Writing about a topic you don’t personally identify with can be a challenge, especially when it’s as sensitive and prevalent as identifying on the neurodiverse spectrum.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate to grow up around close family members who identify on the spectrum. Additionally, I crossed paths with Kelly Hunter at an early stage in my life during drama school.
Kelly Hunter is UK-based theatre actor, director, and producer who created the Hunter Heartbeat Method (HHM). She first began working with children with autism after her 30-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Leveraging her expertise in Shakespeare, she designed sensory drama games using the Bard’s rhythmic language and physical gestures for individuals on the autistic spectrum. This groundbreaking work revolutionised experimental approaches for those on the spectrum and earned her a Member of the British Empire title (MBE) from the Queen of England.
“The work was never created to win awards, but rather to provide support to individual family members in need. Sometimes, the awards help me fund this incredible work for families who cherish bringing their children into the room,” shared Kelly during one of our conversations.
As a theatre practitioner, I expected drama school to be the best place to hone my skills and acquire tools for enhancing process-driven practices. What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d learn more about acting in a room full of neurodiverse friends facilitated by Kelly than I would in several other classes at school. The work pushed one to a process of believing in a character rather than just performing it. It was like actors training with so much more. It’s not a critique of the institution, but rather a testament to the power of learning through hands-on experience. Being in a room where I could continuously experiment with new techniques to make my portrayal of characters such as Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel more authentic, laid the foundation for my acting training and enriched my learning in other classes.
Through HHM, I gained insight into what it’s like to be someone on the spectrum. I discovered that seemingly simple tasks like making eye contact, walking backward, touching fingertips, or placing one’s feet on the ground can be panic inducing for many individuals. These behaviours aren’t definitive indicators of neurotypical or neurodiverse individuals, but they are common observations made by parents of neurodiverse children and facilitators of HHM games, which continually evolve to meet the unique needs of each participant.
I found that I wasn’t alone in my experience; Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar expressed similar sentiments, “After completing my drama school training in London, I found myself teaching diverse age groups, comprising neurodiverse and neurotypical students. It changed my perspective, and certainly made working with neurotypicals an easier process for me.” Abhishek believes there is a need to change how neurodiversity is portrayed in commercial projects. “The lack of research and building on stereotypes for the portrayal of neurodiversity on screen is laughable (I second Abhishek). they take something like this and bracket it into something that is unrelatable and simply wrong.”
Abhishek and I ended up agreeing about the misportrayal of neurodiverse individuals in Hindi films such as Taare Zameen Par. Written by Amol Gupte and directed by Aamir Khan, Taare Zameen Par (2007) follows the life of a 9-year-old boy whose poor academic performance leads his parents to send him to a boarding school. A new art teacher in the school, Nikumbh (Khan) suspects that the boy is dyslexic and helps him to overcome his reading disorder. The boy’s redemption is complete in the film when he wins the annual art competition, where he is finally validated by everyone at school. This is far from how neurodiverse people behave in reality. Neurodiverse individuals do not care about awards and socially celebrated feats. The climax of Taare Zameen Par felt like it was for the catharsis of a neurotypical audience and it was saddening to note that the makers prioritised audience merriment over authentic portrayal of neurodiversity in the film.
Unresearched portrayal can often be like fuel to the fire of miscommunication and misinterpretation. Most people in India with neurodiverse family members resort to hiding them from society due to the image that has been created by the visual arts about something which is actually quite beautiful. It is difficult, yes, but it is beautiful! In this kind of work, we facilitators make discoveries everyday and that is key for any advancement for experimental work on neurodiverse research.
The world of neurodiversity is intricate and diverse, much like the diversity we find among neurotypical individuals. Even individuals classified under the same disorder exhibit numerous differences.
Pradeep Jayathilak, a facilitator and builder of a 13-acre housing and recreational facility (called ARC, Autism Residential Community in Vellore) for those on the neurodiverse spectrum, explained that autism is often a lifelong battle. People sometimes assume they can acclimate individuals on the spectrum to the neurotypical world. However, it should be the reverse – facilitators must adapt themselves to the world of these individuals. Understanding the unique challenges each person faces is crucial for both facilitators and participants to grow together and create an inclusive space.
“The best analogy is to see the neurotypical world as the sea and those on the spectrum as large buckets of seawater on the shoreline. They might have a protective layer, but that doesn’t necessarily make them fundamentally different. The same amount of care and attention is of utmost importance; it’s just that sometimes the process might be a little different or take a bit longer.” said Pradeep during our conversation.
My comprehension of the world of those on the neurodiverse spectrum deepens every day. A few weeks ago, I participated in 13 shows at the Riverside Studios in London, where we played HHM games with several autistic members. These games not only made me a better actor by the end of the week, but also enabled me to better understand specific situations. The games are designed to be inclusive, never isolating autistic participants. For example, we never force our guests to adhere strictly to the game’s rules. Sometimes, we create new games on the spot to accommodate their needs. It was incredible to see certain participants I had worked with during my drama school days back in 2018. I distinctly remember a participant who was almost non-verbal in 2018. In a recent session, he sang some of the tunes we sang and articulated some words. Back in 2018, we couldn’t have predicted this pace of development. Yet there we were, playing these games to make life easier for families in need.
