“Is the Curious Incident about the Dog-in-the-something a book about Asperger’s?”
That’s a question I get asked really often. As an avid reader and writer, and someone who’s done a lot of research on the autism spectrum, the question is rather inevitable, really.
So I’ve gotten into the habit of giving people whatever answer will make them more interested to read the book. Yes. That’s how much I’d recommend it.
And so it was with hope and anticipation that I stepped into the Esplanade on a Saturday evening to watch a stage adaptation of the book, which is really called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. By sheer coincidence, it was the same performance attended by a delegation from VJC, comprising our lit students and led by Mrs Judah. I hope they liked it.
If you’re familiar with the original book, you’ll know it’s written in the first person as a recount by protagonist Christopher. This adaptation is a play-within-a-play: Christopher and his teacher/counsellor Siobhan are staging a production at his special-needs school, based on a journal Christopher wrote — the book, of course, that we see in bookstores and libraries with Mark Haddon’s name on the cover.
The stage setup is rather sparse — it resembles a cube, with walls and floor plain and dark, and edged lines with light. White boxes, alongside actors and stage hands, serve as the props for most of the play. It would be tempting to describe this setup as minimalistic at first glance, but such a judgement does not last — as the walls and floor reveal themselves as screens or canvasses, and come to life with dizzying graphics and visuals, we are offered a glimpse into Christopher’s mind.
Christopher has a behavioural disorder. It’s not named in the book, nor in the play. But the medical world seems to agree that Christopher, if he were real, would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. And it does show, both in the novel and the stage adaptation. Christopher doesn’t intuitively get causality. He answers questions literally and doesn’t get metaphors. He doesn’t understand why humans bury their interactions in layers of complexity, because he wasn’t born with social skills. He obsesses over systems. He’s smart and loves maths, but absolutely hates having to navigate a world full of unwritten rules he doesn’t understand but has to follow all the same.
Now, not every person with Asperger’s is definitely going to see strobe lights and rapidly changing colours in his mind whenever he is in a situation he doesn’t like — in fact, given the sensitivity to sensory stimuli some of them have, it would be downright unlikely. But there is a reason why the writers have chosen to throw the stage into disarray every time Christopher is scolded, or upset, or overwhelmed. Think of it as a translation of sorts. Neurotypical people might not be able to understand exactly how Christopher is feeling, so the audience is shown a series of disconcerting visuals and audio designed to evoke a visceral reaction in them that is similar to what Christopher is feeling at that turn of events.
At some points near the start of the play, I did get rather concerned. Would the audience understand and empathise with Christopher? Initially the fears seemed rather founded. When Christopher first took the stage, his literal responses (“What am I doing in the garden? I’m talking to you?!” when interrogated by a policeman) drew chortles from the audience. But as the play went on, schadenfreude-laden laughter dwindled to just a few schoolboy giggles; near the end, you could feel the bated breath as the audience rooted for Christopher in the face of his struggles.
And at various points in the play there is just too much for Christopher to handle. In fact Christopher does seem to have a really tough life; on top of his social difficulties he has a broken family to deal with, prompting this reporter’s own family members to remark “Christopher is really suay ah” in pity. And he breaks down. You can’t help but feel for him. It’s a powerful message that shows people with Asperger’s do in fact have emotions. Anyone out there clinging to the old stereotype that they don’t would do well to see the scene in which Christopher discovers his parent’s betrayal; his world crumbles and the despair and helplessness is palpable through the theatre air.
With its play-within-a-play format, the production did get delightfully meta at times. Siobhan, particularly, routinely engaged in the sort of mental gymnastic that makes one question the fourth wall’s very existence. It must be said that this, again, was likely a deliberate choice by the play’s writers. The frequency with which the characters go OOC/out of character (ie switching from the actual narrative to actors playing themselves in the school play and back) does evoke the casual manner with which people with Asperger’s detach themselves from social situations in real life, sometimes too frequently — it’s only natural, after all, for they often identify as outsiders, looking in on our complex human society.
And the encore, in which Joshua Jenkins (still in character as Christopher) returns to demonstrate a mathematical proof that Siobhan told him to “do after the curtain call, because people might not be interested to hear that just right now” brought a smile to my face. Not only was it a callback to the appendix of the book, it also reminded me of the post-credits scenes in movies, popularised by Marvel Studios, which now have movie fans holding in their pee to squirm in their seats all the way till the credits have finished rolling.
But most of all, when Jenkins/Christopher completed the proof with genuine happiness, frenzied passion and satisfaction, it was a satisfying moment for me as well. Unlike most of the scenes, where Christopher is being pushed to his limits or even downright tortured by the world he cannot understand, this was one of the few moments in the play where Christopher was genuinely happy and carefree, having been understood and appreciated and validated.
I liked it.
See, people with Asperger’s have emotions.
By the way, if you do want an honest answer from me as to whether the Curious Book with the Long and Awkward Title is a book about Asperger’s, my answer would be no. It’s not about Asperger’s; it’s about a boy who loves maths and wants to solve a mystery and do a lot of things other people don’t think he should do. Asperger’s isn’t a plot point, but more of a background, a setting, the context.
But all the same, I’d strongly recommend it (the book first, before the play) to anyone who wants even the slightest understanding of what someone with Asperger’s lives his life like. In this respect, I feel the novel is more effective than the play in facilitating understanding of the Asperger’s thought processes, by virtue of its strictly first-person view. Everything is truly presented through Christopher’s lens, and with that comes valuable insight into how an autistic mind works. It’s a better starting point. Meanwhile, the play certainly does a good job of translating how his symptoms manifest. But all in all, I think both allow neurotypical people to gain a better understanding and appreciation of what life is like for people on the autism spectrum — and to realise how human they are as well.
It is only when we start to make sense of someone from the inside that we can truly respect them as they are.
Ryan Ch’ng, 16S47
This article was contributed by our guest writer, and was republished with permission from the original post on Medium.