Why I Love Being 'on Stage' as an Autistic Person
So this is World Autism Awareness Month. I’d like to take the opportunity to use this platform to discuss an aspect of my autism I’ve never really thought about before – an aspect that still feels somewhat counter-intuitive to me.
The title says it all, but equally it says absolutely nothing.
I was diagnosed with the condition (specifically Asperger’s) when I was 2 years old, and I’ve always considered my diagnosis to be a double-edged sword. The positive edge is that with my parents always having known about it, they were able to arrange appropriate support for me from my preschool years up to age 16+. The negative edge is that it’s always been there, an unshakable label that’s held me back in practice more often than not, and always reduced me on paper. Throughout the most formative years of my life, I was invariably stuck in a vicious cycle of “you’re no good on paper… so you will be no good in practice… which will make you even less good on paper.”
You name it and the doubt was there – and it wasn’t just self-doubt, it was mainly third-party doubt. Sustaining “normal” social relationships? You don’t have a hope. Working on a group project? A recipe for disaster. Doing anything performance-related, or anything that involves putting yourself in front of others? Never.
But that’s where you’re wrong. I love being “on stage.” I’m usually pretty good at it as well. It just took me approximately 20 years to figure that out, because nothing – and nobody – in my early years had endeavored to convince me this might be true. But it is true.
As a child, I used to hate having to perform / speak in front of an audience. When I was an 8-year-old Beaver Scout, my group had to go on stage to recite some jokes at a community event, and I flubbed my moment because I managed to recite the wrong joke. (I said “Doctor, doctor, can you help me out?” – which had been in the script during our early rehearsals, but which had been replaced by “Doctor, doctor, do you think I need glasses?” well in advance of the real performance.) That was my first big break in front of an audience, and it was catastrophic.
I had to perform poetry, drama and the odd speech in my school lessons in the years ahead, and I never looked forward to any of them. I never wanted to repeat my Beaver mistake during any of these trials-by-peers, and I always feared my writings and presentation – as an autistic person – would stick out like a sore thumb. We all know the old cliché — schoolchildren don’t tend to value those who stick out like sore thumbs.
So what changed between my 13-year-old self and my 20-year-old self?
Quite a lot, actually.
On a long coach journey back to school when I was 15, at the end of a four-day residential trip to the First World War battlefields of France and Belgium, the driver – as he had done many times earlier in the trip – played lots of great music. My friends were all singing, and despite my strong aversion to singing in public (because that’s how bad I’ve always been at it), I was swept up in it. Singing several Michael Jackson songs, and occasionally harmonizing with The Proclaimers’ iconic “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” was genuinely liberating. I’d certainly not seen that coming!
A year later, for our Leavers’ Prom, I was singing and dancing all night. My highlight was Boney M’s “Rasputin,” which had been the theme tune of our history lessons in the preceding months. I didn’t avoid the dance floor, and my friends were even noticing my moves and encouraging me to keep at it! That was a massive moment of character development for me, you might say.
I ran for Student President six months after the prom. In previous years, my social circle had been relatively small; everybody knew of me, but not many people truly knew me. So I thought I was a hopeless long-shot candidate in what was surely destined to be a popularity contest (the electorate was formed solely of my peers). One of my “friends” said those exact words to me just before the official opening of nominations, which was unspeakably painful. My autism made it hard to tell how sarcastic he was being, but his words were still unwelcome and they hurt me very much. However, within two days, I got the impression I was a front-runner in the election. When the time came for me to deliver a speech on stage in support of my candidacy, I seized the moment with some rousing words and some good verbal theatrics, and that felt incredible. I ultimately took second place in the vote (out of six candidates), and was duly elected Student Vice-President.
I voluntarily took to the stage in an assembly at around this time as well – my mission being to announce which tutor group had been the most charitable in the school’s recent Shoebox Appeal, in which we were invited to donate toys and household essentials for distribution to the most disadvantaged communities around the world. I was determined to seize this moment as well. So I made the results announcement my own, and I adopted the persona of my favorite game show hosts in order to deliver a suspenseful moment. My audience apparently enjoyed this a lot!
Four years later, at the age of 20, I traveled to Ohio to work as a summer camp counselor. Acting / singing / speaking on stage would inevitably be an integral part of my job. I’d never been on stage quite as regularly as I was at camp. But ever since my game-changing experience on that coach journey when I was 15, I’d slowly been building up my on-stage “persona” – inspired by game show hosts including Sir Bruce Forsyth, and especially by my favorite comedy performer, Ronnie Barker – to the point where I loved reprising it every time.
My autism had (and has) been one of my great assets in this regard, not one of my great curses, because I know it’s influenced and played into my on-stage persona. In a sense, I’m playing a character, but that character – for all intents and purposes – is me. I’m in (almost) complete control of my persona whenever I’m on stage. I’ve got some stock mannerisms and catchphrases I often use to support myself, and I’ve increasingly learned how to talk “meaningful hot air” in order to play for time.
In summary, whenever I’m on stage, I get to play a refined version of myself. As someone who’s often been told – implicitly and explicitly – that I might be fundamentally disadvantaged as a person, my on-stage persona has been incredibly empowering and liberating. It is helping me to turn something that might look like a disadvantage on paper into a great strength in practice.
Side note: just in case you were wondering what happened to that acid-tongued friend who called me a no-hoper in the Student Presidential race… he stood in the election as well, but didn’t campaign very seriously for very long, and he ultimately finished outside the top three candidates.
Getty image by Rudall30.