The Pangdemonium play, Falling, calls for more public support for the autistic and their family caregivers.

A dog barks and it won’t stop. Annoyed and distressed, Josh starts whining as his mother soothes him in a low voice. But the noise is just too much. Before long the 18-year-old, who’s born with severe autism, blows a fuse and starts thumping his chest and banging his head, robbing his family of its peace.

The scene above is from Falling, an off-Broadway play adapted by Singaporean theatre company Pangdemonium. Playing Josh is theatre rookie Andrew Marko, a Sociology major from the National University of Singapore who shines in his debut show. Starring as his parents Bill and Tami are theatre veterans Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua. The show was played to a sold out crowd at the KC Arts Centre.

Grandma (Neo Swee Lin) hugs Josh (Andrew Marko) whom she hasn’t seen for a long time.

In this heartrending drama based on its American creator Deanna Jent’s personal experiences of raising an autistic son, Josh is often seen going through the roof as his family members tiptoe around him. A loud sound, a broken CD or a change in routine can trigger a violent outburst. On the other hand, a tiny box of feather, or the utterance of “code words” can bring him immense happiness in unpredictable ways. Life is hence a tough balancing act for those around him, especially his mother, whose hope that Josh can lead a normal life is repeatedly dashed; as well as his visiting grandmother, who has to pick up the strict family routine fast to avoid provoking Josh.

People with autism, however, “are not violent for no reason”, said Ms Stephenie Khoo, Deputy Executive Director at the Autism Resource Centre (ARC),  in a post-show dialogue with the audience. “Violence is a form of communication and is a way for them to express themselves because they have trouble doing so (in other ways).”

Falling is Pangdemonium’s attempt at heightening public awareness about the autistic community. Directed by Tracie Pang, the play shines light on not only the plight of those afflicted with the lifelong neurodevelopment disorder, but also the tremendous challenges facing their caregivers.

Josh’s family adapts to Josh’s situation to keep his temper in check.

“I thought the play was very thought-provoking,” Ms Edlin Hu, 28, told the UrbanWire. “I don’t know much about autism but after watching the play, I learn a lot about it.”

Autism affects a person’s ability to make sense of the world and relate to others, but no two persons with autism are alike, said Ms Wong Yeok Lin, autism consultant and psychologist. Autistic people react differently to different stimuli and have varying talents and abilities. The condition can be diagnosed within the first three years of a person’s life, but there is no definite cause or cure for it, Ms Wong added.

In Singapore, an estimated 50,000 people are diagnosed with autism; 11,500 of them are under 19 years old. More than 200 children are diagnosed here every year, and boys are 4 times more likely to be affected than girls.

“I work with people with autism and whatever portrayed (in the play) was pretty real, including the marriage breakdown,” said Ms Jeanette Yeo, 32, who tutors autistic children. “The play shows a glimpse of the reality that we often don’t see because we don’t know what happens at home.”

Traditionally, families with autistic members used to cope on their own behind closed doors. But over the past 10 years, more formal programs have been rolled out to help these families, said experts from ARC at the post-show dialogue. In Singapore, the Pathlight School, Eden School and WeCAN Early Intervention Program have been set up to provide autistic children with academic and vocational training. The Employability & Employment Centre has also started finding suitable jobs for autistic adults. Family caregivers can also seek professional guidance at the ARC. But the consensus is the autistic community needs more support from the public. To those of them who desire a normal life, public acceptance is of paramount importance.

While Falling questions how far a family can love a son who’s difficult to love, the bigger question it has for the society is: how far can we include autistic members in our mainstream life? Are we ready to understand, accept and empower them?

Autism has also been portrayed in a number of films and plays.

Here are some memorable ones:

  1. Rain Man (1988 film)

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a self-centered wheeler-dealer who’s estranged from his father. When his father dies, he learns that he has an older brother who’s born with mild autism (Dustin Hoffman). Not only that he finds out that his brother has inherited the family’s multi-million dollar estate. That spurs him to start befriending his brother in a bid to con him out of the inheritance.

  1. I Am Sam (2001 film)

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) has autism but manages to get by working at Starbucks. He raises his daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning) single-handedly, but the authorities rule that he doesn’t have the capacity to take care of the growing child and assign Lucy to a foster home. With the help of lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), Sam tries to regain his custody of Lucy.

  1. Guang (2011 short film)

Wen Guang (Kyo Chen Chong Wei) is born with autism and is often misunderstood. But he is determined to look for a job to help his younger brother (Quek Shio Chuan) make ends meet.

  1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2012 play)

Based on the novel by Mark Haddon, the play chronicles how mildly autistic Christopher Boone (Tyler Lea) tries to get to the bottom of the mysterious death of his neighbour’s dog.

  1. Good Doctor (2013 TV series)

Park Shi-on (Joo Won), an autistic savant with photographic memory and keen spatial skills is given 6 months to prove himself as a resident in the field of pediatric surgery. He has to overcome conflicts with his colleagues and doubts from his patients.

  1. On the Spectrum (2013 play)
Iris and Cormac seek to understand each other and themselves

Cormac, a law student with autism, gets intensive early intervention while Iris, who has communication issues due to autism, doesn’t. Both meet online and begin a relationship shortly after.


Photo credit: TC Jewfolk