Cedar Falls play debut draws attention to wide range of life with autism

Background Information

“Uncommon Sense” was a play put on at the Gallagher Bluedorn on Jan. 21 and Jan. 22 by a company called the Tectonic Theater Project. The Tectonic Theater Project has done incredibly true stories and brought them to life with their multimedia imagery and sounds. “Uncommon Sense” took a look into what it means to have autism and how these people think. On the outside autism seems strange, but on the inside, it’s beautiful what autistic minds can do.

The Play Told By Our Community

“Uncommon Sense” follows the stories of five individuals living on the autism spectrum. All of these characters are based off of real people from the Cedar Valley who live with autism every single day of their life. Like snowflakes, no two people with autism are the same. They have different conditions and ways of thinking and going about their lives just like everybody else. An actor of the play, Andrew Duff, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. In a radio interview, Duff said, “I get to play somebody who’s autism is on the outside very different than mine, but there are elements that I’ve discovered throughout these workshops and these rehearsals that are more in common than one would see.”

Beyond the Script

The Tectonic Theater Project does a lot of multimedia storytelling through sounds and imagery. What many may not know is that autism is very much a sensory condition, so those who came to the play who had never experienced autism first hand actually got to see inside the autistic world. Even for those who know or love someone with autism, this play wowed audiences with the incredible feelings and intensity of it all. Not only did the audience get to see the character’s stories through dialogue, but they also got to witness their thoughts, feelings and sensations through the amazing technology this company used.

For more information about the play “Uncommon Sense” go to https://uni.edu/uncommon-sense or http://www.gbpac.com.

Inside Experience

An actor in the play, Andrew Duff, responds to questions from the play as well as autism.

Q: What was the inspiration to start this play?

A; Andy and Anushka, the director and writers, had autism enter their personal life. Upon this happening, they became very curious as to what autism actually is, and where it fits within communities. They spent a very long time researching and meeting with people, and over time they started to take what they’ve compiled and created scenes from them. As time went on, it became clear that the work that was developing was much more than a narrative of a few families, but a narrative of a state of being.

Q: What is the play about and what does it include?

A: “Uncommon Sense,” in a sentence, is a piece about autism and the people it affects. However, you can’t really fit it all into a sentence. It’s an experience of sensory profiles, an exploration of social dynamics when how one socializes is different, an inside look at how a family might fall or rise when confronted with hardship, even some instances of love and how someone with autism tackles that mountain. Like the spectrum itself, it’s an extremely broad show, and through these different characters and moments, we hope the audience can start to see autism differently, no matter what perspective they’ve held initially.

Q: What do you expect as a reaction from your audience?

A: I really don’t know!  I’ve been working with Tectonic Theater Project on this piece for so long that I feel like I have even more of a bias then I should. That being said, I truly do think people will enjoy “Uncommon Sense.” It has a lot of your traditional theater elements we love; comedy, romance, drama, but there’s so much more. The set is a piece of art within itself; I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that some aspects of it remind me of a large puzzle 🙂 The sound design and projections both add another layer to the experience, constantly challenging and informing the audience to what’s happening on stage. All of the actors have really taken the time to examine autism from a new lens, and Andy and Anushka have worked very closely with each actor in order to develop their characters and how they behave. Above all, I think (and hope) that everyone who sees this play has their perception of autism both represented and challenged, with the end goal being that everybody learns something and has such a great time doing it that they want to come back again and again to keep learning and discovering.

Q:How do you think the multimedia aspect of the play will enhance it?

A; Autism is very often categorized as a social disorder, and while that is accurate, it’s important to remember that the sensory profiles of each person on the spectrum are unique. For example, some people on the spectrum are very sensitive to light, to the point where certain lights, such as fluorescents, can be overwhelming and painful. Others might be soothed or stressed by noise, such as a passing car or rippling water. As the actors play out our reactions, the multimedia aspects will serve as a brief glimpse into what they might be seeing, hearing, experiencing. This way, the audience isn’t left completely in the dark, but rather able to understand and sympathize with what the characters are going through.

Q: How long did this play take to get ready for opening night?

A: I honestly couldn’t give an exact timeline! Andy and Anushka have been working on this for years, and I’ve been involved in numerous workshops and readings, both on and off campus. For this opening night show, we’ve spent a few weeks in NYC rehearsing and discovering new elements, and even now in tech we continue to discover. It’s been a long road, and we’re not at the end of it yet, but opening night will be a culmination of years of work.

Q: Could you please explain the title?

A: “Uncommon Sense” is a phrase that sort of captures in a broad sense what it could mean to be “autistic.” People on the autism spectrum tend to view the world very uniquely, and thus we might interact and respond to it differently. While our actions and reactions might not inherently seem “normal,” they are just as valid and real.

Q: What will this play reveal about people with autism that we may not know?

A: I think “Uncommon Sense” will allow everybody to walk away with new information and perspectives. Whether it’s learning more about how somebody who is nonverbal communicates, or how a young adult on the spectrum deals with everyday stresses, I strongly believe there is something to gain for everyone. What I do think everyone will learn is that autism is more broad than its clinical definition, and that for as different as people on the spectrum might be, there are also places to connect and relate as well.

Q: How have this play and the journey of being a part of creating it made you feel. What was going through your head or what surprised you?

A: From the very first time I met Andy, the entire project was ambitious and bold. The idea of exploring autism not only with such depth, but to have faith in the audience to take their experience and come to their own conclusions, was both thrilling and terrifying. The world of autism in this day and age seems like it’s more complicated and polarizing than ever. “Uncommon Sense,” more than other portrayals of the spectrum in the arts, doesn’t aim to side with one perspective or one “type of autism.” Instead, Andy and Anushka aim to share the stories and perspectives they’ve acquired over years of discovery and open up the world to furthering the discussion on what autism is, what it means, and how we as a community should perceive it. As somebody on the autism spectrum, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of it.

