The theatre can be a difficult place for people with autism. I remember taking my son when he was younger. I could feel him squirming, trapped in the seat next to me, confused by the strange convention where people seem to be talking to you but you are not allowed to talk back. The darkened auditorium filled with surprises and the lack of control over the experience made for a situation that could have been designed to make a young autistic person anxious – second, perhaps, only to mainstream education, as we were soon to discover.
So when faced with staging Naoki Higashida’s extraordinary book The Reason I Jump, about his experiences as an autistic teenager, we wanted to make something that didn’t behave like a conventional theatre show. How could we give the audience – autistic or otherwise – more control of the experience and a say in how the story unfolds?
An obvious starting point was to involve people with autism in creating the show: to make it their story as well as Higashida’s. If we were to say anything as interesting about autism as the book, we had to involve those with firsthand experience – parents of autistic children being the worst kind of “experts”, as my autistic friends like to remind me. The book allows us to hear directly from its author and spend precious time getting to know how his mind works. Could a theatre show communicate this remarkable worldview at the same time as allowing an audience to meet others with autism and hear their stories? After all, the diversity of behaviour and experience of those on the autistic spectrum is one of the condition’s defining and often confusing characteristics. Creating a space for that diversity of voices felt important.
The idea of taking the audience on a physical journey, to reflect a journey of discovery, seemed appropriate for a book that has taught so much to so many. We first thought of a journey through a series of rooms, each exploring a question related to autistic experience in the same way that each chapter of Higashida’s book asks and answers a question. As the complexity of these questions and this journey developed, it felt as though we were creating a kind of labyrinth or maze that might stage a series of encounters with our autistic performers.