Sunday, April 19, 2015

Acting With Autism

Many are familiar with the artistic achievements of autistic people. There is no shortage of highly detailed drawings and paintings created by autistic hands. Autistic people have also created beautiful works of music, literature, and dance. With logical thought, attention to detail, an often creative mind, and a thought process outside of the norm of society, there is little doubt that autism is synonymous with art.

But what about the art of acting? Acting is a direct representation of human behavior and interaction with other people. Surely a social disability like autism would get in the way of that.

As it turns out, there are quite a few accomplished actors with autism. In fact, many autistic people who have tried acting feel that their autistic traits actually contribute to their ability to perform. It's even likely that acting can help autistic people to better navigate society.

The first thing that comes to mind is that when acting, there is usually a script and a fair amount of rehearsing. Obviously, that isn't the case in improvisational acting. However, when a script is provided, it does help to know ahead of time what you're saying and doing. It makes it easier to not miss cues or have to stop and think about your response.

Another obstacle that I've heard mentioned is that autistic people tend toward honesty. In fact, many autistic people are practically unable to lie. How is it that an autistic person can portray anyone but themselves on stage?

The answer is simple, really. In acting, there is no intent to deceive. Everyone knows that an actor is simply playing a character. During the performance, there is no pressure at all to be your true self.

The most obvious and apparent obstacle to acting would be the accurate portrayal of human behavior. It would seem that, since this is the most defining characteristic of autism, this most fundamental aspect of acting would be the most difficult. After all, we tend toward logic, and, as I've said in past posts, human behavior tends to be the opposite of logical.

In fact, we can make very effective use of our logical and analytical minds to portray normal human behavior. We can do this the same way we learn anything. There may not be much in the way of logic behind human behavior, but there are patterns.

Simply observing human behavior and recognizing the patterns can teach us a lot about how neuronormal people interact. We can then mimic those patterns on stage. In some ways, it may even be easier for us to do this as an outside observer. We can approach these observations without the same kinds of expectations that a neuronormal would, meaning we can perhaps learn more from each observation, comparing it to previous ones.

Another thing we have going for us is that we don't have an innate understanding of human social behavior. Most people learn social behavior from a desire to fit in. They simply mimic the behavior of those around them, knowing instinctively that that is the correct way to interact with others.

As children, most autistic people don't really connect our behavior to how others see us. We tend to stop trying to mimic others when it's made clear that we got it wrong, but never explained how. Because of this, we tend not to learn about appropriate social interaction until we're older. We have to think about it on a conscious level. The fact that we have to keep the social rules in the front of our mind translates to being able to portray such behaviors during a performance.

I said early on in this post that acting can help autistic people learn to live in a neuronormal world. I hope by now you might have some ideas how it might. I've spent the last several paragraphs talking about the ability to learn about social interaction and human behavior. It should be obvious that these same lessons can be applied off stage as well. I think in many cases, acting may be the motivator to learn about social interaction.

I can think of one further obstacle to autistic people acting. That would be the nervousness of getting on stage. Many of us tend to be shy. Why wouldn't we be? Many of us have spent much of our lives getting shot down when we tried to interact with others. It would seem that the natural shyness that comes after that would interfere with our ability to get on stage in front of a large number of people.

The truth is this is a problem for any actor. It's generally just scary to get up in front of people and, let's be honest, make a fool of yourself. First, many autistic actors, as well as autistic people doing other types of performances, find it easier to visualize an audience as a single entity, or even to ignore them entirely. You're there to perform, not to interact with the people watching you. It also helps to keep in mind that those people in the audience came, often paying good money, just to see you make a fool of yourself (also known as acting).

There are many other fears involving performance and what can go wrong. I won't get into all of them here, but there are many ways to get around those fears. It shouldn't be hard to find techniques that will work for you.

