A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to this video about Mickey Rowe, the young man playing the lead in a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. A year ago, the Broadway tour of Curious was in Orlando and I had the opportunity to interview the actor that played the Mother, Felicity Jones Latta. I was interviewing her for a podcast for the arts center, so we were focused on the show: We discussed her journey as a professional artist and as an actor (two very different journeys) and her process for creating this character, the mother of a unique child.
We had a great discussion and then when the formal podcast was over, we had another discussion. I admitted to her that, like the young man in the play, my child is unique. My child doesn’t understand how life works. My child thinks differently. Oh, and he has curly hair and flicks his fingers, much like the actor Adam Langdon, who played Christopher in the tour. Only Adam was acting at flicking his fingers and acting about not needing eye contact.
Then she interviewed me. She wanted to know what it was like for me to watch the play and I told her the truth. I felt exposed. I felt like everyone in the theater was looking at me to see how I responded. I know that all of my friends who saw the show during the run in Orlando would text or call or post “I was thinking about you the whole time!” And that I didn’t want to be thought of. I didn’t want everyone knowing how it felt to be the mother of this child.
Which is kind of weird because I’m always writing and speaking and looking for opportunities to for Henry and I share what our life is like. But then those audiences see our life and experiences in the way that we share them, which is usually hopeful, meaningful, inspirational and often funny. Not in the visceral, sometimes dangerous, often frantic, usually frustrating way portrayed in this production. Which is also an experience in how we live our lives.
But there it was all on stage for everyone to experience.
She asked me what the difference was between me and the mother she played. This was easy. Her mother was in true crisis a part of which was that she didn’t know how she felt about being a mother, his mother. She was also living in a way in which the disease, the disorder, was in charge of her life. The autism was running the show. If it didn’t want to hug, then there’s no hugging. If it didn’t want to manage a meltdown, then there was a meltdown. If it couldn’t go into a public place, then it didn’t go.
In my world, we are in charge. I tell autism what we need to do. If it doesn’t want to hug, ok we’ll train it to receive and give hugs. Because I, Alice, Henry’s mom, needs hugs. If autism doesn’t want public places then we train it to manage being out in public. We break it down. We break its grip on Henry.
This is challenging work because it requires finding the dividing line between Henry and autism. What does Henry want to do? What is autism not allowing him to do? What gift is autism giving him that allows him to do things he might otherwise not be able to do? What does Henry actually not want to do?
The best example is the birds. He hates birds. We worked and worked on being in public places (parking lots, the zoo, Sea World) where there might be birds. And we survived those attempts. But he hates them. They freak him out. So, we don’t go places where there are flocks of birds. And we move quickly if they show up where we are.
That dividing line was much clearer when he was small. No one wants to have a meltdown or injure himself or someone he loves. So, we did sensory exercises. We practiced, timed our outings, over prepared, wrote social stories and we found out how far we could get.
Dr. Phil's teaching on dealing with addiction in a person you love is “You’re talking to the disease now.” I apply this liberally. Autism doesn’t get to tell me who I am or what my life looks like, and it doesn’t get to dictate who Henry is. I tell it what it’s life looks like. Now, my work as the mother of an adult is to give him the reigns to help him to make the distinction between autism and what he actually wants to do. He gets to break the grip.
That’s the biggest difference between Henry and I and Christopher and his Mom. In the play, they are subject to it. In my show, it is subject to us.
We didn’t record this part of our conversation because in our podcast we were representing the show, the character and the theater. This conversation was purely personal—me sharing how her performance impacted me and hopefully giving her the support to continue performing her role. And her discovering how the mother of a unique, curly-haired young adult felt about the story she was embodying. It was a powerful hour of truth and art. My favorite thing.