often unable to process information if highly stressed, frightened or anxious – so calm, and succinct communication is the best way to talk to me when discussing something important.
Autistic people are prone to meltdowns – this is when we experience what is sensory overoad for us, or we are faced with a new situation that we do not know how to deal with, and are unable to cope. These vary per person; mine can range from exhibiting as a panic attack over something mild, to hysterical screaming on the floor. Luckily, while you may well experience me panicking, you are very unlikely to witness the more extreme meltdowns, because the things that trigger those for me are not common in the theatre or rehearsal room.
And I think that is all. This is in no way a scientific paper and it certainly is not a “one size fits all” because we are different, and I would love to hear the comments of any other autistic theatre directors who read this.