The Spectrum Project

The Spectrum Project is a locally run program that lets children on the spectrum jump into drama and music. The project started in 2015 with a grant from UNI and was based off a similar program run at Ball State University called The Prism Project. The Spectrum Project begins rehearsals in January and works until their performance in April. The final show will be at the Bengtson Auditorium at UNI on April 2 at 2 p.m.

Kevin Droe, The Spectrum Project coordinator, gave insight into what this program really does and who all it affects. “Our program provides a music, movement, drama and art opportunity for children with differing abilities. Each performer is partnered with a college ‘buddy’ who together rehearse for a show in April. Buddies come from the University of Northern Iowa, Allen College and Hawkeye Community College. Performers come from all over the Cedar Valley,” Droe said.

Since the autism spectrum ranges so widely, Droe explained how they accommodate to each participant’s needs. “Our staff and buddies are very patient and very enthusiastic to work with the performers. That alone makes for a wonderful experience for most children. Our performers with autism can have special enthusiasms or interests, and we try to showcase those for the public,” Droe said, “The best thing about autism is that it demonstrates how different each of us are. Each person with autism is as different as you and me. No two people have the same wants, needs, interests, loves, etc.. It’s no different for people with autism. They’re no different than anyone else, and that is what we hope to communicate in our shows.”

Not only does this program leave an imprint on the children, but it also affects the adults and “buddies” who help out with the program. “Although our performers have a great time and learn to perform a show on a stage, the biggest change comes from the buddies and staff who get to work with the performers. We make the biggest change. Some buddies enter our program not sure about how to interact with people with disabilities, and they leave which a whole new perspective that these performers can do many things they didn’t think they could do. The saddest part comes after the show when buddies say goodbye to their performer. They formed a bond with a person they never thought they would. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a place for everyone,” Droe said.

Talking to a Professional

Dr. Paul Conditt, a psychologist for his self-operated Conditt Psychological Services, explained what it is that he does and his ideas on autism.

“Autism is a neuro-developmental condition that affects each person differently. The autism spectrum is wide, and there’s a common saying that explains, ‘If you’ve seen one person on the spectrum, you’ve seen one.’ The overall prevalence rate is 1/68 children, with 1/42 boys having it. However, these numbers are rising. About 80 percent of all people on the spectrum are male. That means for the approximately 1,000 students at CFHS, about 15-20 are probably on the spectrum,” Conditt said.

“Nearly all people with autism have difficulty reading social cues. They may misinterpret people, and their thinking tends to be overly concrete and literal. When they are interested in something, they can dive quite deeply into the subject and remember amazing details. Some have learning difficulties while others do quite well in school,” Conditt said.

Conditt has been working on a sensory integration gym for the past year and hopes to open it in the spring of 2018. “The sensory gym will be named The Sensational Place. It will have a large gym with different types of equipment that gives people opportunities for sensory stimulation. It will have different types of swings, a ball pit, a zip line and hopefully a climbing wall. It will have a quiet room and a separate waiting room for parents who may just want to read and not have to worry about their children getting into trouble,” Conditt said.

“Engaging in certain types of activities, such as swinging, climbing or using a scooter while on your stomach, engages different sensory systems. We’re finding that when children and teens can engage regularly in such activities, they tend to be calmer, more focused and happier. Most autistic melt-downs occur because the person is over-stimulated with both sensory and social information. They can’t process it correctly, so they either melt down or shut down. Having a sensory lifestyle, where they get the necessary input and activity, can help with that,” Conditt said.

Sensory Toys

Sensory Toys are toys or items that children on the spectrum like to have in hand or play with because it may soothe or relax them.

Here are a few examples:

  • Anything that you can drop
  • Anything that can spin
  • Anything that squishes or has gel
  • Anything with a different texture (fur, velcro, etc.)
  • Anything that vibrates
  • Beads and string
  • Rice
  • Koosh Balls
  • Liquid Timers
  • Colorful Lights or imagery

Student Thoughts

Erin Buchholz, a Peet eighth grader, was cheering at a boys basketball game against Bunger when she witnessed a heartwarming story where a child on the spectrum took his shot.

“At the first boys basketball game playing Bunger there was a kid on the other team. He acted different than his teammates. He has autism. He never really got the ball, and he was overlooked. When he got the ball, the Peet team just stayed out of his way, and he made a basket and when he made a basket, the crowd went wild. His team, his coach and his mom were all so proud of him. Kids with autism are most of the time overlooked, ignored and classified as weird, but I believe that should change. That you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and just because someone is different than you that doesn’t mean that they are weird or someone you shouldn’t be around. That just means that that’s one more reason to love them because underneath everything on the outside, we’re all human on the inside, and that will never change,” Buchholz said.

Senior Abbie Lund had some strong feelings about how Cedar Falls goes about children with disabilities. “I think that people with autism and other disabilities in Cedar Falls need to be included more in classes. I wish they weren’t confined to that one hallway in the basement. I really believe that people with disability need to be included with other kids that don’t have a disability, for the better of the person with a disability, and the better of the students that don’t as well. All of us need more interaction with each other. We are not different, and I think that Cedar Falls schools do an insufficient job of relaying that to their students. We are all people who learn at school, and it doesn’t make sense to me that people with disability have to learn away from everyone in that dim hallway,” Lund said.

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