Once more with feeling: I will never pay to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Even if money was no object, even if I had comp tickets, I still wouldn’t go. Hell, even if someone was paying me to watch the play, I would have significant pause.
As an autistic person, if I had to choose between watching the dramatization of what my community has lovingly (that’s sarcasm; we are capable of it) called “the nighttime dog book” and getting that root canal I suspect I need…
Put a bib on me. Shoot me full of lidocaine. Because I’m not watching that play.
Many, many autistic people have leveled criticism against the novel for its stereotypical and harmful depiction of autistics. The main character, Christopher, is portrayed as an egotistical snob whose disability and disdain for anyone he considers less intelligent than himself (i.e., everyone) justifies the abuse heaped on him by his family and society as a whole. Unsurprisingly, because we live in an ableist hellscape, the book has been received warmly by neurotypical audiences and critics.
Due to the book’s popularity, Christopher has served as the standard bearer for a cavalcade of fictional autistic white boys with too much self-worth and not enough social skills. A combination that almost always manifests as misogyny and/or lateral ableism. (On a related note, I will not be watching this fall’s latest crop of “autistic white boys: bad for their family members, good for science” series, Atypical, The Good Doctor, and *groan* Young Sheldon.)
Watching this book be brought to life while surrounded by hundreds of fawning neurotypicals sounds like Hell on earth to my highly-attuned autistic hearing.
And yet the play’s recent run in San Francisco was included on this website’s calendar.
Why would we bring public attention to an artwork that I personally would rather undergo dental surgery than attend?
To get to the root of that question, I’ll need to transition into my generation’s favorite critical device: the listicle.
1. A matter of definition. For better and for worse, disability arts includes all art by disabled artists and/or about disability. Not all disability art is by disabled artists. Because disability art can be About Us, Without Us, horrifically awful portrayals of disability do happen. And that most certainly includes the Curious Incident. The nocturnal canine play may be terrible, horrible, no good, very bad disability art, but it’s still disability art. And therefore it falls under this website’s purview.
2. Fair warning. As art doers and appreciators, we know that art has the power to influence the way people and whole societies think. Art can foster new perspectives or encourage further investment in the status quo. That’s what makes ableist disability art so dangerous. Many nondisabled people (bless their hearts) consume ableist disability art with good intentions. They want to understand disability and include disabled people in their vision of humanity. It doesn’t particularly matter if the depiction is bad or harmful.
Curious baits this trap well, offering allistic audiences an opportunity to understand What It’s Like to Be an Individual Person Suffering from Living With Autism™. The current touring production does this through lighting and sound design that is intentionally over-stimulating, allowing the audience to perceive the world through Christopher’s brain. Ironically, this artistic decision makes the show inaccessible to many actual autistics and other members of the disability community, only underscoring the fact that these bells and whistles aren’t for us.
They’re for your well-meaning friends, family members, colleagues, and acquaintances, who may come away from an evening at the theatre with more anti-autistic ableism than they went in with. And they may–horror of horrors–want to talk to you about the nice little play they saw last night. Or, in ways big and small, they may make your community all the more hostile to your existence.
When ableist disability art comes to town, disabled people need to know so we can prepare ourselves and our communities. Fair warning allows us the time to respond the way we think is best. We can brace ourselves for an onslaught of microaggressions (a term originally coined by Chester M. Pierce, MD in reference to anti-blackness). We can discourage the people near us from consuming that art. We can organize protests or social media campaigns. We can counter narratives before the story is even told.
3. Taking the bullet. I may never see the evening woof-woof play, but some brave autistic may sacrifice hours of their life (and years of self-worth) to provide the play with the close reading it so richly deserves. By putting works like Curious on the calendar, we hope to encourage critical work that recenters the experiences of disabled people in ableist art that claims to represent us. Through critique, we ensure that art About Us is never left Without Us.