In the Coristine Hall at Selwyn House Boy’s School in Westmount, an audience comprised of parents and various professionals in the field of education and special needs sat before a spare, white yet warmly lit stage set. A row of white garments belonging to a woman hung on hangers from suspended white scrim sheets. Christine Rodriguez enters and hangs a (dark) suit set in the middle, emphatically pronouncing with this action that her career is going to be put on hold for a little while: she is pregnant. This is the first of many instances of “sacrifice,” or simply decisions taken, for the little person who is about to enter her life and change everything.
In the space of 50 minutes, Rodriguez takes the audience through her 10-year odyssey of being a parent of an autistic child—from (an educated, ambitious) new mother’s idealistic optimism, to the increasing difficulties of caring for a “different” child, through his eventual diagnosis and experience in school and social life.
How does a single person on a stage make you forget you even own a phone or have a life outside Coristine Hall for an hour?
It helps to have nuclear stage presence, for one. Rodriguez is no amateur, and her presence more than fills the stage – rather, it emanates outwards toward this Tuesday-night crowd. (On a purely physical register, her considerable height and athletic grace allows her to cross the entire stage in a few strides.)
More than this achievement, the format of one-woman show is particularly effective at formalizing the feeling of isolation that can attend such a parenting situation. Indeed, midway through, Rodriguez dons a Che-adjacent combat outfit (of which the boots remained for the rest of the show). At a certain point it must feel like a battle, one which requires some serious strategizing and discipline: the military-style scheduling, the gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, FUN-FREE diet, the litany of specialists’ books and workshops, a behavior-points game that practically requires algebra. Make no mistake, this may be the First World, but it can be tough out there.
The play seems to serve the tandem function of being an expression of Rodriguez’s own experience and a source of information on autism. In sometimes highly comical ways, she tells us about her son’s predilection for ceiling fans, repetition and patterns (and later, chess); his epic bouts of crying and tantrums; his difficulty socializing. In one voice-over interlude, Rodriguez also gives us a sense of the (lack of) social services available to parents in Quebec that is as hilarious as it is damning:
“Hello. You have reached Autism Services. If you are calling from Quebec, please hang up and move the hell out of this province. If you choose to stay, please press 1 and stay on hold [… ] Due to a high volume of calls and a high demand for services, it may take up to two years before someone can take your call […] If you are calling from Ontario, please press 2. Today is your lucky day. You may start getting speech and language services anywhere from 6 weeks to 2 months, all for free, unlike Quebec where speech therapy is not included in government services for children with autism. That’s really strange because one of the common factors with children with autism is their difficulty with communication.”
What also kept the audience engrossed, as became evident from the question period that followed, was whether this story had a happy ending: how is Imtiaz doing now? The projected video clip that closed the show, a close-up and intimate portrait of Rodriguez and Imtiaz, laughing and hugging each other, was a good clue. Of course it’s not a closed book; but what I understood was that with an increased awareness and understanding of what autism is—at the level of support services, and by school staff and classmates—an autistic child can have a rich life and realize their potential like any other.
What was so clear to me also was that Rodriguez’s immense love for her son and her unflappable desire to give him everything in her power was not only key to their success but it speaks to parenting in general. On the flip side of the same coin, she also acknowledged afterward that because her son’s autism is on the milder end of the spectrum, this production only tells part of the story. Nevertheless, its value lies in the way it opens up the issue to more dialogue and increasing acceptance and support.
I spoke briefly with Minna Shulman, the dedicated Dean of Students at the school. She had brought Dreaming in Autism to the faculty earlier in 2012 and has here brought it back for the benefit of the parent body. Among other things we discussed, she agreed that autism seems to be more and more common—she estimated that Selwyn House sees one or two children with autism with each incoming year. It certainly makes this production all the more relevant and timely. Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Montreal, hopes to take the show to more audiences and schools and aims to translate the show into French as well. ■
Dreaming in Autism, written, produced and performed by Christine Rodriguez, directed by Liz Truchanowicz, Feb. 5, Coristine Hall, Selwyn House School.