Monday, January 24, 2011

Autism and Real Life Drama by Robert Naseef, Ph.D.

“Lucy” is a powerful play about the everyday realities of autism. Written by Canadian playwright Damien Atkins and directed by David Stradley at the Delaware Theatre Company, this is not a “feel good” story, rather it challenges us. Lucy is a teenager with autism who does not seem destined to “recover” or grow up to be the next Temple Grandin.

As Stradley wrote in the program, “It is filled with much thought and love, and will hopefully have you leaving the theater asking questions about many things—including normalcy, parenthood, science, gender roles, and how we move beyond limitations imposed by one’s self or by society”. “Lucy” touches places inside the human experience of autism where web pages, books, and mass media cannot reach.

When Lucy pulled down her pants, as I watched with my wife, Cindy, I could feel in my gut the tension we had lived through over 25 years ago when my son would pull down his pants in the mall. When she flopped on the floor, screamed, ran away, repeated herself over and over, I could sense the whole audience feel what our lives had been like. I suppose most of them probably never spent time with a child with autism. This is the power of art, as William Faulkner said, to portray the human heart in conflict with itself. The power of community, in the audience which seemed to be typical theatre goers, made me feel less alone.

In what is not on the surface a typical autism story, Lucy has grown up with divorced parents in the custody of her father. Just before her first menstrual cycle, he brings her to live with her mother, Vivian, because he wants to move on with his life and believes that Lucy needs her mother. Vivian had never bonded securely with her daughter and was initially overwhelmed by the challenge. As an anthropologist, getting to really know her daughter for the first time, she wonders if she herself has autism.

On the other hand, what is typical for parents, especially mothers, living with this disturbing disorder is a ruptured bond with a child who does not respond to them in ways they naturally expect—with eye contact and interest and excitement in relating. Extreme rigidity, confusing sensory differences, echoed speech, endless tantrums, etc. can feel like torture.

There is a line which repeats several times through the play, “Everything evolves. Everything moves forward.” Therein we find hope and light, as Lucy and Vivian bond with each other. There is a crescendo of feeling as they find comfort in and with each other as the play concludes. The parent-child relationship is indeed reciprocal and vital to both.

Herein is the universal which as a psychologist I help parents find with their children on the autism spectrum. We cannot cure or even control this condition very well despite the best efforts of medicine, science, and education. We are in that sense powerless. What we can do while trying our best is to repair the bond by accepting the child we have, and living the lives we have each day to the fullest possible. Holding lightly the possibilities as we find what we can enjoy together and figuring out how we can live together in a semblance of harmony. Everyone grows this way toward a future we cannot predict except to know “Everything evolves. Everything changes.”

Learn more at .

Listen to a discussion of the play on public radio station WHYY at

See a scene on YouTube at

1 comment:

  1. As the parent of a child with autism I find your analysis of the play very interesting but would like to take issue with some of the language you use. Firstly, to call autism a 'disturbing disorder' is not particularly helpful for parents and is disrespectful to autistic individuals. Secondly, to refer to the parent/child relationship as a 'ruptured bond' serves as a painful reminder of the harm done by the thoroughly discredited theory of the 'refrigerator mother'. As you so rightly say, joy comes in accepting the child we have, and finding what we can enjoy together.