Last year, my fellow company co-founders, Shreya Shyamsunder and Mohammed Lehry, took on the challenge of teaching parents and facilitators associated with teacher and facilitator, Vidya Udani, and the various families with neurodiverse members at the Information and Research Centre (IRC) in Bengaluru. Over 12 weeks, we interacted with neurotypical participants who had neurodiverse family members and shared basic theatre exercises, including role-playing, basic theatre activities like voice, movement, and storytelling. Our aim was to equip them with a bit more know-how and time-tested exercises to tackle their day-to-day challenges.
“When you jump into a room and just have fun, the onlookers, no matter how they identify on the spectrum, have a tendency to mimic the activity to experience the same joy.” said Vidya during our conversation.
Vidya shared about a recent encounter with a young participant who struggled to fit into the classroom setting. This neurodiverse student faced bullying and, understandably, couldn’t trust fellow students or teachers to have his best interests at heart. Vidya, experienced and sensitive to the need for individual attention, suggested a different approach. She proposed to the child that for that particular session, he could be the teacher, and all the other facilitators would pretend to be his students. The child’s first instruction was to declare the day as a holiday, and the facilitators played along and dispersed. This simple belief in their acting and follow-through encouraged the child to return to the next session, eager to be the teacher again and play games for a longer period of time. As much as I wish we could, it is not possible to put all of this into a manual for prospective teachers. One can only hope that like-minded professionals adopt this kind of patience and willingness to bring out the inner child in everyone they work with.
In my week of shows with Flute Theatre at Riverside Studios, London, we had a participant who was too shy to participate in the circle of actors and neurodiverse individuals. Recognizing the need of the hour, Kelly assigned me to stay with the individual and simply keep them company. In a situation reminiscent of an iconic scene from Tom and Jerry (where Jerry pretends he has something in his hand and refuses to show Tom, which makes Tom forget about harming him and instead focus on finding out what is in Jerry’s hand), I found myself peeking from the corner of the room into what was happening in the centre. My neurodiverse friend, during the session, discovered the same joy. Seeing me genuinely enjoy the games from afar, he joined me, peering from a wall. There’s no formula to working with a neurodiverse individual, and I consider myself fortunate that he wanted to see what I was seeing. The key to this work is having good intentions and being curious, both facilitators and participants. And the result is usually the same: we hide beneficial activities within larger, enjoyable games, creating something fun to repeat. It’s not much different from how we interact with younger cousins or siblings.
A common thread running through the work facilitated by Abhishek, Kelly, Pradeep, and Vidya is that they learned more by spending significant amounts of time in the company of those on the spectrum. The worst thing one can do is assume that a single approach will work for everyone and then try to force that approach on them. It is crucial to understand that the process is delicate and time-consuming.
To illustrate this point, consider a situation where you’ve been appointed as the primary caregiver for a group of children, whether they’re kindergarteners or senior students. Now imagine having to bring in an associate teacher to manage the group for a crucial period of their activities. Think about the advice you would give this associate teacher. Would you share general rules and regulations about teaching that age group, or would you provide information about each specific individual in your care, offering as much personal information as possible to enhance the participants’ experience? It might sound simple, but it’s closer to the truth. The group you’re entrusting to another’s care would appreciate your meticulous notes, and the associate teacher would be able to design exercises tailored to the participants’ learning abilities.
The work being developed for those on the neurodiverse spectrum is limited but not nonexistent. We need to be more aware and seek out different approaches that cater to diverse individuals.
As someone who firmly believes that these methods and exercises are brilliant and effective when approached with the right spirit, I want to emphasise that we’re not dealing with aliens when working with neurodiverse individuals. We inhabit the same world, and we mostly speak the same language. We simply need to remain open to both neurotypicals and those on the neurodiverse spectrum.
To my readers, I recommend conducting research and reading not only from the work done by the individuals mentioned above but also from parents of neurodiverse individuals. They may not have time to seek out experimental work, but they certainly have solutions to make life easier for those in need. It’s also worth remembering that loneliness is not exclusive to neurotypicals.
Some helpful links for new work happening:
- Here, The experimental work being done by Flute Theatre.
- Here, Keeping in touch with the new teaching methods used by IRC Bangalore.
- Here, New state of the art Autism residential centre.
As a parent of an autistic individual shared with me, “Neurodiversity is not a social curse or a disease. These are just terms used by neurotypicals who are ignorant, uneducated, and lack experience. We owe it to ourselves and those around us to be kind and embrace our differences.”
I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Abhishek Mazumdar, Kelly Hunter, Pradeep Jeyathilak, and Vidya Udani for generously sharing their experiences working with the neurodiverse community. I’ve discovered more similarities in our processes than I anticipated and hope to introduce all of them to each other as time goes on.