Tom Middleditch isn’t your usual theatre maker. With an intense passion and a fiery red beard to match, he’s attempting to build a bridge between two worlds: the world that most of us see, and the world that he sees.
Tom has Aspergers, one of a range of neurodevelopmental conditions that in new clinical definitions fall under the category of Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
Among many things, Aspergers is characterised by an intense focus on one or two particular subjects. For Tom, it’s his passions for theatre and philosophy that drive him to explore and portray the autistic experience.
‘People on the spectrum don’t see the world in the same way that neurotypical people do,’ he explains. ‘It does make the world a very, very different place to deal with the sensory issues, the hyperawareness, overload and self-reflexive thinking.’
Tom is the co-founder of the theatre group A_tistic. The group’s goal is to develop and publicise what he describes as ‘spectrum theatre’.
‘Basically, the idea behind spectrum theatre is to put autistic experiences on the stage as close to what it would have been like to experience them,’ Tom says. ‘That’s the basis. But there are many, many ways to do that, in the same way that all of us think differently.’
One of Tom’s major motives is to challenge the public’s preconceived notions of autism. He says there’s already a lot of ‘safe’ material in the theatre scene and that the portrayal of autistic characters on stage or on screen is something that should really be explored further.
‘Otherwise, we’re just going to be relying on Sheldon Cooper for the next twenty years’ he says with some lament. ‘It used to be Rainman who was the stereotypical autistic person – he wasn’t autistic at all! But we have a long way to go.’
Akash Temple is one person who can testify to changes in the public’s perception of autism. Akash is the communications officer at Arts Access Victoria and has been involved in disability arts for just over twenty years. With an autistic spectrum disorder herself, she has been a keen observer as the understanding of autism has developed.
‘It has evolved massively,’ she says, ‘and the treatment is just extraordinary. But it is getting both better and worse.’
While the support and recognition of children with autistic disorders is dramatically improving, she believes support for older teenagers and young adults is dire. She produced a short film on the subject, Grey Blue Planet, in 2013.
‘I think a lot of it you could blame on a lack of education in high schools for teachers, lack of resources, lack of funding, lack of one-on-one aid,’ she says.
‘A very large number of these people end up in a very confusing world without knowing necessarily what to do. And yes, there are success stories, but there aren’t enough success stories.’
In her view, that’s what makes people like Tom and his work so important. She recognises the value of the arts in engaging and creating a community of adults with spectrum disorders, but is upset that the funding and structures simply don’t exist in Australia.
One of her hopes is to one day help establish a formal group for artists on the autistic spectrum. She refers to the deaf community as an example of a successful hub for like-minded artists.
Most importantly, she says, they are ‘a structured bunch organised by people with autism, rather than organised by parents and other people who don’t have autism’. The autonomy to self-direct is vital.
‘That’s what Canada, England and other countries have, and is why we’re so backward here in Australia,’ Akash says. ‘That is what people like myself and Tom need to do, to build a platform to bring in the other independent artists.’
In some ways, Tom is already assembling that platform. His first attempt at spectrum theatre was Them Aspies, which ran for two seasons at Monash University.
Student theatre is always a centre of experimentation, being both bold and emboldening. Them Aspies was a classic example.
‘It was a new work of theatre by someone who had never done devised work before, with a whole group of actors, some of who were on the spectrum, some of whom were not, doing a non-linear, non-narrative driven, autistic, experimental theatre piece. It was a massive risk,’ he laughs.
‘So it was incredibly rewarding to be able to say that we sold out that first season within three days,’ he says. ‘And to have more than one season is virtually unheard of.’
Tom acknowledges he no longer has the safe and nurturing environment the university provided him. But he will be taking A_tistic to a broader audience with optimism, with the theatre group now also leading the charge on ‘relaxed performances’ in Australia.
Ultimately though, Tom has his sights set on higher goals.
‘Autism is still in a stage of awareness and acceptance. So the conversation is still waiting to be had. We’re just stoking the fire to give people the tools to have it.’
Image by Chris Smart, used with permission.