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Course Explores Autism Through Performance

Autism isn’t something that’s “wrong” with an individual.

It doesn’t equate to stupidity.

And its symptoms are evident in all of us.

Those messages are among what students in a new course hope to convey to the public as a result of their studies this semester.

Students Cara Battaglia ’12 (theatre arts), Allison Fox ’13 (accelerated biomedical humanities) and Amy Morton ’13 (integrated language arts), are enrolled in the new course “Exploration of Disease by Performance: Autism,” taught by Brittany Jackson ‘04, assistant director of the Center for Literature, Medicine and Biomedical Humanities.

The course is structured more as a project; students spent the few weeks of the semester reading fiction and nonfiction literature about autism; they are currently getting ready to interview people with autism and their relatives; and the last few weeks of the semester will be spent writing a play exploring the condition. Then, next semester, the students will perform the play at local high schools, libraries and other venues.

The idea for the course stemmed out of a conversation between Jackson and chemistry professor Colleen Fried, about getting medical students involved in theatre.

With Fried being on sabbatical this semester, Jackson took over the trial run of the class with a small group of students. In the future, they hope to expand the class and make it a staple of the Center for Literature, Medicine and Biomedical Humanities, exploring a different disease each year.

Among the works the students have read so far are “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Hadden, a fictional novel whose protagonist is a young man with autism, and “Aquamarine Blue 5,” a compilation of essays by college students with autism.

And they say they’ve already developed a deeper understanding of autism spectrum disorder.

“Very early in my life, my perceptions of autism were that it frightened me,” Battaglia said. “I have a distant relative on the spectrum. When I was little, she scared me, but as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to know that that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve definitely learned a lot more since starting this project.”

They’ve also developed strong ideas that autism isn’t black and white, affecting only certain individuals. Its symptoms, they believe, affect the whole human race.

“I don’t think there’s a single person who can claim that they’ve never experienced social awkwardness or attachment to their own ideas about what needs to be right about their environment,” Morton said. “And I think a lot of times, we like to ignore those qualities about ourselves.”

Fox agreed, adding that people have exaggerated the differences between individuals diagnosed with autism and neurotypicals (those not on the autism spectrum).

“Because there’s so much variation in people with autism and because there’s so much variation in diagnosis, and everything else, we’ve come up with this phrase that everybody is on the spectrum,” Fox said.

As they move into the next phase of the class – the interview phase – Fox said she is looking forward to learning first-hand from those who have been diagnosed.

“I’m excited to get the human answers to all the questions that I have – and not just the research answers,” she said. “I’m excited to see the behaviors and things that we’ve talked about, and see that these are real-life things going on and not just words on a page.”

And looking ahead, Jackson said she can’t wait to see what kind of performance piece the students come up with. She said the combination of students from three different majors has led to a compelling exchange of ideas and she knows the result will be high-quality and successful in raising awareness about autism.

“They’ve been amazing,” she said. “They’ve taught me throughout this process, and they’ve come up with some insights that I would have never come up with.”


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