How Acting can be a Lifeline for Autistic People

Until I began to talk about my autism in a more public setting back in early 2018, I was not aware of the fact that a number of people on the spectrum (besides myself) had found comfort and purpose in the pursuit of acting, both professionally and in an amateur setting. Knowing what I know now about autistic people, this information is no longer so surprising to me.

The famous actor Sir Anthony Hopkins, well-known for his role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs among many other celebrated appearances, has revealed that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome* at seventy years of age. He believes that the condition has allowed him to work in a way that is more conducive towards creative pursuits, and watching the way in which the actor works seems to prove this correct. Hopkins takes a very considered approach to his craft, studying other people and incorporating their mannerisms into many of the characters he portrays.

One of the most commonly discussed topics among the online autistic community relates very much to the last point in the sentence above. For many of us autistic people, imitation of societal rules and etiquette is a way of life. We refer to it as ‘Masking’, because we are putting on an invisible mask in order to adhere to society’s expectations and to hide (or at least partially obscure) our autistic traits. Unlike the majority of neurotypical (non-autistic) folk, we autistics do not have an inherent ability to learn, understand and/or put into practice all of the various social rules that make up expected procedure in everyday life. In a sense, therefore, we are all actors.

Naturally, then, for some of us, acting may be seen as an obvious choice of hobby or even as a potential career choice. As a child it took me a few years to finally come to the realisation that characters on screen and stage were more than just that, and that they were in fact performers who were paid to dress up in (often) outlandish and exciting outfits, and to embody the various emotions written into the scripts for their characters.

Autistic people thrive on an established routine. Acting at its most fundamental level is all about routine: an actor turns up at the specified time and location having learnt the lines for their character, undergoes the process of being transformed by whatever costume, props and makeup is afforded to them, and once the rest of the production team is ready (whether it be a filming company, theatrical group etc) the actor performs his or her role for however long is required-perhaps from as little as several days to many weeks for a film production, or perhaps many hundreds of performances over a course of months and years for a touring theatre production.

Secondly, whilst much of it is (of course) overly dramatised, performance art is a well-established way for many people, actors or otherwise, to learn about human emotion and some of the ways in which we as a species communicate. On stage or screen, an autistic actor may be able to learn about and express emotions they might never feel comfortable displaying in real life outside of the production and their roles within it.

Thirdly, the world of theatre, film and media attracts a tremendous number of ‘unique’ characters, people who express themselves differently as well as those who belong to a number of perceived ‘minority’ groups. It is a very fascinating industry within which an autistic person may encounter any number of people who accept them for their true selves, allowing them to open up without fear of negative judgement. Great friendships, relationships and collaborations may result from this. The arts provide a certain escapism for everyone, but can be especially valuable to those who feel disenfranchised with the world they have grown up in.

Fourthly, many people on the autistic spectrum have a truly incredible ability to focus on specific details and to take in great amounts of information very quickly. I have never once – touch wood! – dried up on stage and have always learnt my lines with lightning speed, developing layered, three-dimensional characterisations that have led to glowing reviews. Many of these performances gained me a great deal of respect from those around me, who had previously seen me as a quiet, distant sort. When in their element, an autistic person can achieve truly remarkable things and discover pleasure that is rivalled by little else. Here, at last, perhaps after years of rejection from others, the autistic person can find themselves not only being accepted and appreciated, but loved. Characters we identify with (and even those we love to hate!) give spark to strong emotions within us as human beings. We often find ourselves gravitating towards the people who played them, looking at them with a certain reverence; perhaps unearned, or perhaps very much deserved, depending on the individual.

I do believe that there a number of challenges that an autistic actor might face, challenges that perhaps would not pose so much difficulty for neurotypical actors. Whilst acting requires an adherence to a set routine, the art of the actor also relies heavily on the ability to improvise in the moment, something which goes against the idea of a set-in-stone plan. It also requires the ability to work with other actors (ie other people!!!) and to respond to their emotions and energy levels appropriately, not something all autistic people are capable of doing with ease. There is also the business element. Securing work as a performer, particularly if one is seeking to enter the industry without the support of a talent agent, requires a tremendous amount of networking and social interaction, a practice which may leave many (autistic or not) with little energy and a sour taste in their mouths. The world of performance and media is an incredibly cutthroat one; with limited social skills and understanding, it is a world in which autistic people must exercise great care.

It may also be hard for an autistic person to disassociate themselves from a job or role, particularly if being involved with that character or production has become a special interest. Acting requires its practitioners to be able to learn parts quickly, only to move on from them with little emotional attachment afterwards. I have often felt more at home at the heart of a theatre company in the presence of other actors than anywhere else in the world, and when those productions have ended and all of us have gone our separate ways, I have often had a hard time filling the hole that was left behind.

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*Asperger’s Syndrome, according to the pages of the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) now falls under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a term that is gradually being phased out within the autistic community for a number of good reasons, which do not relate specifically to this post. Despite this, a number of people continue to receive a diagnosis with the Asperger’s label attached even today.

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