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Neurodiversity takes centre stage

Richard Watts

Theatre is a valuable tool for encouraging empathy. A new production aims to provide neurotypical audiences with insights into living with autism.
Neurodiversity takes centre stage

Nicola Bowman in Citizen Theatre & A_tistic's Alexithymia. Photo credit: Pippa Samaya.

Alexithymia (pronounced ‘al-ex-ee-thigh-me-ah’) is experienced by approximately 85% of people on the autism spectrum, and up to 10% of the world’s total population.

‘It is the inability to put words to felt emotions,’ said playwright Tom Middleditch, the Artistic Director of independent theatre company A_tistic and the author of the play, Alexithymia.  


When neurotypical people i.e. non-autistic people describe emotions, ‘they’re actually describing two things, sensation and emotion,’ Middleditch explained.

‘You feel things in your body and you give them a name, and that name is an emotion. And you let whatever that emotion is tell you what to do, how you’re feeling, what you should be doing. And you identify really, really closely with what these emotions are – you attach a sense of self-worth to how you react in the moment.’

Neurodiverse people, conversely, have to stop and analyse the emotional behaviour someone is displaying in order to interpret it.

‘By the time you’ve tuned back in the person is onto another topic, while you’ve been trying to think through how you felt about the comment they made … and the only way that you can continue to operate in the world is if you have developed that analytical mind-frame,’ he said.

‘Personally, as someone on the spectrum, I identify an alexithymic experience in my own mind as being the cause for a lot of the analytical thinking that I have, and from talking with other fellow autistic folk, that seems to be a very common theme.’  

Together with another indie company, Citizen Theatre, Middleditch and A_tistic are staging Alexithymia as part of Melbourne’s Poppy Seed Theatre Festival, with the aim of simulating an autistic experience of the world for their audiences. 

The production comprises three short works, each featuring a delicate mix of sensory stimuli, sound design and stylised performances designed to encourage autistic thinking. 

‘Each piece explores a theme borne from the condition, alexithymia, but the full experience only emerges once the audience starts to recognise the patterns between the short works. You often hear people say we are all on the autism spectrum and by experiencing this play, audiences will not only learn about autistic thought processes, but also learn how it feels and how they may have experienced these feelings themselves,’ said Middleditch. 

Alexithymia is one of several recent artistic projects in which neurodiversity and neurodiverse thinking have played a key role.

Read: Autism and the arts: making a space for different minds

‘We’re seeing a wonderful explosion of autism stories at the moment in the mainstream – our time has come. But what I think we are still lacking is autistic voices telling our own stories,’ Middleditch said.

Too many artistic representations of autism are created by neurotypical people who may be well intentioned but who have a poor grasp of the finer details of neurodiverse experience, he continued.

The resulting works are often ‘just manifestations of non-autistic people’s frustrations at not understanding us immediately,’ Middleditch said.

He attributes the groundswell of stories exploring the lived experiences of autistic people to the rise of identity politics.

‘Really it’s just opening the door to another whole avenue of creativity and another avenue of discussion, and it’s only been possible in the past 20 years as the neurodiversity movement has properly kicked off, and made itself the last great identity politics push of the 20th century.’

Neurodiversity hub

In related news, Swinburne students on the autism spectrum will be offered work placements in IT areas through a new partnership between the university and IT services and solutions company, DXC Technology.

The Dandelion Program is an international program founded in Australia to increase career opportunities for people with autism.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Swinburne and DXT Technology will see students working for DXC and other large organisations in IT roles, including testing, analytics, operations and cyber security.

The program will incorporate support for participants and may include a mental health management program, mentors, consultants, community support services and employer training.

Under the terms of the MoU, Swinburne and DXC will also explore establishing a neurodiversity hub at the university’s Hawthorn campus.

‘Swinburne welcomes this collaboration as an opportunity to increase the number of roles available to Swinburne students in the IT professions, including cyber security, testing and data science,’ said Vice President of Students, Dr Andrew Smith.

‘We value initiatives that foster equity and diversity and create an inclusive workplace.’

Citizen Theatre and A_tistic’s Alexithymia is playing until 19 November at the Meat Market, North Melbourne as part of Poppy Seed Theatre Festival. See for details.  

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts