‘Theory of Mind’ celebrates diversity and understanding of autism

Jan. 7, 2011 | 17 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition

Nina Buck and Junior Tesoro star in Honolulu Theatre for Youth's "Theory of Mind," opening tonight at the Tenney Theatre at St. Andrew's Cathedral. Tesoro plays "Bill," a teen born with Asperger's syndrome who struggles living with it. —Courtesy photo

“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.


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.

Amanda Stevens with her hanai son and nephew, Jeremy, who has been diagnosed with language and cognitive disorders that fall under the autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. —Courtesy Amanda Stevens

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

  • Kelly

    As a parent with an child affected by autism, it is wonderful to see a play such as this being done and presented to the public. The children and adults with autism as well as their parents and family are profoundly affected by this disorder and each day can be a struggle with only small blessings and progress along the way. An individual with autism is unique and different but is a blessing to those who take the time to get to know and love them.

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  • Stagewoozle

    Amanda, you have such insight and have expressed yourself beautifully here. As a member for the THEORY creative team, thank you for being a part of our process!

  • Anonymous

    Great article about the play, and about the facts and feelings associated w/Autism Spectrum Disorders. I haven’t seen the play, but it sounds like they got it right! God Bless the folks w/ASD, and the parents and caregivers who care and pray and cry for them (and write plays for them). And, lets hope the community learns to accept and love our very different kids!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UWXKWRWRMKJ7M6Y367PFRBQAJ4 Vaccines Cause Autism

    ” Why Did God Make Me Like This ” ,,, Are you kidding me , God did not make you develop autism it was the 36 vaccines that your parents had poisoned you with in addition to another 10 vaccines that once again your parents poisoned you with when you were between the ages of 4 to 5, not counting any flu vaccines that they injected you with. So it was not god but your parents that you shoud be asking this question to.

    • Alohakeia

      Please get your information straight. There has been no proven link between autism and vaccines. Here’s a link you might want to read about the original claims being based on fraudulent data. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/01/06/132703314/study-linking-childhood-vaccine-and-autism-was-fraudulent

      How about concentrating instead on the uniqueness of each of us, and encouraging and appreciating the gifts each and every one of us has to offer this world? Beautiful story, Ms Stevens. My best wishes to you and Jeremy as he grows and contributes to his community and family. It sounds like he has a truly loving heart.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5MKJDCDBM4TQ5W7KXYIT37EGWM Steven Steven

    My two children have never been vaccinated in addition we had a birthing plan with the hospital so that our babies would not have any silver nitrate droped in their eyes , no vit k and or hep b shots. We encourage everyone to take the time and learn the dangers of vaccinations that are currently given to the children so that you to can prevent years of illnesses to your babies. No Vaccines No Autism

    • Alohakeia

      You may want to read this recent article addressing the original study linking autism and vaccines.http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/02/lancet_wakefield_autism_mmr_au.html Apparently the former doctor, Andrew Wakefield, falsified his report and it was discovered that he was receiving monetary contributions from an attorney who was suing makers of the MMR vaccine. There has never been a study since that has replicated his “findings”. I wonder how many children have been and will continue to be adversely affected by not receiving vaccines because of this falsified study.

  • Anonymous

    The more we understand what makes us react to others like they are weird, the better off we are. The more we understand why they react to us as weird, the better off we are. I like the whole line of thinking in this play and in this article.

  • Marilyn Yeager

    Great article, attended the production today and have nothing but good things to say about the play, the two young people who did a fantastic job playing their roles, the audience, parents, children, grandparents enjoyment and participation in the questions posed afterwards. Am peripherally involved with the organization, T.A.C.A (Talk About Curing Autism) which meets at Kaimuki Christian Church, 2nd Monday of the month, am absolutely blown away with the work of Debbie Zimmerman and Tina Chorman who put their hearts, souls, and a good portion of their lives into this organization to benefit other parents coping children who have been diagnosed on the spectrum.
    iput into the organization

  • Jackiemgriffin5806

    Our almost 3 year old son was recently diagnosed with ASD….and we cannot wait to see this play to learn and raise more awarness of this fast growing disorder affecting so many of our children today! Thank you HYT for putting on this work!!!

  • http://lizkauai.blogspot.com LizKauai

    God Bless.
    If we saw all as being perfect in their own way, we would not label people “disorderly” (grin). Each has abilities and like all gems, must be discovered and polished with love.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000175330064 Ron Ota

    Hi Amanda! Awesome article, and so are you!

  • Guest

    I can’t wait to see it! I welcome such an opportunity for the neurotypical world to look through the lens of those with ASD. It is my hope that this will encourage others to make the extra effort to connect with someone who is “quirky” or “hard to understand”.

  • Deb

    Theory of Mind is beautifully done and thought provoking. Being both a parent of a child with ASD (Aspergers) and a professional who works with kids on “the spectrum” I believe and often pose the question to others, “what if individuals with ASD are who they are to help us all understand and accept diversity?” In a culture and society with such diversity as Hawaii what is normal anyway? Thanki you for adding another dimension of awareness to the community. Please bring this production to our schools.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jaysen-Holmberg/100000570690241 Jaysen Holmberg

    My cousin has Autism but on a different side of the spectrum, he can communicate with people just fine, but not in a “normal” manner. he cant talk properly; slurred, misunderstood, etc. if you know someone who has autism, this is probably what’s happening. but then there are also “other sides of the spectrum”

  • http://turningwinds.blogspot.com/ Queenie, Turning Winds

    Plays or presentations like that of “Theory of Mind” should continue to show so that people in general will have a deeper understanding on autism and those who have it. As a parent of a teen, it’s difficult enough to deal with them, what more if our kids have special conditions like autism? I salute your dedication Amanda, not all parents can do what you can do all in the name of your love for Jeremy. No wonder he seems to be so smart despite his struggles. I’m inspired by the unconditional love your giving him. Thank you for the inspiration.