To be clear, acting is not for everyone. Some people can never get over their fear of the stage. Others just have no interest in it or don't enjoy it. My point is just that acting should not be seen as being outside the abilities of autistic people. Like any interest worth pursuing, it can be very beneficial to the person doing it. And of course, the most important thing is to have fun!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Limits of Religious Freedom

It has happened. Certain forms of discrimination are now legal in the state of Indiana. In case you haven't been paying attention to the news for the last two weeks, Governor Mike Pence (R) of Indiana signed into law a bill that would prevent the state government from interfering with the religious practice of people.

Sounds reasonable, right? Well, there are two major problems I can see. First is that the bill defines a person as an individual, a religious organization, or a business. Businesses now have the right to free practice of religion in Indiana. The second problem is that many business owners have determined that serving certain people is a violation of their religious beliefs.

Since I normally write about autism, let me get this out of the way now. I don't believe that this law will result in autistic people being discriminated against. First, disabled people are a protected minority. Even though that often isn't very strictly enforced when it comes to autism, I don't know of anyone claiming that autism violates their religion.

As an advocate for equality, I feel I should stand up for other minorities as well. Since sexual preference and gender identity are not protected minorities under Indiana law, the people most likely to be negatively impacted by this law will be the LGBT community.

To fully understand what's going on here, let's go back to the beginning. In the 1960's and 70's, the US Supreme Court began to determine that limits can be placed on religious freedom if those limits apply to everyone, not just those practicing the religion. Most notably, Native American religious practices were attack by these rulings, famously including restrictions on the use of peyote during religious ceremonies, an action that affects no one but those who voluntarily take part in the ceremonies.

To counter these decisions, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by unanimous vote in the US House of Representatives, receiving only three votes against it in the Senate, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. On a side note, contrary to the assertion of Gov. Pence, then not-yet-senator Barack Obama did not vote for the bill for obvious reasons. Since the passage of the RFRA, several states have passed bills affirming that it applies in their states.

So if other states have passed religious freedom laws, why is Indiana different? In part, it has to do with how the word 'person' is defined in the bill, including a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, and an unincorporated association. This, combined with certain absences from protected minorities in the state of Indiana, means that a business that asserts a religion can deny service to LGBT customers on religious grounds.

In fairness, Gov. Pence has stated that this law isn't about discrimination against gay people. He said that it simply puts a higher level of scrutiny on discrimination by government entities against religion. Let me translate that. In most states, when a person makes a discrimination complaint against a business, it's up to that person to prove the discrimination happened. Under this new law, when action is taken on a discrimination complaint by a government entity, the government entity will be required to prove that it is not infringing on the business's religious freedom.

As I understand it, a business still cannot claim religious freedom to refuse service to protected minorities. That means there is a very simple fix for this law. Simply declare sexual preference and gender identity to be protected minorities. Gov. Pence has stated that he will not seek to do this.

I've heard some people say they don't have a problem with this law because we have a right to discriminate in the United States, and why would you want to shop at a business that wants to discriminate against you anyway? At least now we'll know who they are.

I have a couple of problems with this mind set. It's arguable whether we have the right to discriminate against others. Whether we do or not, we don't have the right to run a business. Much like driving, it is a privilege granted by the government, which can be taken away if it is done in an inappropriate or dangerous manner.

We've already made the decision that businesses are not allowed to discriminate against certain minorities. In the 1960's, whites' only lunch counters were common. Even restrooms and drinking fountains were segregated. And yes, religion was sometimes used as a justification. Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights legislation into effect to counter this.

Why would we want to patronize businesses that discriminate against certain minorities? Well, we probably wouldn't, especially if they discriminate against minorities we might belong to. I'm familiar with this idea, since there are certain businesses I don't patronize to avoid any of my money being donated to Autism Speaks, an organization I have many problems with. However, I don't care that much what a business owner's opinion on minorities might be, as long as none of the businesses resources or income are used to act on it. You go into business to run a business and make money, not to exercise religion or force your values on others.

On one final note, I am absolutely in favor of religious freedom. Religion is an important thing for a lot of people. However, the line we've historically drawn is that you cannot use your religion against others. It's important to remember that in a country where everyone is free to worship as they please, or even not at all, none of us have the right to force others to believe as we do.