‘Theory of Mind’ celebrates diversity and understanding of autism
“Why did God make me like this?”
My hanai son and nephew, Jeremy, asked me this a few months ago. It shook me to my core.
I tried to answer without sounding impersonal or breaking down. I told him, “God made you like this because you have a giant heart, and someday you’re going to help kids who have autism feel better about themselves — and maybe help others who don’t have autism understand it as well.”
His response, “I know, but it’s hard and people don’t understand me.”
Jeremy has been diagnosed with language and cognitive disorders that fall under the large umbrella known as the autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. He’s high functioning but experiences social challenges at times.
Parenting a 13-year-old teen with ASD can be difficult. I find that I’m constantly second-guessing myself — sometimes asking, “Was I too lenient?” and more often, “Why did I lose my patience with him again?”
Still, there are more blessings than challenges. Jeremy shares things with me that most teens are mum about, as he has less of a filter. He tells me about his crushes, and he often tells me how much he loves his family. He’s extremely deep, asking me detailed questions about the human condition, and often asks why we as humans allow others to go to bed hungry on the street.
‘THEORY OF MIND’
Presented by Honolulu Theatre for Youth as part of HTY’s 2010-11 “Season of Science”; best for audiences age 8 and up.
Where: Tenney Theatre, St. Andrew’s Cathedral, 229 Queen Emma Square
When: Opening 7:30 p.m. today and continues 4:30 p.m. Saturdays through Jan. 22
Cost: $16 adults, $8 seniors and children
Information: 839-9885, www.htyweb.org
I’M ALWAYS looking for ways to better understand Jeremy, and I was intrigued when I learned that for the first time in Hawaii, Honolulu Theatre for Youth is presenting “Theory of Mind,” a play about love and autism by Ken LaZebnik.
This HTY production introduces Bill, a 16-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as well as extraordinary abilities, including an incredible memory.
Bill wants to love someone, but he struggles through certain social situations. As he learns to navigate his way through life, he also learns that there are no easy answers.
“Theory of Mind” is directed by the company’s artistic director, Eric Johnson, who says it’s important to bring this piece into the community, to foster discussion between people who are not all alike. That’s why each performance will roll naturally into a discussion about autism and relationships, as actors and others from HTY field questions from the audience.
Nina Buck, who plays the character Hilo, describes the play as a good story about two quirky individuals who are doing their best to understand one another. She says most people can relate to the difficulty and adventure of coming in honest contact with another human being.
The “theory of mind,” Buck explained, is the idea that we understand human emotions and ideas through recognition of our own emotions and ideas. Yet, since we can’t see into anyone else’s mind, we assume their ideas and experiences based on our own.
The idea that those with autism might lack the understanding that others have their own thoughts and feelings has circulated recently among those who study autism.
Given that, “Theory of Mind” looks at the complications of compassion and human emotion. “The play also asks the difference between empathy and true understanding,” Buck said.
A FEW days ago, HTY opened a rehearsal to teens who live with autism in some form, their parents and a few people with an expertise in autism spectrum disorder.
Junior Tesoro, who spent months researching autism before performing in “Theory of Mind,” plays Bill with great sensitivity and respect. Tesoro told me that his wife, a special-needs educator, was a great resource.
The play was difficult to watch at times because it rang so true.
At one point, Bill says, “It’s like God wanted to watch a more interesting movie, and so he made someone a dwarf and someone albino and someone have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) — and why did God do this? … It’s very hard.”
After hearing this monologue, I was crying.
I looked across the theater at the other parents, leaning forward taking it all in; then I looked at my son and wondered what he was thinking.
My experience came full circle when I realized that the character was saying the same thing I’d heard from Jeremy earlier. I knew then that I was not alone — and neither is my son.
After the rehearsal, I met Deborah Zimmerman, whose 15-year-old son Andrew has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. I asked her what she thought of the play.
She said, “To begin with, I hope the community will learn that autism is a spectrum disorder, because it presents differently in each affected individual. … This play, which depicts the life of a teenager with Asperger’s, beautifully demonstrates that everyone has their quirks, but with understanding we can accept and celebrate our differences.”
I asked Andrew Zimmerman what he thought, and he said: “I found this play to be very emotionally powerful. … Most of the world ignores autism, so my No. 1 hope is that the play raises understanding.
“When a child is diagnosed with cancer, flowers, food and volunteers from all over the neighborhood come swarming. When a child is diagnosed with autism, not only does your child become the outcast, but so do (parents). Perhaps this play will help families confronting autism to receive more love and support.”
Dr. Hale Akamine, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Family Ministries Center, echoed the Zimmermans, saying, “A play such as this is so crucial in bringing awareness, not just to teens, but to the broader community. … Awareness is the first step to true compassion for others, and the teen years are crucial for this development of compassion.”
It’s not that easy, of course. Akamine went on to point out that people with behaviors affected by autism spectrum disorder can find it difficult to understand other people, and they might also face other challenges that can puzzle, irritate or even frighten others they come in contact with. For someone with ASD, having “normal” relationships during the already-difficult teen years might not always even be possible.
After hearing from Akamine, I decided to reach out further for support. One resource I discovered is the local Talk About Curing Autism chapter (www.tacanow.org).
The experience of learning more about “Theory of Mind” was also reassuring for Jeremy. Following the rehearsal, he hugged me and whispered, “I understand why I’m the way I am — because God made us all to be different.”
That was a good day.
—Amanda Stevens / Special to the Star-Advertiser