I’ve always had complicated feelings about disclosing my autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Which, I suppose, makes the fact that I accepted a role as panelist on last Monday’s Creating Change Conversation on Neurodiversity, Disability and Accessibility, led by Momentum Stage, somewhat noteworthy in and of itself.
Neurodiversity, if you don’t know, is a term pioneered by autism activists that has since been applied to other neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions and describes the idea of these brain differences being thought of as normal, natural variation in the human genome rather than as “disease.”
It’s a complicated and controversial assertion, partially because autism is such a vast spectrum. But, as I expressed at the panel, moving from seeing myself as “wrong” for failing to fit into neurotypical society to thinking of society as wrong for erecting so many barriers to autistic acceptance and inclusion has been one of the most pivotal shifts in my thinking over the past few years.
There is certainly an arbitrariness to labeling “autism” as a “disease” when “symptoms” can be so subjective, and when it appears likely that autistic people have existed and even excelled in our society long before the label “autistic” even existed. In fact, one historical figure who scholars suspect may have been on the autism spectrum is the one who inspired the name of this very blog!
Ilana in Theatreland could have never come about without Alice in Wonderland, the famous 1865 children’s novel that was written by Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and he’s one of the authors examined by Julie Brown in the book Writers on the Spectrum. According to Brown, Dodgson displayed from childhood on many of the characteristics associated with autism: speech problems, perseverative thinking, a preference for solitude. His deep friendship with Alice Liddell, the real young girl who inspired the fictional Alice who wanders Wonderland, a friendship which some have interpreted as possibly suggestive of pedophilia, makes somewhat more sense when viewed through the lens of autistic obsession, which can create an intense preoccupation with another person that is not necessarily sexual in nature. Their bond, and Dodgson’s preference to spend time with children more generally, may also have been an artifact of the author’s trouble forming meaningful relationships with others his own age.
Brown also finds evidence of Carroll’s unusual thinking style in the disjointed disorienting structure of his work, how it takes place as a series of relatively disconnected adventures instead of cohering into an ordered whole. Further demonstrations of the author’s autism can be found in the peculiarities of his characters, his use of dreamlike dissonant images and odd juxtapositions, and in his constant wordplay and sprawling “mosaic” of outside references.
Other authors Brown hypothesizes as possibly having been on the spectrum include Hans Christian Anderson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, William Butler Yeats, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and Opal Whitely. Do her claims have merit? I think so, but that could well just be me looking too hard for kinship or validation, hard enough that I might warp history. But it does seem that the farther you climb up in the artistic, scientific, and even political realms, the more you will find strange characters of all kinds, ever more bizarre behavior. Albert Einstein, who didn’t speak until after his third birthday, repeated sentences obsessively until age 7, and never mastered small talk. Isaac Newton, who hardly spoke, had few friends, and would occasionally give lectures to empty rooms. Thomas Jefferson, who had trouble speaking in public, wore slippers to important meetings, couldn’t abide loud noises. But of course none of these figures were considered “autistic” at the time, given that the term and the diagnosis hadn’t been established yet. But did they think as I thought?
And, as at least some scholars think, maybe so does The Glass Menagerie’s Laura Wingfield.
When I first came across the character during our study of the play in my high school’s Acting I class, I related to her perhaps more than I had ever related to any fictional character I’d come across thus far. Though Laura had a small physical defect of a slight limp, this was the least of her oddities. She was also not just shy but “terribly shy,” “peculiar,” “different from other girls.” Because of her anxiety, she couldn’t make it through a business course at Rubicam’s College, couldn’t make friends during high school or at her church youth group, couldn’t, it seemed, make friends at all. Instead, she lived “in a world of her own,” retreating to the titular menagerie, playing with its glass animals constantly as she listened to “those worn-out phonograph records” her deserter father had left behind.
And even more startling: author Tennessee Williams did not entirely condemn Laura for her difference, her withdrawal. I ended up performing one of her monologues for class a little later in the term, which contains this memorable quotation:
LAURA: He used to call me – Blue Roses. When I had that attack of pleurosis – he asked me what was the matter when I came back. I said pleurosis – he thought that I said Blue Roses ! So that’s what he always called me after that. Whenever he saw me, he’d holler, ‘Hello, Blue Roses!’
Later, during a visit from Laura’s high school crush Jim, the two share the following exchange:
JIM: Being different is nothing to be ashamed of. Because other people are not such wonderful people. They’re one hundred times one thousand. You’re one times one! They walk all over the earth. You just stay here. They’re common as – weeds, -but – you – well, you’re – Blue Roses!”
LAURA: But blue is wrong for – roses…
JIM: It’s right for you!
The idea of finding beauty in difference, and even in disease, was so impactful to me that it eventually inspired my first and only tattoo, of— you guessed it— a blue rose!